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 292012
 

Everything that has a beginning has an end.

It seems fitting the New Jersey Devils are facing the Los Angeles Kings in this year’s Stanley Cup. There are several parallels to the Edmonton Oilers – Carolina Hurricanes final that ended the first post-lockout season (2005-06). Both series feature:

  • a team Wayne Gretzky played for (Kings now; Oilers then)
  • an over-the-hill goaltender taking his team on an improbable run (40-year old Martin Brodeur now; 36-year old Dwayne Roloson* then)
  • a team trying to buck the traditional formula and win the Cup without a legitimate number #1 defenseman (Devils now; Hurricanes then)
  • surprising contributions from 21-year old rookies (Adam Henrique now; Carolina goalie Cam Ward then)
  • one team reaching the final thanks to Collective Bargaining Agreement-related roster moves (thanks to the new salary cap and floor system, the Oilers went out and acquired Chris Pronger; thanks to a loophole in the CBA, the Devils offered and retained Ilya Kovalchuk’s services for the next 983248932498 years)

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two series is what they represent. The Oilers/Hurricanes final was the riveting first chapter on a post-lockout era of exciting hockey and parity, where any team could afford a contender and a winner. It was a Stanley Cup Final representing hope. Meanwhile, with another lockout staring the NHL in the face, this year’s Devils/Kings final serves as a referendum on the game since 2004-05. It’s a Stanley Cup Final representing reality.

The question is, are we in a better place with the game today then we were in 2005/06?

Financially yes – the NHL is more successful now as a business than ever before. It will be even more successful once it eliminates (unlikely), finds deep-pocketed owners for (unlikely), or moves franchises (Phoenix, Florida, potentially New Jersey, Columbus) to locations (Canada) where off-ice success is easier to achieve. (Remember, the most profitable franchises in the league are all located in Canada, and prop up to varying degrees the 23 teams south of the border. If the Canadian dollar ever falls below US$0.80 again, league financial health will become a very different story.)

As for the on-ice product, the answer is no. Advances in goal-scoring and flow to the game have largely been negated by smart coaches. As the salary cap has gone up, we’ve seen the big spending = big winning formula return, which was allegedly the reason for the salary cap to begin with. It’s a faster game than it was, but also more intense – just like the NFL, injuries are now a common determining factor in the success or failure of an NHL team’s season.

Unlike the last lockout, and despite on-ice evidence to the contrary, there isn’t a sense around league circles that the product is in trouble. So while the NHL is about to go through big CBA changes –  whether it’s no salary cap floor, a cap on the length of player contracts or eliminating the loophole that allows teams to bury contracts in the minors – real innovations to improve the game are years away.

This means the style of hockey that’s been showcased around the league in 2012 – fast but structured, nasty, defensively-disciplined, tactical and expected to be played mistake-free by its players – is here for awhile.

And its a style of hockey that seems miles away from the promise of the game showcased in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Devils and the Kings play the current style of hockey very, very well. Part 2 of this preview will break down both teams, and offer a Stanley Cup prediction.

Postscript:

* – On behalf of Oiler fans I’m obligated to note that if Dwayne Roloson doesn’t get injured the Oilers probably win the Stanley Cup. A healthy Roloson means a rusty Ty Conklin doesn’t come in cold during the third period and give the puck away behind the net to lose Game 1. It also means a rusty Jussi Markkanen (remember, Edmonton ridiculously rotated backups all playoff, with Conklin and Markkanen splitting practice time) doesn’t let the Oilers get blown out in Game 2. Edmonton won three of the remaining 5 games of the series anyways, so it’s no stretch to think a healthy Roloson gives them a split in the first two games, rather than an 0-2 deficit. Having been reminded of all this, Oiler fans have permission to throw up in their mouths a bit.

May 152012
 

New York Rangers (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (6)

Season Series:  Rangers (3-2-1)

What we learned about the Rangers in the Second Round: That Brad Richards, at least this year, is worth every penny New York is paying him. There is a lot of Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman in Richards game this post-season.  The Rangers need Richards (and for that matter, Marian Gaborik, who had a terrific Caps series) to continue playing like this, as without him the team clearly doesn’t have enough scoring to win a playoff series. For that matter, we also learned that Michael Del Zotto has come all the way back from a disasterous 2010-11 season. He helped the Rangers improve their powerplay in the second round. Finally, we learned that the Rangers had enough in the tank after a 7-game first round to go the distance again against Washington. The longer this Conference Final goes though, the worse it will be for the clearly battered-and-bruised Rangers.

