Apr 272012
 
Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues

Photo credit: The Checking Line

Let’s just get this out of the way first, shall we?

This first round was a bloody disappointment.

Welcome to the deadpuck era 2.0 – to a style of play that see goal prevention more successful than goal creation.

Where goaltenders dominate, and the flow of the game – much improved since the lockout – has returned to slogging through muck.

It’s an game filled with interference and Wild West justice, where league’s least skilled players may attack, hurt and render obsolete its most talented.

Look, playoff hockey is supposed to be many things – faster, more physical, more passionate. But what it shouldn’t be is more boring.

But that’s what it’s been.

The league has become stronger defensively in general, and the playoffs have only amplified that. This is shaping up to be the lowest scoring first-round of the last five years, if not longer. 

First Round Goals Per Game:

Western ConferenceYearEastern Conference
4.4320125.64*
5.9620115.83
6.4320105.08
5.3020095.00
5.0820085.65

God bless that Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, which on its own has saved the league from having the lack of goals be a bigger negative story. The Battle of Pennsylvania averaged 9.33 (!!!) goals per game. The rest of the Eastern Conference games have been snore-fests (4.47).

Skilled teams are falling by the wayside in these playoffs, which, unless Philadelphia or Nashville win the Stanley Cup, reverses the historic trend that shows scoring teams persevere.

The only question is if this is a one-year anomaly or not.

The decline in scoring league-wide in recent years; the rise in shot-blocking; the reduction in penalty calls this season and power play goals (only the Sharks scored at a rate higher than 10% on the powerplay after the All-Star Game!); the defensive collapse in front of the net and other strategies lead me to believe things are only going to get worse unless rules are changed.

With that cheery thought in mind, let’s take a look at the Second Round match-ups in the Western Conference.

 St. Louis Blues (2) vs.Los Angeles Kings (8)

Season Series: Los Angeles Kings (3-1)

What we have learned about St. Louis:

They have come of age. When the Blues hired Ken Hitchcock, they did so to determine once and for all whether the young players they’d assembled on their roster were good enough to win together. Manhandling the Sharks in the first round answered that question. Winning in five games also gives them some rest ahead of another round of significant travel against a gruelling West Coast team. The Blues have four lines that can contribute, although in reality only the top-two lines are a threat to score.

What we have learned about Los Angeles:

That they look like another Darryl Sutter team – the 2004 Calgary Flames that went on a Cup run. Jonathan Quick remains a brick wall in goal (Miikka Kiprusoff-esque) and Dustin Brown did a pretty terrific Jarome Iginla impression against the Canucks. Having said that, the absence of Daniel Sedin for three games (all losses) and the poor play of Ryan Kesler were significant factors in L.A.’s win. They’re a good team – better than your usual eighth place team – but the stars were aligned a bit for them in round one. Oh, and the fourth line barely plays.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Blues. Slight edge to Hitchcock because he’s won a Cup but both coaches have their teams playing about as well as possible.

Goaltending: Kings. Both teams have put up microscopic goals against totals but if I had to pick one goalie from this series to win a seventh game right now it would be Jonathan Quick, not Brian Elliott or Jaroslav Halak.

Defense: Even. Alex Pieterangelo is playing better than Drew Doughty these days, but Willie Mitchell had the series of his life against the Canucks. Both teams execute their defensive systems flawlessly.

Offense: Blues. A slight edge here to the Blues, as Andy McDonald and Patrick Berglund had impressive first rounds. Can they continue? Meanwhile, the potential is there for L.A.’s offense to explode, but a strict commitment to Darryl Sutter’s system could mean on-going sporadic production from Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. If the Kings are to win this series, they need one of their big guns to get hot.

Special Teams: Blues. The Blues powerplay was third-best in the league post the All-Star Game, and lit-up the Sharks at a rate of 33%. Both teams have very good penalty kills.

Prediction: Blues in 6.

*****

Phoenix Coyotes (3) vs Nashville Predators (4)

Season Series: Tied 2-2

What we have learned about Nashville:

They are who we thought they were – arguably the most talented, deepest Predators team in franchise history. They proved they can skate and out-play the Red Wings five-on-five as their powerplay (league best in the regular season) failed them in the first round. At over 20-minutes a game, rookie defenseman Roman Josi was leaned on and played a sound series against Detroit.

What we have learned about Phoenix:

That Mike Smith has pretty much transformed himself into goaltending coach Sean Burke, who at his best was among the league’s elite netminders. This is a Phoenix team that found surprising scoring depth in round one – no remaining Western Conference team had as many different round one goal scorers as Phoenix did (11). Otherwise, this is a Coyotes team that won a playoff series by taking advantage of the counter-attack and being opportunistic. Territorially, thanks to their bend-don’t-break defensive scheme, the Coyotes were outplayed much of round one by the Blackhawks.

Quick Decisions:

Coaching: Even. Two of the best coaches in the game.

Goaltending: Even. Pekka Rinne has a bit longer resume, but Mike Smith was all-world for Phoenix in round one.

Defense: Predators. It’s an underrated blueline in Phoenix, but Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were dominant against the Red Wings. The Predators should get Hal Gill back as well, which should give them a boost on the penalty kill and an additional match-up advantage. Forwards on both teams are expected to play both-ways, but the Predators don’t give up nearly as many shots as the Coyotes do.

Offense: Predators. The Coyotes surprising scoring in the first round could be attributable to poor play from Chicago’s Corey Crawford. Ray Whitney is an elite, intelligent attacker but the rough style of play found in these playoffs limits his effectiveness at even strength. Let’s not forget Nashville was one of the highest scoring teams in the league during the regular season. Alex Radulov is probably the player in this series most capable of dominating play.

