The Olympics are now over and the sprint to the finish line begins. In true Campbell and Wales style, Duke (West) and Wagman (East) are here to lay it out for you. Without further ado, here are our takes on what to expect in the NHL’s stretch run.
Wales Conference – by Ryan Wagman
With one team already guaranteed a spot (and a top-three seed) and three teams seeing their slim mathematical hopes dwindling every day, there is relatively little to project in the Eastern Conference down the stretch. That said, there is nothing guaranteed in this game and each team still has games to play, and with those games, keys to that organization’s success, either now, or in the future. Rankings are through games of March 14.
1) Washington Capitals (101 pts, 13 games remaining) – With 101 points, the Capitals have already sewn up the Southeast Division, a top three seed and home ice advantage through the first round of the playoffs – at least. With a 14-point lead on the 2nd ranked team (each with only 13 games to play), they are also odds-on favourites to end the regular season as the top seed in the Wales. As today’s incident reminds us, the key for the Caps may be to keep Alex Ovechkin in check so he is ready for the second season. The other key thing to watch during the Caps’ remaining games is who they play in net. According to GVT, Semyon Varlamov has been the better goalie this year (5.9 GVT in 19.5 games, while Theodore has trailed with 4.4 GVT in 34.7 games. Each tender played two of the Caps last four games, Theodore winning both of his and Varlamov losing his starts. Pay attention to how Boudreau allocates his stars the rest of the way. If either goalie starts to see more than half the ice time, it may be the sign that he will be the man (at least initially) for the playoffs.
2) Pittsburgh Penguins (87 pts, 13 games remaining) – Although 4 points in front of the 4th seed Devils, Jersey has two games in hand and it would not be a shock for them to win those and force Pittsburgh’s hand. If the Penguins can get a good result in New Jersey this Wednesday, they should be able to control their own destiny. Outside of Washington, the Penguins are the best scoring team in the East, and with stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Jordan Staal in the lineup, it is to be expected. The Pens’ accomplishments this season have been felt throughout the roster, as only three even semi-regular players (Craig Adams, Eric Godard and Maxime Talbot) have put up cumulative GVT’s below 0. Going forward, it should be interesting to see how new top-6 forward Alexei Ponikarovsky continues to mesh with his new linemates before the playoffs begin. With six of their last seven games against teams that are currently on the outside looking in, I expect the Penguins to finish the regular season with the Atlantic Division title and the number 2 seed for the playoffs, setting us up for another series pitting Crosby and Ovechkin. Hockey fans win again.
3) Buffalo Sabres (82 pts, 15 games remaining) – The Sabres have a three point lead on the Ottawa Senators for the Northeast Division with two games in hand as a bonus. Considering a large part of the Senators’ current position comes from their earlier 11-game winning streak, it is fair to say that the Sabres have been the better team this year, game-in, game-out. One factor that may test this team before the playoffs is that 10 of their remaining 15 games are on the road, including the next four against the underbelly of the southeast (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina). The Sabres have only been 15-12-4 on the road this season, so they will have to play at least a little bit better than that to close the season to ensure themselves of home ice and the third seed for the 1st round. Also look for Patrick Lalime to spell Ryan Miller at least four more times (they have four more back-to-back sets), if not more, as the Sabres need Miller to be fresh to advance in the playoffs. The Sabres will win the Northeast
4) New Jersey Devils (83 pts, 15 games remaining) – After a slow start to his life as a Devil, Ilya Kovalchuk has stepped up his game with two goals and two assists in his last two games. In his only career playoff experience, Kovalchuk has two points in four games as the Thrashers were swept back in 2007. Four points behind the Penguins for the division lead, the Devils are also four points ahead of the Senators in fifth and I expect them to maintain their hold of home ice in the first round. Like with the Sabres above, the Devils will want to try to give Martin Brodeur a few more nights off before the playoffs. Allowing four goals to the Islanders on Saturday will not make Jacques Lemaire any more confident in his abilities to produce going forward.
5) Ottawa Senators (79 pts, 13 games remaining) – Since winning 14 of 16 prior to the Olympic Break, the Senators have fallen a little bit flat since returning to action, picking up only 3 points in six games while being outscored 18-8. Like their division rivals from Buffalo, the Senators play most of their remaining schedule on the road (8 of 13 games), where they have been sub-par this season (14-18-1). Their 8 point cushion should keep them in the playoffs, but unless they turn things around quickly, they may be primed to drop a few spots in the seedings and end up with a first round matchup against Pittsburgh. And it says right here that that is what they will do. Ottawa will finish in 7th in the Wales.