What we learned about the Devils in the Second Round: That Peter DeBoer was a terrific hire as coach for the Devils, has he’s taken their traditional defensive excellence and added an up-tempo forecheck that drove Philadelphia’s blueliners crazy in the second round. This is as deep a Devils team upfront as they’ve had since the turn of the century. That Ilya Kovalchuk has overtaken Alex Ovechkin in the rankings of best Russian players, and has become a better leader than anyone expected. That their powerplay had some bite against the Flyers, with two solid offensive lines and Kurtis Foster bombing from the point.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Rangers. DeBoer has done a great job with the Devils but no one has gotten more from his players this year than John Tortorella.

Goaltending: Rangers. Massive edge here. Brodeur has had moments in this post-season but was just “good enough” against the Flyers. Lundqvist is all world.

Defense: Rangers. No team remaining in the playoffs is as disciplined defensively as the Rangers. Their blueline is heads-and-tails better than New Jersey’s, especially with the emergence of Del Zotto in the second round.

Offense: Devils. New Jersey’s tied with Los Angeles for highest scoring team remaining in the playoffs, and they can roll three lines that can contribute offensively. The key to the series for the Devils will be containing Richards and Gaborik. If they can, the Rangers offense is lifeless.

Special Teams: Even. Devils have had a stronger powerplay in the post-season, but their penalty kill has been a sore point through two rounds. Rangers have been mediocre in both areas, although their pp improved against Washington.

Prediction: Rangers in 6.

*****

A word now for the dearly departed:

Philadelphia Flyers

Cause of Death: Poor defensive play.

Prescription: First the Flyers have to figure out what’s going on with Chris Pronger. If Pronger is really headed for retirement, it would make a lot of sense for the team to try and find some cap room to go after Ryan Suter. The Flyers can certainly score, but adding some other veteran, character guys who can improve the penalty kill and help clean up the defensive zone (and not leave Ilya Bryzgalov out to dry like he was left at times in these playoffs) would be a huge boost. This is probably “as bad” as the Flyers are going to be for some time – they’re a powerhouse on the rise.

*****

Washington Capitals

Cause of Death: Self-inflicted Offensive Asphyxiation.

Prescription: Let’s get this out of the way first – this team got no more done under Dale Hunter’s “defensive” system than they did playing Bruce Boudreau’s original “run and gun” hockey. As evidenced as recently as this spring by the Kings and Devils, teams that can score (averaging 3 goals per game) AND defend well are enjoying success. Doing just one, or the other, is not good enough. The Caps have an emerging blueline, some solid character and defensive depth throughout the lineup and hopes are high for goaltender Holtby – what Washington needs to invest in (and have needed to invest in for a long-time now) is secondary scoring. A good, second-line centre who could take the heat off of Alex Ovechkin and Nik Backstrom (who face every team’s top defensive players) would be a huge step in the right direction for the Caps. It would never happen, but man this is a team that could use Jordan Staal (reportedly on the market) or a player of that calibre to anchor the second line.

Apr 112012
 
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers

Photo credit: canada.com

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

Season Series: Ottawa (3-1)

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

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

Key Player, Rangers: Marian Gaborik

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

Key Player, Senators: Erik Karlsson

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

Quick Decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Rangers in 6

*****

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

Season Series: Washington (3-1)

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

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

Key Player, Boston: Tim Thomas

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

Key Player, Washington: Alex Ovechkin

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

Quick Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Bruins in 7

*****

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

Season Series: Florida (2-1-1)

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

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

Key Player, Panthers: Brian Campbell

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

Key Player, Devils: Martin Brodeur

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

Quick Decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Devils in 5

*****

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

Season Series: Philadelphia (4-2)

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

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

Key Player, Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke

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

Key Player, Philadelphia: Jaromir Jagr

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

Quick Decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Penguins in 7

Feb 082012
 

James Mirtle in the Globe and Mail asked an interesting question Monday – which rebuild is better, the Leafs approach or the Oilers approach?

Ultimately, the answer to this question can only come years from now, when the young promise on each roster has been fulfilled (or not fulfilled, for that matter).

However, as the continued success of the Detroit Red Wings (and continued failure of the Columbus Blue Jackets) suggests, there are franchise factors that can have a major impact on the development of a successful team.