Special Teams: Predators. Phoenix’s special teams were very good against a Chicago team that struggled in this area during the regular season. Expect a bit of a drop-off. Nashville’s powerplay struggled against Detroit. They’ll need a better second round performance if they hope to beat the Coyotes.

Prediction: Predators in 5.

*****

Finally, a quick word on the departed:

Vancouver Canucks

Cause of death: A lack of secondary scoring and Duncan Keith’s elbow.

Prescription: Stay-the-course, get what you can for Luongo, and try and find a 25-goal scorer or strong playmaker who can mesh with Ryan Kesler.

*****

Chicago Blackhawks

Cause of death: Poor goaltending and a massive concussion to Marian Hossa, care of Raffi Torres.

Prescription: Upgrade in net. Otherwise there’s still much to like about this Chicago team.

*****

Detroit Red Wings

Cause of death: Age. This team is just not as deep or capable on defense or up front.

Prescription: Use their cap space on Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter. A Rick Nash trade would be worth exploring too. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jaromir Jagr end up here either as a PP specialist (if he doesn’t resign in Philly).

*****

San Jose Sharks

Cause of death: Age. See the Red Wings above.

Prescription: Shake up the core. It would not be a surprise to see Patrick Marleau and/or Danny Boyle moved to bring fresh pieces into the fold. The Sharks will try to take a quick step back to take a giant leap forward before Joe Thornton is completely washed up.

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

Mar 152012
 

[Inspired by Arsenio Hall's "Things That Make You Go Hmmm…", Clayton Imoo talks about Canucks-related things that make him go hmmm… You can follow Clay on Twitter at (@canuckclay) or on his website, Clay's Canucks Commentary.]

I’m back from a week in Ottawa; a week that saw the Canucks lose games to Dallas and Montreal but win against Winnipeg.   It was tough to stomach two out of three losses, especially when staying up until 12:30am or so just to finish the games.  Unfortunately, me being back in Vancouver didn’t change anything as the Canucks continued their slumping ways with a 5-4 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes…and there were a couple of Things That Make Me Go Hmmm:

1.  Outfought and Out-willed. Shane Doan’s goal with just under four minutes left in the first period concerned me.  I tweeted at the time “That 2nd goal was disturbing to me: it wasn’t so much about patience as it was Doan out-willing and outfighting the #Canucks to score.”  The scoring chance started as the Sedins and Zack Kassian (who was hit by an undetected high stick) were caught behind the Coyotes net leaving Phoenix to break out three-on-one.  Antoine Vermette passed the puck to Doan who proceeded to cut across the slot past a sliding Kevin Bieksa.  Doan then deked out Roberto Luongo but couldn’t shoot it because Vermette was blocking his shot path.  So Doan charged towards the side of the net and tried to jam in it while Bieksa, Henrik and Luongo tried to stop him.  As this was going on, Hamhuis tried to join the fray but was accidently clipped with a high stick courtesy of Vermette.  After almost a full four seconds of chaos, Doan was able to muscle it in.

This play concerned me because it was indicative of the Canucks’ half-hearted play of late.  Much like the Canucks are cruising towards a second-place finish (the Blues are six points ahead and Dallas is nine points behind), they certainly “cruised” toward the end of that play and didn’t show enough will, determination or strength to keep the puck out of their net.  Granted, it was only one goal, but it was one that shouldn’t have gone in.  Let’s hope the Canucks regain some of their will and determination before the playoffs begin; they have exactly a month to figure it out.

2.  Mayday for MayRay. There are enough jokes going around regarding Mason Raymond’s inability to stay on his skates during a game.  I think an even more disturbing trend is how many times I hear John Shorthouse say something like “Raymond is checked off the puck” or “Raymond turns the puck over”.  Raymond simply isn’t effective right now as he’s pointless in his last seven games and has just three points in his last 22 games.  Whether it’s giving the puck away or having the puck stolen, Raymond won’t get any points without the puck.  He seems mismatched with the Sedins who are puck-possession type players.  Case in point: Raymond did not factor in either of the goals that the Sedins got points on (one was a powerplay goal).

3.  Jason Spezza owes me a burger. As mentioned up above, I was in Ottawa last week.  While there I was able to watch the Ottawa Senators defeat the New York Rangers 4-1.  I detailed my experience in my blog here, including the male helmet-wearing ice cleaners and one of the most confusing mascots I’ve ever seen.  Most importantly, I detailed just how Jason Spezza deprived me and 18,000 fans out of a hamburger.

With just a few minutes left to play, the PA announcer told us that if the Senators scored in the final minute of regulation, then every one of the 18,854 people in attendance would receive a free Wendy’s Baconator.  With the score at 3-1 for Ottawa at the time of the announcements, we began licking our chops literally and figuratively.

Then, it happened.  On an icing call against the Senators, Rangers coach John Tortorella pulled goalie Martin Biron out of the net with a full 2:37 left on the clock.  Our anticipation turned into fear as we realized that our only hope of winning the burger would be if New York scored to pull within one or if Ottawa somehow missed the empty net for a minute and a half.

Alas, our fears were confirmed with Jason Spezza put the puck in the empty net with 1:27 remaining making the score 4-1 Senators.  Biron came out to finish off the game and the rest was history, despite our desperate chants of “Burger! Burger!”