6) Philadelphia Flyers (76 pts, 14 games remaining) – If Ottawa falters, Philadelphia is primed to replace them. Michael Leighton will continue his Cinderella run at establishing himself as a bona-fide NHL goalie and play ten of the Flyers` 14 remaining games. His traditional and advanced statistics have been phenomenal since joining Philadelphia, with a .922 save percentage and 2.39 GAA. With only one shutout in 25 games, we can also see that he is consistent, not balancing perfection with blow-outs. According to GVT, Leighton has put up an otherworldly 11.1 GVT in 23 games, putting him ahead of US Olympians Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick. Speaking of Tim Thomas, there are some similarities in their narratives. Both were late draftees who took circuitous routes to starting jobs when they were already all but written off as NHLers. It’s hard not to root for guys like Michael Leighton. At least for one year. The Flyers will finish in 5th place in the East to play New Jersey in the first round.
7) Montreal Canadiens (76 pts, 12 games remaining) – Only 12 games to go, but unlike some of the preceding teams, the Habs get an even split between the Bell Centre and the rest of the league. Their travels will also be made lighter by playing four games against teams not currently holding a playoff spot. With six wins in their seven games since the Olympic break the Canadiens know that there is little time for finding their feet if they want to play past the middle of April. If they can maintain the power play efficiency, ranked second in the NHL as of the Break (1 goal per 392.188 power play seconds – behind only Washington), they should be able to hold their spot. With Ottawa stumbling, I think they can go one better, and will finish the regular season ranked 6th in the conference, opening the playoffs against Buffalo.
8) Boston Bruins (72 pts, 15 games remaining) – Matt Cooke’s shoulder may end the Bruins season early. Their offense was already the worst in the conference, having scored only 167 goals so far, 7 less than anyone else in the East. Savard, leading the Bruins in offensive GVT (4.7 – not really that special, which says alot about this team), will be missed dearly, especially if he will miss the rest of the season, which seems more likely each day. They will need a few more games like that against the Flyers on the 11th if they are to make the playoffs. I don’t think they have it in them. Bruins fans can take some solace in owning two picks in or around the top ten in this summer’s draft. The Bruins will finish 9th, just out of the playoffs.
9) New York Rangers (71 pts, 13 games remaining) – While the Rangers are in the best position to take advantage of a Bruins’ slump, I don’t think they are the team for that measure of decisiveness. Henrik Lundqvist has been fallible this season and Marian Gaborik, has little offensive support, his 36 goals currently doubling that of runner-up Ryan Callahan’s 18 tallies. Their remaining schedule includes a six-game road trip, a number of games against other teams still jockeying for playoff position and ends up with a home and away against the Flyers. The Rangers will finish 10th in the East and miss the playoffs.
10) Tampa Bay Lightning (68 pts, 14 games remaining) – They have done themselves no favours picking up only 4 points in 7 games since returning from the Olympics, the Lightning are my dark-horse team to make a late run and finish the season in a playoff position. Between Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St.Louis, Steve Downie and Alex Tanguay, they should have two lines of proven scorers (some performing better than others this year). They have a big and talented blueline featuring veteran Mattias Ohlund, phenom Victor Hedman and the emerging two-way threat of Kurtis Foster (leading Lightning D-men in GVT with 8.8 – tied with Lecavalier). To help with their stretch run, the Lightning need to commit to Antero Niittymaki, who has vastly outplayed Mike Smith this year. They have played a near-equal amount, but Antero’s GAA is better by 0.37, his save percentage is better by .012 and his GVT is 11.9 higher. Assuming Niittymaki is given the reins, the Lightning will begin their rise to the playoffs. Mind you, as the 8th seed, it should be a short ride against the Capitals, but a worthy one nonetheless. Pay attention to their game on the 25th in Boston. A poor result there may negate the aforementioned prediction.
11) Atlanta Thrashers (67 pts, 14 games remaining) – As Don Waddell promised after dealing Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils, the Thrashers were not sellers at the deadline. With their big move being a trade for Clarke MacArthur from the Sabres, I wouldn’t exactly call them buyers either. If a top team is willing to trade a guy, it is a pretty good sign, he wasn’t highly thought of. After a great start to the season, the comeback story named Johan Hedberg has come to an end. The Thrashers are leaking goals, allowing more than everyone in the Wales, but the basement-dwelling Maple Leafs. At some point soon, John Anderson will turn to Ondrej Pavelec and preview their goaltender for next year.
