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Olympics?

In Hockey on December 29, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Coming this evening – Ryan “Wales” Wagman makes his predictions for the Canadian and US men’s hockey teams for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

For the USA, Brian Burke and company will select the following team:

Goalies
Ryan Miller
Tim Thomas
Jonathan Quick – more experience as a starter, although Anderson would not be an upset
Defencemen
Brian Rafalski
Ryan Suter
Erik Johnson
Brooks Orpik
Mike Komisarek
Jack Johnson
Paul Martin
If/when Martin proves unable to play, Ryan Whitney gets the 7th spot instead. The US may as well pick the injured guy and need to replace him (assuming that’s who they really want). It beats picking your second choice and boxing yourself into a corner if the guy you wanted is suddenly available and playing well. At this point, I think Martin won’t be ready, but I like Burke to take the “chance” that he will be.
Forwards
Zach Parise
Paul Stastny
Phil Kessel
Patrick Kane
Bobby Ryan
Dustin Brown
Ryan Malone
Jamie Langenbrunner
Ryan Kesler
Joe Pavelski
Chris Drury
Ryan Callahan
Kyle Okposo

Not too much exciting among the forward selections. Gomez gets snubbed as Burke takes more toughness with the last two youthful spots in Callahan and Okposo. Modano should not be representing his country at this stage of his career.

Stevie Y has a few more tough choices to make. According to me, this is what he’ll do with those choices:

Goalies
Martin Brodeur
Marc-Andre Fleury
Roberto Luongo – in this order
Defencemen
Scott Niedermayer
Chris Pronger
Shea Weber
Dan Boyle
Duncan Keith
Brent Seabrook
Mike Green
Niedermayer is overrated, but proven at the biggest stages the NHL has to offer. He makes the team. Bouwmeester is overrated but has not proven himself at the top levels, barring a few nice World Championships in ’03 and ’04. He doesn’t make the cut.
Regehr has a good chance to make it, but he hasn’t really had that great of a season, with an adjusted +/- of -1.21 while playing the opposition’s 2nd line, as his quality of competition score as currently barely above average (0.032). Drew Doughty has also been very good, but should still be seen as an underdog.
Forwards
Sidney Crosby
Ryan Getzlaf
Dany Heatley
Jarome Iginla
Patrick Marleau
Rick Nash
Corey Perry
Jordan Staal
Joe Thornton
Jonathan Toews
Brenden Morrow
Shane Doan
Martin St. Louis
Smyth would likely have been chosen ahead of either Down or St. Louis had he not missed so much time to injury. I am on the Jordan Staal bandwagon. Better right now than brother Eric. Like with the blueline pairing of Keith and Seabrook, Team Canada will benefit from the instant chemistry given them by the Shark line of Marleau, Thornton and Heatley.  They are all worthy players having worthy seasons. This team also works from a positional balance standpoint, with 5 centremen along with 8 wingers. One possible change I could easily see occurring is for Team Canada to slot of the the centres on the wing and drop either Doan or St. Louis in exchange for Brad Richards, who has been having a wonderful season with a rejuvenated Dallas Stars team.
I look forward to your feedback.
Team Canada Postscript: I nailed the goalies (surprised?), and was 6 for 7 on the blueline. Yzerman selected the young Doughty over the Green, Mike. Not a shock, as I did think he was worthy of heavy consideration. 10 out of 13 for the forwards – I got the wrong Staal, as well as the wrong Richards. Also, I had them taking Shane Doan over Patrice Bergeron. The guess here is that Yzerman believes that Eric Staal`s early-season injury-fueled slump is an aberration, while young Jordan`s two-way play can be handled by Bergeron. Between Perry, Getzlaf and Morrow, Doan`s role as a power-forward may have been superfluous. As for Mike over Brad Richards, they may have not wanted to invite more than one player (Bergeron) who was not invited to the orientation camp in July.
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Philadelphia Dilemma