We were only 27 seconds away from a free burger.  At an annual salary of $8,000,000, Jason Spezza can have a Baconator whenever he pleases.  In fact, he could have bought everyone in the arena the burger and it would have cost him only 0.943% of his annual salary.  That’s right: not even 1%!  But no.  He chose to do the selfish thing and score too early, depriving his faithful fans of a delicious and unexpected meal.

Thanks again for reading.  I’ll be away on vacation for next week, so my next Things That Make You Go Hmmm column will be on March 29.  The Canucks play seven times during the next two weeks so I’m sure I’ll have plenty to talk about.  In the meantime… I’m going to Disneyland!

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.
Mar 082012
 

[Inspired by Arsenio Hall's "Things That Make You Go Hmmm…", Clayton Imoo talks about Canucks-related things that make him go hmmm… You can follow Clay on Twitter at (@canuckclay) or on his website, Clay's Canucks Commentary.]

I’m in Ottawa this week for work and it’s obvious that I’m still getting used to this time change after going to bed at 3:30 AM EST the first night and 10:30 PM EST last night.  Thus, I’m going to keep this pretty quick… but just as thought-provoking as usual.  So here are a few Things That Make You Go Hmmm:

1.  What’s wrong with the Canucks? Vancouver’s 5-2 loss to Dallas on Tuesday night was their first 3-goal defeat since they lost to the Kings in Los Angeles on December 31st.  And after a great run that saw them take over the Western Conference lead, the Canucks are now in the middle of a slump in which they’ve won just one of their last five games.  So what’s wrong?  There are few things including (but not limited to):  the Sedins not scoring (actually, make that almost everyone not scoring), an ineffective powerplay, ill-timed defensive breakdowns, and the trading of Cody Hodgson.  I’m kidding about that last point, but there is something to be said about the time it will take for Zack Kassian, Sammy Pahlsson and Marc-Andre Gragnani to build chemistry with their new teammates.

There is certainly no need to panic and five games isn’t the end of the world. However, the Canucks have a prime opportunity to accumulate some points with seven straight games at home.  And you obviously want to be playing your best hockey into the playoffs.  They have a month to figure it out.

2.  Are you sure you want to win the West? When looking ahead to playoff positioning, it might actually be advantageous for the Canucks to finish in second place as a second place finish would conceivably give Vancouver an easier post-season route.  Given the way the playoffs work (teams are seeded 1 thru 8 and maintain their ranking for the rest of the playoffs) AND assuming that all four “higher-seeded” teams advance, the second-place team in the Conference would end up facing the winner of the Pacific Division (either Dallas, Phoenix or San Jose) in the second round.  We all know that anything  can happen in the first round, but if the playoffs started today the Canucks (as the second-place team) would face Phoenix in the first round and then the winner of Dallas-Chicago in the second round.  Contrast that to the plight of St. Louis, who would meet San Jose in the first round and then the winner of Detroit-Nashville in the second round.  It’s easy to see which team (Vancouver or St. Louis) seems to have the easier road to the Western Conference Final.

Of course, if you don’t win the Conference, then you can’t win the President’s Trophy, and thus secure home-ice advantage for the entire playoffs.  And there’s still a month of hockey for potential movement in the standings.  But it’s interesting to imagine the potential scenarios.

3.  Saluting the Canucks fan Ontario-east. I was ecstatic once I found a bar showing the Canucks-Stars game on Tuesday night.  Sure, I had to sit through the third period of the Canadiens-Flames game first but what could I do?  I’m just thankful it didn’t go into overtime.  As the game got out of reach in the third period, I looked around the bar and counted the number of other patrons: I was one of a whopping nine people in there including the three staff members.  But I wasn’t surprised as the game ended at 12:30 AM EST… on a Tuesday night (Wednesday morning) no-less.

When you think of Canucks fans watching in the Maritimes, they are waiting up until 1:00 AM or 1:30 AM if they want to watch the game live (thank God for PVRs).  So I salute you the Eastern Canucks fan – I’m sure there’s been a many sick-day or absence from class especially during playoff time.  In fact, I did a Clay’s Canucks Commentary about it a couple of years ago…check it out.

4.  Do I wear my Canucks jersey tonight? I’ll be going to watch the Ottawa Senators host the New York Rangers tonight at Scotiabank Place.  I’m pretty excited to watch a battle between two of the playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference and I’m trying to figure out if I should wear my beloved David Booth Canucks jersey to the game.  Admittedly, I’ve gone back-and-forth over the past couple of days especially as I’ve solicited feedback on Twitter and Facebook and from my colleagues here.

I’m not worried about my safety (I can always pull out some Jackie Chan kung fu magic if I need to…and I’ve also heard that Ottawa fans are quite friendly), but I’m thinking more of form.  If I wear it, will I look like a passionate and loyal Canucks fan?  Or will I look ignorant, clueless or cocky (or some combination of all three)?

So I ask you, the loyal CHB reader, what would you do?  Would you wear a Canucks jersey to a game that they’re not playing in?  Let me know – you could very well help me make my wardrobe choice for tonight!  Post a comment below or send me a tweet at @canuckclay.

That’s it for today.  While you are all enjoying tonight’s game between the Canucks and Winnipeg Jets, I’ll be in southern Ontario watching two good teams that I don’t really care about.  With or without my Canucks jersey.

Mar 062012
 

It seems these days not a day goes by that there isn’t something about the mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs that’s making the headlines. 

At first blush, the signing of Mikhail Grabovski to a five year, $27.5 million contract seems rather ludicrous. We’re talking about high-end salary for a streaky scorer that’s never put up 30-goals or 60 points.

 But is the contract really that far out of whack? Let’s do this arbitration-style, and look at some comparables.