12) Florida Panthers (66 pts, 15 games remaining) – Tomas Vokoun kept the Panthers in the hunt for most of the season, but there was no one on hand to consistently put pucks past the opposition goalies scoring more than only the Bruins. After their upcoming three game homestand against high-flying Washington, Phoenix and Buffalo, the Panthers would be well served by looking to the future over the last 10-12 games. Look to see youngsters Keaton Ellerby, Dmitry Kulikov, Kenndal McArdle and Shawn Matthias get more ice time from here on out.
13) New York Islanders (65 pts, 13 games remaining) – With four points in two nights against the Devils and the Maple Leafs, the Islanders want us to believe. We shouldn’t. Rick DiPietro may or may not return to play this year. It doesn’t really matter. The Isles will need him for next year, when Martin Biron will be playing somewhere else. Next year Matt Moulson will have to answer questions about whether this year was a fluke. John Tavares will have to show more consistency and a more well-rounded game. Rob Schremp will get more chances to finally show that he belongs in the NHL. Josh Bailey will continue to develop into a top-six forward (sleeper pick for fantasy next year), as will Kyle Okposo. Another good draft this summer will push the Islanders much closer to being a team to be reckoned with seriously going forward. But not this year.
14) Carolina Hurricanes (64 pts, 14 games remaining) – With a five game winning streak heading to the Olympic break and 8 points in 7 games since returning, the Hurricans are certainly making things interesting, even after selling off most of the roster (excluding the Abominable Snowman, Ray Whitney). Next year Cam Ward and Eric Staal will presumably be healthier. Brandon Sutter will continue to stake his claim to a top line spot. Zach Boychuk will get an extended run. And with less than $42 million tied up in salary for next season, there is plenty of room to bring in reinforcements, particularly on the blue-line, where only Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen are signed for 2010-2011. As I expect them to be picking in the top five in this summer’s draft, their newest member stands a good chance to jump right up into the NHL as more and more first year draftees are now wont to do.
15) Toronto Maple Leafs (58 pts, 13 games remaining) – Without a first round pick this summer, the Leafs have no reason to lose, but no chance to win. The remainder of this season will be about measuring what the young guys have. Jonas Gustavsson will be a restricted free agent and he should get around half of the remaining starts to give GM Brian Burke an idea of what kind of contract to offer him. Youngsters including Luca Caputi, Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Carl Gunnarsson will vie to create expectations for themselves going into camp next year. The core of a future winner may be here, but it’s hard to say just when that future will start.
Campbell Conference – by Bill Duke
-All stats and standings as of Tuesday, March 16
The Campbell (nee Western) Conference playoff picture is slightly less muddled at this point in the season than it has been in year’s past, but there should still be plenty of drama between now and the beginning of the postseason.
San Jose and Chicago are the clear cut class of the conference, ranking in the top 3 in terms of goals for and the top 5 in goals against. They are virtual shoo-ins for the conference’s top 2 seeds.
Positions 3 through 10, on the other hand, are going to see a lot more action. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Campbell Conference playoff picture as it currently stands with slightly less than a month remaining in the regular season. I’ve listed the teams in order of their current standings and included my prediction for their final seeding.
1) San Jose Sharks (96 points, 14 games remaining): I’ve written in the past that San Jose is my pick to win the Stanley Cup this year, and I have no reason to waiver from that assertion. Well, maybe one little, teensy-weensy reason: the sub par play of Evgeni Nabokov of late, including the Olympic tournament. He wasn’t just bad at the Olympics, he was terrible in Russia’s quarterfinal loss to Canada. However, forwards Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley were terrific in helping Canada to the gold medal (Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle were serviceable). Such a confidence boost might be just what the doctor ordered for Marleau and Heatley, who will need to equal their Olympic performance if San Jose is to hoist the Cup this June.
Final playoff seeding: 1
2) Chicago Blackhawks (94 points, 14 games remaining): The ‘Hawks suffered a very disheartening loss to the Flyers on Saturday when Chris Pronger scored the game winner with just more than 2 seconds remaining in the third. It was the kind of game that exposed the subtle flaws in what many consider to be a bulletproof team: Huet, while not terrible, failed to come up with the big saves when needed; the defense suffered two breakdowns that directly led to Philadelphia goals; Patrick Kane was terrific between his own blue line and the top of the circles in the Flyers’ end while ordinary everywhere else; and finally, the ‘Hawks seemed to take their foot off the gas once they went up by a goal.