Good ownership is one of these factors. Every fan wishes their team had an owner not only with deep pockets but an ego that demands on-ice success.

A strong front office is another factor. Management that can create an organizational culture that breeds success, dedication and trust. One that can analyze the on-ice product, adapt to new innovations around the league and make difficult decisions when the time comes. A strong front office includes a talented scouting staff that can find NHL-level talent beyond the first round on a consistent basis.

An excellent coaching and training staff is another factor. Staff who can execute management’s vision, communicate with the modern player, know their hockey Xs and Os and can make sure each player is ready to compete on a nightly basis.

Given these factors, the more relevant question to ask right now is which franchise, Toronto or Edmonton, has the people in place to execute its rebuild most effectively?

Ownership

Toronto’s ownership, even with Rogers Communications and Bell Canada taking over controlling interest, seems like it will be entirely focused on the bottom line for the conceivable future.

Meanwhile, in Oilers owner Daryl Katz, Edmonton has a passionate, deep pocketed owner who cares about the success of the hockey club. His communication skills leave something to be desired, but most fans will take an engaged owner over a faceless board of governors any day.

Ownership Edge: Oilers

Front Office

Say what you will about Brian Burke, but he’s won a Cup; helped build the Canucks on- and off-ice into the juggernaut they are today; and has a league reputation as an honest, straight-shooter who takes care of his players.

Sure, speeding-up the Leaf rebuild process by targeting young, established NHL players didn’t exactly pan out. However it did bring the Leafs Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, two B+ level talents.

What Burke has done well though is surround himself with the deepest (and most expensive) front office in the league, and used what draft picks and money (for college players) he’s had to rebuild the Leafs prospect pool (currently ranked 8th by Hockey’s Future).

Meanwhile, Steve Tambellini has had a puzzling start to his career as an NHL General Manager. Hiring Pat Quinn and Tom Renney to serve as co-coaches was the first head-scratcher. Giving Corey Potter a 2-year contract extension after less than a season’s worth of experience is another. The Oilers front office has been slow to address team weaknesses of size and defense as well.

The Colin Fraser trade dispute was a reputational hit, and something that will add to the Oilers’ struggles to attract free agents. At least Hockey’s Future ranks their organization 4th in terms of prospects, so it looks like the team is drafting well. That seems about the only edge it has on Toronto though.

Front Office Edge: Leafs

Coaching

Neither Toronto’s Ron Wilson nor Edmonton’s Tom Renney should be considered an elite coach. Both have had limited success doing what their respective GMs have asked of them. Wilson’s implemented an up-tempo style, even when his roster was littered with players who couldn’t play that style very well. Renney is teaching the young Oilers how to become better professionals, but the team has been among the league’s worst for three years running.

There are things to like about both team’s assistant coaches. Toronto’s Scott Gordon has had the powerplay among the league’s best all year, while Greg Cronin seems to have fixed the penalty kill (no goals against in 15 games). Edmonton’s Associate Coach Ralph Krueger is an international coaching legend, with strong communication and motivational skills.

The biggest difference between the two teams in this area is the training staff. The Oilers have been cursed in recent seasons by the injury bug, punishing a team with little-to-no depth. Injuries haven’t had the same impact on Toronto’s improving roster.

Coaching Edge: Leafs
  
Any discussion of which rebuild is better has to take into consideration who is executing that rebuild.