Comparable #1: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 1

Grabovski was drafted 150th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. There were 30 centres selected prior to that, although only 19 have made the NHL, and only nine have played 240+ games (the rough equivalent of three NHL seasons):

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Evgeni Malkin2nd$8.7 M4104991.2237406
David Krejci63rd$5.25 M3592600.7258128
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Travis Zajac20th$3.89 M4162520.6137126
Brandon Dubinsky60th$4.2 M3772050.5422446
Dave Bolland32nd$3.375 M2841480.5232181
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Rostislav Olesz7th$3.125 M3551320.37-10118
Torrey Mitchell126th$1.367 M263700.2713137

Clearly Malkin remains the best centre taken in the draft. Grabovski though is in the running for second-best (with Krejci, Zajac and Dubinsky).

Comparable #2: The 2004 NHL Entry Draft – Part 2

When you take all players from this entry draft into consideration, there are a group of players who have played a similar number of games to Grabovski: 

PlayerDraftedSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Blake Wheeler5th$2.55 M3091810.5954188
Blake Comeau47th$2.5 M3061320.43-49159
Tyler Kennedy99th$2 M3091460.4730162
Kris Versteeg134th$3.083 M3091960.6315185
Mikhail Grabovski150th$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Troy Brouwer214th$2.35 M3031320.44-1214

Clearly from the above table Kris Versteeg’s career production is the most similar to Grabovski’s. Furthermore, just like Grabovski, Versteeg’s career-to-date is without a 30-goal or 60-point season.

Comparable #3: What Does Cap Geek Say?

A search function on Cap Geek  gives the user the chance to find comparable salary cap hits for any player. These are the centres Cap Geek selects as Mikhail Grabovski’s salary comparables:

PlayerAgeSalary Cap HitGPPPPG+/-PIM
Ryan Getzlaf26$5.325 M4974600.9364481
John Tavares21$5.5 M2271840.81-3397
Jason Pominville29$5.3 M5254170.7941155
Mike Richards26$5.75 M5103830.7543458
Jeff Carter27$5.27 M5043700.7341302
Patrick Sharp30$5.9 M5523710.6759375
Tomas Plekanec29$5 M5353530.6613322
Mikhail Grabovski28$5.5 M3041950.6410188
Ryan Kesler27$5 M5453320.6152487
Shawn Horcoff33$5.5 M7494330.58-43479

It’s an interesting list. The Horcoff contract is widely regarded as a huge albatross for the Oilers. He’s also the oldest centre on this list, with the most experience (and least production).  Kesler has fewer points per game than Grabovski, although he plays a far more well-rounded style (physical, defensive-minded, good on faceoffs) than the Leafs player. In fact, many of the players on this list bring “more to the table” than Grabovski does on a nightly basis.

With his new contract, Grabovski is effectively being paid to produce the type of offense consistent with a first-line player. Yet most of the comparable centres on this list produce more offense than he does.

The majority of players on this list have also played around 500 games, or roughly two more seasons than Grabovski has. While it seems logical to pay a player like Tavares this kind of salary early in his career (he’s an elite talent that the Islanders have locked-up long term), Grabovski is 28-years old. The player he will be is the player he is right now.

And the player he is right now looks like a player who doesn’t necessarily fit in with this group.

Looking at all these lists, it’s clear Grabovski will be overpaid at $5.5 million per season.

Toronto’s desperate for a number one centre. Now they’ve got a player who can’t play like one, but certainly gets paid like one.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Leafs, Grabovski’s now paid more than Phil Kessel, the Leafs top scorer. That can’t sit well with Kessel, who’s carried the team’s offense this season. It also gets the Spidey-senses tingling – maybe there could be a Rick Nash for Phil Kessel trade in the off-season after all.
  • From a few weeks ago, here’s the Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle on what Grabovski is worth.
  • Final Leafs note – Randy Carlyle will bring necessary structure to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But let’s not forget Ducks players grew to hate their coach, and dressing room issues were a large part of the last two years in Anaheim. It would not be a surprise to see, at the end of the day, that Ron Wilson will have coached more Leaf games than Randy Carlyle.
  • I lied about it being the final Leafs note. This happened today on Toronto radio. Must bring back warm memories for Vancouver sports radio listeners.
  • Rumoured complaints by the Senators, Canucks and Maple Leafs about Ron Maclean and Don Cherry are just another reason why it’s easy to believe the CBC is getting out of the hockey business after their contract runs out.
  • So Sidney Crosby’s head is clear and it looks like he might be ready to go for the playoffs. Except that the playoffs are played at a faster, more physical pace than the regular season. In everyone’s rush to get Crosby back on the ice, isn’t it in his best interests to take as much time off as possible and start fresh for the 2012-13 season?
  • The Globe and Mail selects the 2014 Men’s Olympic Hockey Team so Steve Yzerman doesn’t have to.
  • Interesting news that Canada currently sits fourth in the world hockey rankings. Here are the top-10 rankings in descending order: Russia; Finland; Sweden; Canada; Czech Republic; United States; Switzerland; Germany; Norway; Slovakia.
  • Dobber writes a personal note to George McPhee and Ted Leonsis that sounds similar to what was said in this space a few weeks ago.
  • Not making too big a deal about this, but Tim Thomas’s numbers in 2012 aren’t at their usual level of excellence (11-9, 2.66 goals against, .909 save percentage). With Tuukka Rask out and Marty Turco signed, the Bruins have to hope that Thomas finds his old form in time for the playoffs.
  • Grant Clitsome on playing in Winnipeg: “The hardest thing to adjust to was having to shout at your teammates as you can’t hear them with how loud the crowd is.”
  • In case you missed it, a breakdown of each team’s height, weight and age post-trade deadline.
  • A nice analysis on Fear the Fin about the San Jose Sharks recent slide.
  • Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
Feb 282012
 

Let’s get this out of the way first.