But surely they followed that downer with an inspired performance at home to the Captials on Sunday, right? Not exactly. They coughed up 3-0 lead and lost in OT. Am I nitpicking here? Maybe a little. The ‘Hawks did play a back-to-back in which they traveled from Philly to Chicago, and they did lose blueliner Brian Campbell to an injury in the first period of Sunday’s game (granted, Alex Ovechkin was given a game misconduct on the play, thus taking the best position player in hockey out of the game), but the goaltending concerns are real, as is the fact that the ‘Hawks are young and may be prone to similar mental breakdowns in the playoffs. It says here that the Blackhawks will live to regret the fact they didn’t make a move for a goaltender (Martin Biron? Dwayne Roloson? Tomas Vokoun? Marty Turco?) at the trade deadline. I just don’t trust either Cristobal Huet or Annti Niemi to come up big when the games matter most. They also could be without Campbell and his 11.6 overall GVT for the balance of the season.
Final seeding: 2
3) Vancouver Canucks (89 points, 13 games remaining): The Canucks look to be peaking at just the right time. A case can be made that Vancouver should be lumped in with Chicago and San Jose as the top teams in the conference. In fact, Puck Prospectus’ Tom Awad has them ranked a smidge above the Sharks and Hawks in his latest power rankings. They have fantastic goaltending, plenty of skill at forward, a great powerplay and just enough grit to go toe-to-toe with anyone.
One thing they lack is great depth. An injury to either Sedin would sink their Stanley Cup hopes, as would seeing Willie Mitchell (who is currently hurt) or Kevin Bieksa miss significant time. Bieksa in particular has been prone to injury the last few seasons, so much so that one must wonder if he drinks enough milk, gets enough sleep and takes his vitamins.
With Calgary underperforming this year and Colorado having plateaued, the Northwest Division is Vancouver’s for the taking. And take it they will. Eight of Vancouver’s remaining games are on home ice. They play some tough teams (San Jose x3, Detroit, Colorado, L.A.) but are 5-1-1 since the Olympic break and boast the gold medal-winning netminder.
Final seeding: 3
4) Phoenix Coyotes (89 points, 13 games remaining): The ‘Yotes were as aggressive as anyone in improving their team at the deadline, mortgaging their future (at least to some degree) in order to acquire playmaking forward Wojtek Wolski and veteran defenseman Derek Morris. They have been a real surprise this year, thanks primarily to the stellar play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, and are a lock to qualify for their first postseason since 2002. However, their remaining schedule is as difficult as it gets – of their 13 remaining games, only 3 come against opponents currently at .500 or below.
Final seeding: 5
5) Los Angeles Kings (85 points, 14 games remaining): L.A.’s success this year is a surprise only to those who weren’t aware of the fantastic young talent GM Dean Lombardi has been stockpiling over the past handful of years. Anze Kopitar is rapidly blossoming into a superstar (12.1 offensive GVT, 17.1 overall) and netminder Jonathon Quick has been a revelation between the pipes. But the real heart and soul of the Kings is Drew Doughty, who is a +16 with 52 points in 68 games. Not too shabby for a 20-year-old defenseman. Thanks to a much easier remaining schedule (7 games against non playoff teams) the Kings should jump up and claim home ice in what promises to be a very close first round series with the Coyotes.
Final seeding: 4
6) Colorado Avalance (84 points, 14 games remaining): As much as the Wolski deal made sense for the surging Coyotes, Avs fans were left to wonder why their front office would deal away their fourth best forward (according to overall GVT) during a season in which they have a real shot to win a playoff round. However, after 6 games in an Avalanche uniform, budding forward Peter Mueller has 8 points and looks as though he may really benefit from the change of scenery. The real key to Colorado’s success has been the excellent season turned in by goaltender Craig Anderson. When Colorado got off to their hot start (10-2-2 in October), it was largely due to Anderson’s stellar .939 save percentage and 2.0f GAA. He suffered through a mini-lull shortly thereafter, but has rebounded nicely and the Avs are a lock for the postseason.
Final seeding: 6
7) Nashville Predators (81 points, 13 games remaining): As of Tuesday, the Predators have given up 198 goals this season, the most by far of the top 10 teams in the conference. That, coupled with their inability to score (only 193 goals on the season) make them ripe to collapse down the stretch and relinquish the playoff position they’ve held for most of the season. Nashville’s strength is their defense corps, as Shea Weber (10.1 GVT) and Ryan Suter (7.3 GVT) are the type of young studs that any team would be happy to have. However, any time a team’s top scorer is Martin Erat (43 points, 7.6 GVT), their validity must seriously be questioned. Goaltender Dan Ellis has been merely okay this year, posting a .908 save percentage and a 2.72 GAA to go along with his middling 3.6 GVT. Add it all up and you get a 9th-place team.