Both the Leafs and Oilers are flawed organizations with young, talented rosters. But while Edmonton may have higher-end talent on-ice, right now Toronto has stronger people off-ice. As a result, the Leafs seem like the better bet to realize their potential.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Does it really matter that Sam Gagner may have only had 7-points last week? I know I don’t care if the referees are extra generous with their assists.
  • One last Oilers thought – Jordan Eberle, at the time of his draft, projected favourably as another Dany Heatley. Just two years later, Eberle looks to have already eclipsed Heatley as a player. If he can get to 78-points (he has 54 now), he’ll become the highest scoring Oiler since Doug Weight in 2000-01.
  • The Red Wings can deny it all they want, but they desperately need one of Joey MacDonald or Ty Conklin to be solid in goal until Jimmy Howard gets back. The Central Division is a beast, and any prolonged slump could mean St. Louis, Nashville or Chicago leap past them in the standings. It’s hard to get four teams from the same division into the playoffs. The Red Wings can’t afford a set back.
  • If I’m an Eastern Conference team that thinks it can make a post-season run, I am calling Montreal about Hal Gill. Skating-aside, Gill remains one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL. He would look great in a Rangers uniform.
  • Other trade matches “made in heaven”: Marek Zidlicky to Detroit (a great skating, puck-moving defenseman on a team that plays a puck possession game); Ales Hemsky to Nashville (Hemsky would immediately become the most offensively talented player the Predators have had since Peter Forsberg); Evgeni Nabokov to Tampa Bay (if the Lightning decide to go for the Division crown in a weak Southeast Division); Tuomo Ruutu to Chicago (Blackhawks are incredibly weak on the left-side); Vinny Prospal to Los Angeles (a nice complimentary scorer on a team that needs to find some quickly).
  • Naturally, none of the pairings above have any chance of actually happening, but it’s fun to speculate.
  • Former NHL owner Howard Baldwin talks NHL expansion and hockey in Hartford.
  • Speaking of expansion,more about Seattle as a possible destination for the Coyotes.
  • Here’s former Orca Bay President and CEO Stan McCammon on a possible NHL team in Seattle.
  • This is kind of neat – a breakdown of who sits where in the Avalanche locker room.
  • A nice piece on what Ilya Kovalchuk has become for the Devils.
  • Here’s Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Dec 232011
 

Season’s Greetings, CHB readers!

In honour of the season, we got together and thought we’d give you a lump of coal …err, a festive edition of our Fantasy Hockey Pool update.

How did our rankings shape up as of Wednesday morning? Read on:

Goose is my Wingman (Chris) – 89.5 points (current rank: 1st)

If there is one thing that I’ve learned during my meteoric climb to the top of the standings, it’s definitely humility.  I’ve been called a drunken boater by Lizz, had my strategic draft process mocked by Ed, seen my definition of an A-list actor trashed by Tom, and pretty much been knocked at every corner by all the writers here at CHB.  So you probably would forgive me if I were to take pot-shots from the high ground, but I won’t sink to that level.  Instead, I’ll just bask in the warmth and glow that first place provides to a select few.

And seeing as it’s the holiday season, I want to share with you two holiday videos that not only share the warmth I’m enjoying but correlate to my journey in the pool so far.

Yes, good ol’ Billy Mack (as played by Bill Nighy – definitive A-list actor).  Just like Billy, I was disrespected early on but eventually found my way to the top of the charts.  And seriously, is there any better movie to watch at Christmas?

And while my super strategic draft mechanism has me in the position I am today, I have been accused of drinking a bit too much of the Egg Nog this holiday season.  But who might have spiked it?  Yes… who exactly spiked the Egg Nog?  My guess is Lizz.  I mean… she called me a drunken boater and I sense that she’s bitter I’m on the top of the pool standings.

But I’m beyond all that.  I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Auto Draft… err… New Year!

2 Sedins 0 Cups (Tom) – 85.5 points (current rank: 2nd)

Just like another famous second-place finisher (George W. Bush), I’m demanding a recount. Losing to Chris in this pool would be like like losing a tennis match to a blindfolded Reba McEntire – shocking, yet strangely arousing. Hmm. Perhaps I’ve said too much.

For those have you who’ve been away, here’s a summary of all the NHL-related headlines through the first 2+ months of the season: concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; Sidney Crosby; concussions; concussions; concussions; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coach fired; concussions; coaches fired; concussions; concussions; concussions. There, now you’re up-to-date.

One final note – as a true gift to you: The perfect Rum and Egg Nog recipe (must be over legal drinking age to continue reading):

1. Get one clean glass (you’d be surprised at how many people get this wrong by going with a dirty glass or, in some cases, an old boot).

2. Inside the glass, toss in three ice cubes (they should clink in the glass. If they don’t, start over).

3. Put in the glass – 1 part rum (eyeball it. If you go over one part, might as well continue to two parts).

4. Two and a half parts egg nogg (eyeball it. Basically, if you pour egg nogg to the point your cup runneth over, well, first you’ve been watching too many episodes of The Borgias - who says “cup runneth over” anymore? Secondly, you’ve clearly been drinking too much. Call a cab. Even if you’re in your own house. Call a cab).

5. Nutmeg shavings (no, contrary to what your hairy roommate might tell you, shaver shavings are not a suitable substitute).

6. Stir

7. Drink

Welcome to flavour country.

Mr. Haiku (Clay) – 82 points (current rank: 3rd)

The recent rash of concussions has hit this team hard as both Jeff Skinner and Kris Letang have been out for quite a while now.  However, I’ve managed stay in the top 3 thanks to the stellar play of Daniel Sedin, Marian Hossa, and Tim Thomas. 