I’m still not convinced Columbus’ interest in dealing Rick Nash wasn’t a creation of TSN and Sportsnet. The two networks needed a big name to speculate about to drive up ratings for their annual Trade Deadline TV marathons.

Sadly for those networks, Nash remains a Blue Jacket at least until the draft, where the hype will be built up all over again. I am giddy with anticipation (and by giddy I mean hitting my head with a shoe to make the idea of 24 hour coverage of “The Rick Nash Trade – Part Two” go away).

Nonetheless, the trade deadline did produce some moves – 15 trades involving 31 players, according to TSN. As per usual, the moves quickly revealed who’s serious about the Stanley Cup.

Based on team performance and moves they made, here now are the REAL contenders for the Stanley Cup.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Vancouver

The Canucks enter the final portion of the NHL season with the strongest group of forwards they’ve had in a long time, if not ever. The 2012 version of Sammy Pahlsson is a step-slower, slightly less-effective than the one who helped the Anaheim Ducks with the Cup in 2007. However he remains a strong shutdown centreman who can win faceoffs (he led the Blue Jackets in faceoffs prior to the trade, winning 51.1%).

In Zack Kassian, Vancouver effectively replaced Raffi Torres from last year’s playoff run with someone younger and with 20-30 goal potential. Kassian could even develop into the big, scoring winger the team hasn’t had since Todd Bertuzzi left town. Kassian models his game after Bruins bruiser Milan Lucic, which is probably music to the ears of most Canuck fans.

Marc-Andre Gragnani is an underrated puck-moving defenseman who is about to have the spotlight shine on him. There are folks who think he could flourish into a 40-50 point player, and there are certainly similarities between his game and ex-Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. Those similarities include some puzzling play in the defensive zone.

Bottom Line: This Canuck team looks primed for another long post-season run. Cody Hodgson is a big chip to play, but when you consider the team’s time is now (and Vancouver already has Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler in the top two centre positions), Gillis has made the team stronger than it was yesterday.

Potential weakness: The blueline.

2. San Jose

While there will be folks who scoff, let’s remember that the Sharks have made the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, and they will enter these playoffs with likely their deepest team ever. Like the Canucks, the Sharks have had some concerns regarding secondary scoring and forward depth, and the acquisitions of Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi (and previously Dominic Moore) address this area.

Winnik was one of Colorado’s most important forwards, playing tough minutes and leading team forwards in ice time for much of the year. The improved play of Gabriel Landeskog and Winnik’s status as an impending UFA made him expendable. He’ll look very good alongside Michael Handzus on San Jose’s third line.

T.J. Galiardi has been an offensive tease so far in his career but he’s got the talent to be a fringe top-six player. Ray Fererro mentioned during Trade Deadline coverage today that Galiardi came to training camp having put on too much muscle, which hampered the player’s speed. Galiardi is an adequate replacement for Martin Havlat, allowing the injury-prone star to take his time to get back into the lineup.

Bottom Line: The Sharks improved their defense in the off-season, and now have improved their foward group. If Martin Havlat comes back healthy, and they get any kind of goaltending, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sharks three-peat as Conference Finalists, perhaps even graduating to the Cup Final. A re-match with the Canucks would not surprise.

Potential weakness: Goaltending

3. Nashville

Why the Predators and not the Red Wings? Detroit only tinkered with their team (adding Kyle Quincey), and now enter the playoffs with pretty much the same group that’s been knocked out of the playoffs early the last two years.

Meanwhile, the Predators are showing Ryan Suter the money and  pushing their chips to the middle of the table. They were rumoured to have made a big push for Rick Nash, and when that didn’t materialize, they quickly added Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal. He’s an enigmatic scorer, but he is a scorer, and a legitimate top-6 one at that. Playing with his brother Sergei could be problematic (one friend commented beer sales are about to go up in bars around Nashville), but it’s unlikely coach Barry Trotz will let any off-ice shenanigans impact the team on-ice.

Paul Gaustad is another effective grinder on a team full of them, and acquiring Hal Gill earlier in the week gives the Predators a premiere shutdown defenseman, perhaps one destined to matchup with Ryan Kesler this season.

Bottom Line: The Predators are one of the toughest teams to play against in the NHL, and they were a sniper-away from beating the Canucks in last year’s playoffs. Andrei Kostitsyn might not be Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg, but he is someone who can create offense on his own. With a deep defense, strong goaltending and an upgraded forward group, Nashville has become the dark horse team to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup.

Potential weakness: Scoring

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston

Remember, these are the defending Stanley Cup champions, who have retained much of the team from last year. The addition of Brian Rolston effectively replaces the departed Mark Recchi, although the emergence of Tyler Seguin means less is expected of Rolston in an offensive role. He might become a key part of the second powerplay unit, shooting darts from the point. Otherwise he’ll play a bottom-six role.

Meanwhile, there is a common belief today that you need 8 NHL-ready defenseman to go far in the playoffs. Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau fit that bill, the former one of the better shot blockers in the league, while the latter is a good skater and marginal puck-mover.

Bottom Line: Boston looks like a team ready to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Potential weakness: Nathan Horton’s health

2. New York Rangers

Why the Rangers, when they didn’t make a single move of significance (apologies to John Scott) at the Trade Deadline? Sometimes, the best move a team can make is no move. The 2012 New York Rangers are greater than the sum of their parts, and messing with that chemistry in a significant way could upset everything the team has been building towards.