Final seeding: 9
8 ) Detroit Red Wings (80 points, 13 games remaining): It’s been shocking to see Detroit hover around the middle of the Conference this season after their dynasty-like run of excellence. However, they do seem to be putting it all together just in time to earn a postseason berth. With super-rookie Jimmy Howard between the pipes, Detroit may actually be in better shape at the goaltender position than they have been the last few seasons. It looks like the Wings are destined for a 7th or 8th-place finish, which would set up a dandy of a first round series with either the Sharks or the Blackhawks, neither of which would be very happy with the prospect of turning in an excellent season only to face the defending Conference champs right off the bat.
Final seeding: 7
9) Calgary Flames (77 points, 13 games remaining): While it’s a tough task to make up 4 points on any team in only 13 games, the Flames should be able to turn the trick and overtake Nashville. Calgary is a better team with the likes of Matt Stajan (whom they have resigned long-term), Niklas Hagman, Ian White, Jamal Mayers and Christopher Higgins in the lineup than they were with Dion Phaneuf, Freddie Sjostrom and Olli Jokinen. The new Flames’ GVT numbers may not be as good as the departed players’ (the highest rating of the new acquisitions belongs to Ian White and his 2.0 overall) but the team has been more consistent and better at doing the little things since their wheeling and dealing. More importantly, Calgary has been getting much better production out of Jarome Iginla since the deals.
So far the only duds have been Steve Staios (-0.4 GVT) and Ales Kotalik (-0.4), the latter of which may find himself out of the starting lineup sooner than later. Their remaining schedule is tough, but given that they play Washington, San Jose and Chicago late in the season (once they will have clinched their division titles), they are unlikely to get those teams’ best shots. Expect the Flames to see a lot of backup goalied down the stretch. With continued brilliance from Miika Kiprusoff, Iginla and Mark Giordano, the Flames will be play just well enough to be bounced in round one for the fifth straight year.
Final seeding: 8
10) St. Louis Blues (73 points, 14 games remaining): After shocking the hockey world last season by sneaking into the playoffs, the Blues have proven that with youth comes inconsistency. The Blues are still a team on the right track, however, and this blip should be considered only a minor setback rather than the beginning of a trend. Surprisingly, St. Louis’ struggles this season have come on home ice, where they’ve posted a record of 12-16-5. Compare that to their stellar road mark of 20-11-4 and it becomes obvious that, had the Blues taken care of business on home ice, they would have been well on their way to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Final seeding: 10
11) Minnesota Wild (72 points, 14 games remaining): With a new coach and a new, offensive style of play, the Wild should be at least a little pleased with their modest success in this transition season. Mikko Koivu (62 points in 68 games) is well on his way to being a star, while backstop Nicklas Backstrom, despite a disappointing season, looks to be a reliable starter for years to come.
Final seeding: 11
12 and 13) Dallas Stars (71 points, 14 games remaining), Anaheim Ducks (70 points, 14 games remaining): Given their level of talent, both these veteran teams must be very disappointed with their play this season. They have given up the third and fourth most goals in the conference, respectively, and have only the draft to look forward to at this point. In the case of the Stars, it will surely be a relief to see Marty Turco’s $5.7 million cap hit come off the books this offseason, however their summer mission will be to find a suitable replacement as backup Kari Lehtonen has proven he cannot be trusted. Anaheim already made a move to shed their biggest goalie expense when they dealt the underperforming Jean-Sebastian Giguere to Toronto just prior to the Olympics. Both teams have a lot of upside, but sufficient tinkering with each roster will be a necessity to ensure success next season.
Final seedings: Dallas 12, Anaheim 13
14 and 15) Columbus Blue Jackets (67 points, 12 games remaining), Edmonton Oilers (49 points, 13 games remaining): There are disappointing seasons, and then there are abject disasters. File 2009/2010 in the latter category for both these clubs. The only upside is that Columbus and Edmonton will likely be picking in the first five picks of a top-heavy draft. It will take a lot more than a single player to turn either of these franchises around, however, as both clubs have many glaring holes.
Final seedings: Columbus 14, Edmonton 15