In the spirit of Christmas, I give full props to Chris “I Don’t Need to Show Up at the Draft” Golden who has taken over first place.  I wonder how the other poolsters feel that his auto-drafted team is way ahead of theirs.  And thanks and congrats to Tom, who is comfortably in second place and for putting these recaps together.  And to the other 5 poolies who continue to make me look good.

And Merry Christmas to all of you loyal CHB readers.  You must be loyal indeed if you’re even reading this hockey pool post! 

Church’s Chiggins (Ed) – 75 points (current rank: 4th)

I’ve got the Washington Capitals of the CHB hockey pool. Wildly inconsistent with subpar goaltending. While my boys might be terrible one week, they could put up 15 points in a day and shoot up 7 points in the standings but one way or another, they’re not living up to expectations. 

 …I guess it was no coincidence I started the year with three actual Washington Capitals on my roster.

But then maybe we’re all just doing this wrong. I mean, Chris doesn’t even have a 4th defenseman and he’s in top spot. Auto-draft to victory!

The Hamhuis Ballards (J.J.) – 73 points (current rank: 5th)

Just like Batman has The Joker and Jenn has Angelina, Santa has the Grinch.

And on my CHBWFHP team, I have a couple of grinches.

Henrik Zetterberg has 23 points in 33 games, which puts him on pace to finish with 57 points – or roughly the same pace Kyle Wellwood is on.

After 34 games, Christian Ehrhoff has 16 points and one less goal than Aaron Rome. He’s also a minus-11 – only seven defensemen in the entire league have a worse plus/minus rating.

Oh the Who-manity.

Burrows Buddy (Liz) – 54 points (current rank: 7th)

Looks like I’m still second to last, which is keeping with my “just finish not last” mantra.

I think part of my problem is that I really need to pay better attention to injuries. When my players get hurt I seem to clue in about a week later that maybe I should bench them, so I should work on that. I also made some changes to my line up for the first time, dropping Brandon Sutter and Michael Grabner, while picking up Alex Steen and Ilya Kovalchuk.

I think my team’s leading in penalty minutes, which means they’re either dirty or scrappy, but I’ll take it either way, since it’s also the only stat I’m leading in. By the way guys, I’m still not sure I understand how scoring works. I’m fairly certain I’d have been better off letting a computer make my picks like Chris did.

Mar 132011
 

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

Gary Bettman, NHL

Photo credit: Barry Melrose Rocks

Between the Zdeno Chara hit, the Phoenix Coyotes drama and the ongoing hits-to-the-head debate, it’s been a bad week for the NHL.

Might as well pile on:

  • Scoring is down from last year, to 5.6 goals per game. The first season after the lockout, the average goals per game was 6.17.
  • This season will likely feature the fewest number of 100-point scorers, and fewest number of 50-goal scorers, since the lockout.
  • Analyzing numbers available on ESPN, it looks like attendance is down slightly. Let’s assume the NHL and teams fudge attendance figures. The fact that the figures show a loss probably means attendance is down far more than anyone’s willing to admit.
  • Like jilted lovers, the game’s greatest ambassador, Wayne Gretzky, and the NHL are currently not speaking to each other.
  • The game’s current ambassador, Sidney Crosby, seems to be in hiding, thanks to a severe concussion received during the NHL’s marquee regular season game (the Winter Classic).

Oh, and Gary Bettman has quietly signed a 5-year contract extension.

So where do we go from here?

Bob McKenzie has done some yeoman’s work asking the league’s GMs what was on their minds heading into their meetings next week in Florida.

The thing is, as a conservative enterprise, change will not come quickly to the NHL. Especially when the kinds of change necessary, and most effective, are unclear.

A smart place to start would be examining the boards and other structures that surround the playing surface.

Smartly (albeit too quietly), the NHLPA has indicated this is their focus.

We’ve clearly reached a point where the NHL product needs to evolve.

This could be a watershed moment for the NHL – a moment that clearly defines how a generation plays this game at its highest level.

If only there was a history of innovation and dynamic, progressive thinking to give one confidence the game is in good hands.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

It’s not like there aren’t positive developments in the NHL.