Rick Nash would have been sexy, but there’s no telling how his arrival would have worked in the locker room. GM Glen Sather was smart to let this team prove what it can do in the playoffs, and then tinker as necessary in the off-season.

Bottom Line: Thanks to Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers are Nashville-East with more scoring. That makes them a Cup contender.

Potential weakness: Scoring

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Couldn’t put Pittsburgh on the list for one reason – there’s no guarantee Sidney Crosby is coming back. If he does, and he’s healthy, they’re added to the contender mix. The thing is, with how aggressive play is in the playoffs, does anyone think Sidney Crosby would survive a long playoff run without another injury?
  • The Flyers aren’t a contender, and really, haven’t been one all season. They’re fun to watch but there are too many holes on defense or in goal to be considered among the elite. Could be a different story in a few years though.
  • Puzzling move #1: The Toronto Maple Leafs trading Keith Aulie, who remains a legit defensive prospect - one who could become Hal Gill 2.0. Yes Toronto has depth on the blueline, but acquiring Carter Ashton for Aulie seems like acquiring 50 cents on the dollar. Ashton projects as a 3rd line guy at best. Burke is living and dying by his current roster in Toronto. It’s likely not enough to get the team into the playoffs.
  • Puzzling move #2: The Edmonton Oilers trading Tom Gilbert to their division rivals the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz. I think this sums it up nicely. Perhaps all this really means is that Edmonton intends to draft an offensive defenseman in the first round this year, and pair him with Schultz immediately.
  • Talked a lot about the Vancouver – Buffalo trade above, but one more thing: there’s no question Cody Hodgson is the most talented player in the deal, but from a Canucks standpoint they’re looking to win now. Long-term, it could be a trade the Canucks regret, although it does seem the franchise never warmed to the guy. Biggest immediate concern - what happens if one of Kesler or Sedin gets hurt?
  • Johnny Oduya is a nice complimentary pickup by the Blackhawks, but they needed more (another d-man, another scoring forward) for their playoff chances to truly improve. Right now, the ‘Hawks look like a second round team at best.
  • It’s rare you see the Flames apologize to the Oilers.
  • It would not surprise me if Ben Bishop eventually forced Craig Anderson out of town in Ottawa. Bishop is a very good goalie prospect, and the team already has Robin Lehner on the farm. It could be Anderson becomes the known asset the Senators eventually move for needed pieces.
Jan 182012
 

Yesterday we took at look at the “real” Western Conference standings after 40 games.

Here now is a look at the East.

Remember, to learn a bit more about an individual team’s strengths and weaknesses, each squad was ranked in six categories*:

  • Goals for (GF) and shots-for (SHF) were chosen to evaluate a team’s offense;
  • Shots-against (SHA) and goals against (GA) were chosen to evaluate a team’s defensive play;
  • Five-on-five (5-on-5) was chosen to evaluate a team’s even-strength/system play;
  • Save percentage (SVPCT) was chosen to evaluate the team’s goaltending performance.

Teams were ranked and then put into groups of five, with those ranking 1-5 in each category designated “great,” 6-10 “good,” 11-15 “above average,” 16-20 “below average,” 21-25 “poor,” 26-30 “awful.”

(* – Stats were taken as of Thursday January 12, once all teams had played at least 40 games.)

The Eastern Conference Standings After 40 Games

1. New York Rangers (58 points)
Games 21-40: 1st in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 1st in Conference (27 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Awful

Notes: The Winter Classic and HBO 24/7 circus certainly didn’t phase the Rangers, who went 15-4-1 in the second quarter to once again stay atop the “real” NHL standings. Marian Gaborik scored at a 50-goal pace during games 21-40, while hard-working captain Ryan Callahan chipped in with 6 goals and 17 points. Meanwhile, Michael Del Zotto was Mike Green-esque, with 3 goals and 16 points from the blueline.

2. Boston Bruins (57 points)
Games 21-40: 2nd in Conference (31 points)
Games 1-20: 2nd in Conference (26 points)
SVPCT: Great / SHA: Poor / GF: Great / GA: Great / 5-on-5: Great / SHF: Great

Notes: Probably the deepest team in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL. Their 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio was at 2.06 after 40 games, the best in the entire league and more than double the league average. Tuukka Rask (1.07 goals against, .964 save percentage) and Tim Thomas (2.17 goals against, .941 save percentage) are practically unbeatable. Making the Bruins even more dangerous: David Krejci has woken up (7 goals, 23 points during games 21-40).

3. Florida Panthers (48 points)
Games 21-40: 6th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 6th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Good / SHA: Below Average / GF: Poor / GA: Above Average 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Above Average

Notes: They’re in third by virtue of leading the Southeast Division after 40 games. Like the Minnesota Wild, the Panthers are starting to fall back to earth. Goal scoring was way down, from 2.95 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.2 goals per game in the second. Somehow Tomas Kopecky was -11 in games 21-40.

4. Philadelphia Flyers (52 points)
Games 21-40: 3rd in Conference (27 points)
Games 1-20: 5th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Good / GF: Great / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Great

Notes: Sergei Bobrovsky (1.75 goals against, .941 save percentage) was much, much, much better than Ilya Bryzgalov (3.52, .876) in the second quarter. Meanwhile, Kimmo Timonen (1 goal, 13 points. +6) capably replaced Chris Pronger at least in the short-term as the team’s go-to defenseman. Jaromir Jagr slowed down a bit in games 21-40 (6 goals, 14 points vs 18 points in the first quarter), but some of that was due to injury. James Van Riemsdyk has disappointed (3 goals in the second quarter).

