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

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

Season Series: Vancouver (2-1-1)

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

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

Key Player, Vancouver: Daniel Sedin

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

Key Player, Los Angeles: Drew Doughty

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

Quick Decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Canucks in 5

*****

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

Season Series: St. Louis (4-0)

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

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

Key player, St. Louis: David Backes

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

Key player, San Jose: Antti Niemi

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

Quick Decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Blues in 7

*****

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

Season Series: Phoenix (3-1)

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

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

Key Player, Phoenix: Mike Smith

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

Key Player, Chicago: Jonathan Toews

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

Quick Decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Blackhawks in 6

*****

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

Season Series: Tied (3-3)

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

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

Key Player, Nashville: Alex Radulov

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

Key Player, Detroit: Jimmy Howard

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

Quick Decisions:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Predators in 5

Mar 272012
 

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

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

Columbus Blue Jackets

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

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

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

Montreal Canadiens

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

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

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

Edmonton Oilers

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

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

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

Minnesota Wild

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

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

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

New York Islanders

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

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

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

Toronto Maple Leafs

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

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

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

Anaheim Ducks

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

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

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

Carolina Hurricanes:

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

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

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

Tampa Bay Lightning

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

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

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

Mar 142012
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My final predicted order of standings:

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Kudos to the Penguins for managing Sidney Crosby’s minutes and deciding to play him on the point on the powerplay. It will be fascinating to see how long this protection lasts, especially once the team gets to playoff time. Hard to see the Bruins or Rangers not trying to knock Crosby off the ice.
  • Let’s not get ahead of ourselves regarding Alex Radulov. If KHL production is roughly 62% the equivalent of NHL production, then his Russian stats this season translate as follows: 26 goals, 39 assists over 82 NHL games. That’s not bad, but it’s not necessarily superstar worthy. You have to expect a learning curve as well going from the KHL to NHL stretch-drive/playoff action.
  • Nonetheless, kudos to David Poile for pulling the wool over the eyes of other general managers. Make no mistake – the Predators are gunning for the Stanley Cup.
  • Biggest reason why the Leafs are still in a freefall: It’s training camp all over again in Toronto. The team is learning to play Randy Carlyle’s structured style, which in many ways is the opposite to how they’ve played all year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Leafs finish with a lottery pick.
  • Speaking of the Leafs, Damien Cox’s tweet earlier in the week suggested that Toronto will try and target Jaroslav Halak in the off-season. Naturally, the question begs – why would St. Louis want to make that trade?
  • How good has Steven Stamkos been? He’s the NHL’s leading goal-scorer currently by 12 goals. The biggest goal differential between the league’s top-two goal-scorers since the lockout was 13 goals in 2007-08 when Alex Ovechkin scored 65 and Ilya Kovalchuk had 52. Before that, it was a 14-goal differential in 1999-00 when Pavel Bure had 58 and Owen Nolan had 44. And prior to that, it was a 16-goal differential in 1991-92 between Brett Hull’s 70 goals and Kevin Stevens’ 54.
  • Marty Turco has looked awful in two appearences with Boston. Their divisional lead over the Ottawa Senators is in serious jeopardy if Tim Thomas doesn’t play the bulk of Bruins games down the stretch.
Feb 222012
 

One game does not represent an entire NHL season.  

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

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

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

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

The Little Reason: Injuries to their core players

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

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

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

The Big Reason: GM George McPhee abandoned his plan

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

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

2009-10 Capitals 20-goal scorers:

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

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

Ovechkin 34
Semin 22
Brouwer 21
Chimera 21

Where did the offense go?

It was left in Montreal during the Spring of 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been downhill ever since.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

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