  • The Sedin Twins are giving the NHL the rarest of storylines: a brother act competing not only for the league’s scoring title, but a place amongst the game’s best players.
  • Alex Ovechkin’s play has really improved, to the point that he was either: a) hurt earlier in the year, or b) saving himself for the stretch run. Or, with Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm back, the Capitals have a legitimate second line to take the heat of OV and company.
  • If the playoffs started today the NHL would be pretty happy with the footprint. Toronto would be the only Original Six team not in the playoffs. Minnesota the only major US hockey-watching market not represented.
  • Oh, by the way, intriguing first-round matchups as of this (Saturday) morning: Philly-New York Rangers (Flyers knocked New York from playoffs on final day of the regular season last year), Montreal-Boston (they may need police on each blueline for every game, the way this rivalry’s peaked this year), Vancouver-Los Angeles (repeat of last year’s first-round matchup), San Jose-Calgary (fourth time they’ve played against each other in the playoffs).
  • That being said, it’s looking more and more like the final day of the regular season will decide who does, and does not, make the playoffs.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk is showing he might be the best player (outside of Martin Brodeur) to play in the New York area since the hay days of Mark Messier and Brian Leetch.
  • If he keeps scoring at his current pace (12 points in his past 14 games) and keeps making plays like this, it won’t be long before David Desharnais is a fan favourite in Montreal. Wonder if he has to stand to see over the boards?
  • Kudos to Willie Mitchell for donating his brain to science.
  • Hey look, a Scotty Bowman sighting behind Barack Obama!
  • An interesting Abbotsford Times piece on the Canucks AHL affiliate potentially coming home to the Lower Mainland.
  • Record-watch – Tim Thomas’s save-percentage: .938. The record: Dominik Hasek’s .937 in 1998-99.
Nov 052010
 

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

They called it “the Gauntlet.”

I had first heard about it in my final days of Atom hockey in Ontario. It was whispered about in hushed, nervous tones, like people standing in the room with Mike Tyson during the ’80s.

Next year was the start of Peewee hockey (ages 11-12).

To play Peewee hockey meant running the Gauntlet.

What was the Gauntlet?

Near the start of the season a team would line up, single file, from the blueline to the goal-line, about six feet from the boards.

One player would start outside the blueline and skate down along the boards.

This player would get body-checked by every other player on the team.

Naturally, teammates at the time invariably included:

  • the grizzled 12-year old vets who hit puberty early, were already working on goatees and were easily a foot taller than the rest of us;
  • the crazy, fat kid who couldn’t handle the puck but now had a weight-advantage he could really use;
  • the bullies who saw this as an opportunity to take a seven-step skate and leap at a teammate.

This was my introduction to body-checking.

Thankfully I survived, and actually enjoyed the experience, although there were a few of my teammates who did get hurt, and others who’s interest in playing the game never quite recovered.

I often think about the Gauntlet when I hear the usual suspects’ debate concussions and hits to the head.

The term “debate” is used loosely here, since most of the influential voices in Canada (TSN, Sportsnet, NHL Network and Hockey Night in Canada personalities) are concerned mostly with the NHL, which, in the grand scheme of things, is the end-of-the-road for player development. These are generally conservative voices that want to primarily protect the status quo, for a variety of reasons (including business ones).

How nice would it be if one of these influential voices shifted the debate to how hitting and being hit is taught at the grassroots, and whether the culture of intimidation, nurtured from grassroots hockey into the NHL, is a good thing.

It’s these topics, at levels as early as Peewee hockey, which are the cause for what we’re seeing in the NHL.

Any solution applied at the NHL level is simply a band-aid – a short-term one until these other topics are fully explored.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY:

  • Mike Richards is the captain, and Chris Pronger has the reputation, but Claude Giroux’s leadership skills are earning raves from the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • Speaking of the Flyers, there’s a bit of a love affair starting between goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and fans, who chant Bob after saves at home games. Could it be shades of Pelle Lindbergh?
  • Ethan Moreau’s broken hand has opened the door for Columbus Derek Dorsett, who’s playing an inspired, gritty game for the Blue Jackets. It will be interesting to see what happens when Moreau returns to action, and if his role is reduced. His reaction to a reduced role was one of the things that poisoned the Oiler dressing room.
  • What’s more upsetting – that the average ticket price Leaf fans pay is almost twice the average ticket price of anywhere else in the league, or that fans in Tampa, Buffalo, St. Louis and Pittsburgh only pay $5 for beer?
  • Damien Cox argues that the Ilya Kovalchuk story in New Jersey all started with an “no off-wing” systems approach by Assistant Coach Adam Oates. I’m pretty sure other teams in the league believe in the same system, including the Edmonton Oilers.
  • It may be part of Guy Boucher’s infamous system, but it’s still a bit odd to see a team play so much with one defenseman back, pretty much playing “safety.”
  • If this is Lindy Ruff’s last year in Buffalo, and the Leafs don’t make the playoffs, look for Ruff’s name to be at the top of the list to replace Ron Wilson as coach.
  • Dear Kelly Hrudey: Thanks for going on the Team 1040 and reminding us that there is an element of NHL hockey that is not only completely out-of-touch with fans, but quite frankly couldn’t care less about us. I look forward to booing you at every future opportunity.
Oct 222010
 