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (46 points)
Games 21-40: 9th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 4th in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Great / GF: Good / GA: Good / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Great

Notes: For the second straight year, the Penguins are battling through injuries to keep a playoff spot, only this time Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played as well (.902 save percentage in the second quarter). Evgeni Malkin entered beast mode (30 points in games 21-40), and depending on how Pittsburgh finishes could be a Hart Trophy candidate.

6. New Jersey Devils (46 points)
Games 21-40: 7th in Conference (23 points)
Games 1-20: 9th in Conference (23 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Great / GF: Below Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Poor

Notes: The Devils cannot make the playoffs with Martin Brodeur as their number one goalie. His save percentage was just .878 in the second quarter. This despite the fact the Devils only gave up 30-or-more shots in three of his 14 starts, and two of the three being overtime games. Zach Parise (8 goals, 22 points) and Ilya Kovalchuk (10 goals, 21 points) awoke in games 21-40, and the Devils have two solid scoring lines for the first time in ages.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs (45 points)
Games 21-40: 10th in Conference (21 points)
Games 1-20: 7th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Good / SHF: Poor

Notes: Leaf struggles in the second quarter are well documented already (thanks Toronto-centric hockey media!). The penalty kill was roughly 4% worse (down to 72.3%) and was the difference between a win and a loss most nights. Meanwhile, James Reimer wasn’t very good (3-4-3, 3.23 goals against, .893 save percentage since returning in December from injury).

8. Ottawa Senators (45 points)
Games 21-40: 4th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 10th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Awful / GF: Good / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Good

Notes: Ottawa has improved their five-on-five play and with that are rising up the standings. Eight times in the second quarter they played into overtime, garnering 13 of a possible 16 points in those games. Daniel Alfreddsson hit the rejuvenation machine (17 points in 15 December games, versus 10 points in his first 18 games of the year).

9. Washington Capitals (44 points)
Games 21-40: 11th in Conference (19 points)
Games 1-20: 3rd in Conference (25 points)
SVPCT: Poor / SHA: Above Average / GF: Good / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: One of the great “what could have beens” in NHL history is what the Capitals could have been if Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens hadn’t gotten into GM George McPhee’s head after one playoff series. Washington’s loss to Montreal effectively ended the “all offense, all the time” experiment that defined the Capitals and could have redefined how elite NHL teams are built. Nowadays, the Capitals are as ho-hum a franchise as can be. On the bright side, Alex Ovechkin (10 goals, 17 points) and Nik Backstrom (6 goals, 19 points) were decent in the second quarter. However, Mike Knuble entered retirement during games 21-40 (1 goal, 2 points), while other core players Brooks Laich (4 goals, 8 points), Alex Semin (5 goals, 11 points), Marcus Johansson (1 goal) struggled. Tomas Vokoun did find his old self (2.45 goals against, .919 save percentage).

10. Winnipeg Jets (43 points)
Games 21-40: 5th in Conference (24 points)
Games 1-20: 13th in Conference (19 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Poor / GF: Below Average / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Above Average

Notes: As you can probably guess from the number of times it appears above, the Jets are an average hockey club. Still, they’ve ridden a hot home record (10-3-1 during the second quarter) to position themselves for a run at a playoff spot. Evander Kane (10 goals), Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little (both with 7 goals) had nice second quarters. A Teemu Selanne deadline trade to Winnipeg would be magical.

11. Buffalo Sabres (40 points)
Games 21-40: 14th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 8th in Conference (24 points)
SVPCT: Above Average / SHA: Awful / GF: Poor / GA: Below Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: A lot has been made of Ryan Miller’s performance this season, and his second quarter numbers certainly support the criticism (3.21 goals against, .894 save percentage). However, a greater factor in the Sabres decline has been the errors the team made prior to the season. Robyn Regehr (-10 in the second quarter) and Christian Ehrhoff (2 goals, 7 points, -7 in games 21-40) were supposed to improve the defense and haven’t. Ville Leino was supposed to augment the offense, and he clearly hasn’t worked out (1 goal, 5 points in the second quarter). Look for Derek Roy (2 goals, 10 points in games 21-40) to be possibly moved at the trade deadline.

12. Montreal Canadiens (37 Points)
Games 21-40: 15th in Conference (16 points)
Games 1-20: 11th in Conference (21 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Good / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Above Average / SHF: Below Average

Notes: It’s clear the Habs are going in the wrong direction. A notoriously strong defensive team under former coach Jacques Martin, this part of Montreal’s game regressed in the second quarter, with the team giving up more shots and more goals per game. The recent acquisition of Tomas Kaberle did help the powerplay (18.1% with Kaberle in the lineup during the second quarter; 10.4% before his arrival).

13. Tampa Bay Lightning (37 points)
Games 21-40: 12th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 12th in Conference (20 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Below Average / GF: Above Average / GA: Awful / 5-on-5: Below Average / SHF: Poor

Notes: There’s nothing wrong in Tampa Bay a decent goaltender couldn’t cure. Dwayne Roloson has become the worst goalie in the league (4.63 goals against, .866 save percentage in the second quarter) while Mathieu Garon has been below average (2.84 goals against, .901 save percentage during games 21-40). Could Martin St. Louis be dealt for a young goalie? Or do they go to the well one more time for a veteran Islanders goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov)? Marc-Andre Bergeron has cooled off since his hot start (1 goal, 6 points in the second quarter).

14. New York Islanders (36 points)
Games 21-40: 8th in Conference (22 points)
Games 1-20: 15th in the Conference (14 points)
SVPCT: Below Average / SHA: Above Average / GF: Poor / GA: Poor / 5-on-5: Poor / SHF: Below Average

Notes: The Islanders turned it around in the second quarter, particularly on the attack. They went from 1.90 goals per game in the first quarter to 2.55 during games 21-40. The powerplay was a big part of this increase, scoring at a 25.8% clip, almost an 11% improvement over the first 20 games of the year. John Tavares has arrived (6 goals, 23 points in the second quarter).

15. Carolina Hurricanes (32 points)
Games 21-40: 13th in Conference (17 points)
Games 1-20: 14th in the Conference (15 points)
SVPCT: Awful / SHA: Awful / GF: Below Average / GA: Above Average / 5-on-5: Awful / SHF: Above Average

Notes: If you can believe it, Cam Ward’s play has gotten worse statistically as the season has gone along. His save percentage was .890 in November, .878 in December. The ‘Canes scored more in the second quarter, while reducing their shots against slightly under new coach Kirk Muller. Muller also gave the young talent on the team a chance (Drayson Bowman from around 7 minutes of ice-time to 15+; Zac Dalpe from around 5 minutes of ice time to 13+). Quietly, Eric Staal’s game returned (13 points in 14 December games).

Dec 092011
 

Five possible ways the sale of the Toronto Maple Leafs to Rogers Communcations and Bell Canada Enterprises will affect hockey fans in Canada. 

5. Get ready to see a lot of Larry Tanenbaum. With rivals Rogers and Bell owning the same amount of the ownership pie (37.5% each) they’re effectively neutered in terms of power around the board table. They also have to try and sustain their relationship by playing nice with each other, which probably translates to focusing on turning their new content (Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC, Toronto Marlies) into greater technology sales. All of this is to say the two companies will look to Tanenbaum (25% owner) to take the visible, hands-on leadership role of the franchise. In many ways, Tennenbaum becomes the Leafs defacto owner, supported with Rogers and Bell money. He also becomes the scapegoat if things (aka profits, not championships) don’t go according to plan.

4. Get ready to see more Leafs content on Sportsnet and TSN. Although, given how much Leafs content there already is, this might not be as noticeable as you think.

3. Get ready to see a lot more Rogers/Bell advertising and products featuring Toronto Maple Leafs content. What will be interesting to watch is if a backlash is created by shoving the Leafs down the throats of people across the country.

2. Get ready to hear more about media wars with the Leafs in Toronto. With Rogers and Bell ownership, expect Sportsnet and TSN to get greater, privileged access to the Leafs. Expect breaking news to come through a Rogers or Bell platform, rather than, say The Toronto Sun. Covering the Leafs has officially become a two-class system. If you thought Brian Burke and Ron Wilson were difficult with the press before, think again. This should make for some entertaining viewing.

1. Say goodbye to Hockey Night in Canada. Whatever people outside of Ontario may think of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they remain the biggest television draw for CBC.  If you think Rogers and Bell are going to allow their rival, the CBC, to profit from Leaf games, think again. When the CBC hockey rights expire in 2014, watch for CTV (owned by Bell) to become Canada’s hockey destination on Saturday nights.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Addendum to the Leafs talk – the over/under on this new Leafs ownership arrangement remaining stable is probably five years. I can’t see Bell and Rogers co-existing long-term.
  • One more Leafs thought – this ownership change doesn’t bring the Leafs any closer to winning the Stanley Cup.
  • I don’t care what people are saying out of Montreal – the Canadiens don’t need Tomas Kaberle if Andrei Markov is 100%. Meanwhile, Jaroslav Spacek should help a Carolina team that has young puckmovers on the blueline, but could use someone who knows how to play in his own zone.
  • It’s a lot of fun watching Flyers games, but until they can figure out how to defend without Chris Pronger in the lineup, Philadelphia can’t be considered a post-season threat.
  • One thing Steve Yzerman has in common with most people – he doesn’t like Pierre Maguire, Keith Jones and Mike Milbury either.
  • Speaking of the Lightning, they’re 4-9 since that fateful game against the Flyers on November 9th. They’ve only scored more than three goals in three of those 13 games.
  • There is absolutely nothing wrong with Artem Anisimov’s goal celebration. Wish there was more of this in the NHL. The fact that Steve Downie left the bench though should warrant a suspension.
  • Rookie goalie Matt Hackett has looked good in his NHL debut so far for the Minnesota Wild. He’s the first goalie since the WHA/NHL merger to start his career with over 100+ shutout minutes. If Hackett continues to look NHL-capable, do the Wild deal one of their goalies (Josh Harding or Nik Backstrom) for some added scoring? New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Colorado could all use the goaltending help.
  • If the NHL Realignment was in place, here’s your current first round playoff matchups: Philadelphia-Washington; Pittsburgh-New York Rangers; Florida-Buffalo; Boston-Toronto; Minnesota-St. Louis; Chicago-Detroit; Phoenix-Los Angeles; Vancouver-San Jose.
  • Little known fact – fans who attend Columbus Blue Jacket home games can request through Twitter music to be played in the arena during stoppages in play. (Editor’s note: The Canucks do something like this too. Tweet a tune or something. – J.J.)
  • Speaking of Columbus, Ten Minute Misconduct takes coach Scott Arniel to the woodshed.
  • If you missed it, here’s Katie Baker’s weekly rundown of the NHL on Grantland.

Hey folks, we’re moving days. Find the Out of Town Notebook on Tuesdays now rather than Fridays.

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