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

In honour of Katy Perry’s recent “cleavage-gate” on Sesame Street, let’s play a game of “One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong Here.”

The Chicago Blackhawks. The New York Islanders. The Dallas Stars. The Pittsburgh Penguins.

Behold the top four teams in NHL standings.

Which one doesn’t belong?

If you guessed the New York Islanders, you’d be wrong.

Sure they’re probably not a playoff team, but their youngsters have taken a step forward and coach Scott Gordon has them executing a fast, aggressive, puck-pursuit style.

Also, let’s not forget that the Eastern Conference is kinda like the Solange Knowles to the Western Conference’s Beyonce.

No, the team that doesn’t belong is the Dallas Stars.

Sure, the Stars have started the season at 5-1.

Yet they’re 23rd on the powerplay, and 30th on the penalty kill.

They’re also 30th in the league in shots-on-goal per game (averaging roughly 23), and 28th in the league in shots-on-goal against (averaging roughly 36).

So how are they winning games?

Two reasons.

First, Kari Lehtonen has been nothing short of incredible, starting all six games and sporting a .927 save percentage. He’s single-handedly keeping the team in games.

Second, the Stars are having ridiculous success playing 5-on-5.

Historically, the ratio of goals-for to goals-against when playing 5-on-5 is usually around 1:1. The best teams score at a rate of 1.5:1, the worst at a rate of 0.5:1.

The Dallas Stars are outscoring their opposition at close to a 3-to-1 rate.

This just isn’t sustainable.

Unless Kari Lehtonen is this year’s Ilya Bryzgalov, the Dallas Stars are probably enjoying the only success they’ll know this year.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Stars, The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell wrote this week that their ownership situation is starting to look a lot like that of the Coyotes.
  • They say Tampa coach Guy Boucher is an innovator. One thing he’s brought to the NHL: hard game day skates for his players. It’ll be interesting to see if this continues over the course of an entire season. The team looked gassed against Florida earlier this week.
  • They’re sitting at 4-3 but there are concerns in Denver. Kyle Quincey has seemingly regressed, they’re having trouble finding wingers for Matt Duchene and Milan Hejduk looks like he’s skating with a piano on his back.
  • Three pieces of free advice to the NHL to prevent another Rick Rypien situation. First, mandate that home teams have to provide tunneling over access to the visiting team’s bench. Second, implement the “eye-in-the-sky”, 3rd referee system they tested at the Molson Hockey Summit, and have that ref call violent act-related penalties (i.e. no tripping, icing or offside calls). Third, current NHL suspensions and fines hardly act as a deterrent. It’s time to work with the NHLPA to increase their severity.
  • Ken Holland’s “3-on-3” overtime idea is an intriguing one, but it reinforces the notion that games are decided by a team’s best players. Does a fourth line really matter anymore? Which fan pays to watch a 4th line play anyways? If you got rid of fourth liners all together, how much of the game’s worst violence would be eliminated?
  • Tyler Myers has been Buffalo’s worst defenseman so far. Coach Lindy Ruff thinks teams have scouted Myers offensively, and it’s up to him to mix his game up a bit.
  • They’re raving about Willie Mitchell in Los Angeles, especially the communication between him and Drew Doughty. Doughty’s also been more physical this year than in previous years.
  • Coach John Maclean is still trying to find the right fit with Ilya Kovalchuk. Zack Parise isn’t working out, as both he and Kovalchuk like to carry the puck. The latest player to get a chance to centre Kovalchuk is youngster Jacob Josefson.
  • If a lack of toughness on the Sens’ blueline is their biggest issue (it isn’t, but that’s a topic for another day), how long before the Sheldon Souray rumours start picking up steam?
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