In Hockey on December 26, 2009 at 7:51 pm
Carter or Richards?
In late November, I wrote about Vesa Toskala’s magic glove, which has an amazing ability to force oncoming pucks to swerve past, finding twine instead of leather.
Since then, the nominative starting goalie for the Leafs, Jonas “Gustavsson the Polar Bear from Central Park” (I’ll call him Monster once he proves it in the NHL) underwent a second heart ablation surgery, forcing Toskala to take up the starting reins once more. In eight subsequent appearances, Toskala went 4-3-0, stopping 173 shots and failing to stop 25, for tidy .874 save percentage, at least somewhat proving my point. He seemed to be making me look bad in his first two starts after Gustavsson went down, with strong starts at home against the Thrashers the Islanders and after a mediocre appearance against the Bruins, another strong start against the Washington Alexanders, before he struggled mightily against the Coyotes and then tanked in Buffalo, stopping only 6 of 10 (if you haven’t seen the Lydman goal, click here) before giving way to a returning Gustavsson.
On December 7th, I profiled the surprisingly surging Thrashers. That very night they were beaten by the aforementioned Toskala 5-2. Since writing the article, they have endured more negative speculation concerning the future home of Ilya Kovaluchuk and played nine games including the stinker in Toronto. They only managed to pick up 7 points in that span, being outscored 35-28. Their playoff chances have thus taken a big hit, as they now sit a single point ahead of the 10th in conference ranked Panthers.
So I’m 1 out of 2 so far. Putting my credibility to the test, I will now explore the surprisingly bad Philadelphia Flyers. Although they have only been outscored by 5 on the season, they sit 13th in the East, tied on points with the Leafs (although with 2 games to play on them). They were the first (and thus far, only) team to fire their head coach, as they replaced John Stevens, in his 4th year at the helm, with 2005-06 Stanley Cup winner Peter Laviolette, a coach generally regarded as very good, in spite of his failure to lead the Hurricanes back to the Playoffs in the 2 full seasons he was in charge after their one shot at glory.
Laviolette’s honeymoon has been turbulent, with the Flyers only picking up 7 points in their first 11 games under his watch, including embarrassing performances against the Capitals and against the Penguins. It’s too early to give up on a new coach, and much more speculation has been focused on shaking up the roster. Some of the names being bandied about, particularly Daniel Breire and Simon Gagne, would seem to have little trade value, as they both have bloated contracts and lengthy injury rap sheets.
More speculation seems justifiably placed in the possibilities incorporated in the trades of either captain Mike Richards and former 46-goal scorer, Jeff Carter, who is currently on pace for a disappointing follow-up season with only 27 goals. So who would they be better off trading?
First the commitments:
-Richards is locked up until 2020/21 with a cap hit of 5.75million. This includes three upcoming seasons with salaries of $7 million and more, and two ‘winding-down’ years of $3 million each at the contract’s tail-end.
-Jeff Carter will receive $5.5 million next season, and then will get some leverage as an unrestricted free agent.
-Both players are 24 years old. Both have excellent pedigree, sa the Flyers took both in the bountiful 1st round of 2003’s NHL entry draft, Carter 12th overall and Richards taken 24th.
-Prior to this season, the two young veterans have put up similar career numbers – 121 goals and 239 points in 334 games for Carter and 90 goals and 243 points in 317 games for Richards. Carter is more a physical specimen at 6-3′, 200 (Richards stands only 5-11′, though solid at 195lbs). Richards wears a big “C” on his chest.
-Puck Prospectus, in their preseason Vukota rankings had both players as projected to have stellar seasons, with Richards projected to score 79 points with a goals-versus-threshold score (measuring overall ice contributions) of 17.1 (11th in the NHL) and Carter to contribute 76 points and a goals-versus-threshold mark of 16.7 (12th in the league).
Both have thus far disappointed. Trying to look behind the numbers, I can only report that the locker-room has been widely reported to be divided, between some younger players following in the example of their youthful captain, while others taking the reins from future Hall of Famer, Chris Pronger, acquired on draft day last June from the Anaheim Ducks. Pronger has publicly stated that the team is Richards’ but few would be surprised to see that change now.
Focusing on the numbers, I turn to Gabriel Desjardins’ very helpful Behind the Net. One interesting stat is relative +/-, a solid improvement on raw +/-, as this measures the player’s contributions as compared to his team as a whole. Has struggled mightily here this year, currently sitting at -0.94. Richards is decent at +0.8.
One possible explanation for this discrepancy is in their teammates while they are each on the ice. As both are centres, they don’t often play together. As such, Richards gets a quality of teammate score of 0.313 (very few players get a score of 0.5). Carter’s linemates are much more mediocre, compiling a score of 0.027. Richards plays with an up-and-comer like Claude Giroux, while Carter represents promise when playing with Scott Hartnell and Briere.
These numbers tell me that what Richards has thus-far achieved on the ice in 2009-10, has been achieved with the best help a Flyer can get. Carter’s struggles, in comparison, have come under much tougher circumstances.
Looking at more basic numbers, I want to focus for a moment on shooting percentage. everything I know about shooting percentage (and granted, it isn’t much) tells me that shooting percentage will regress to the mean. Forwards with good skill will score approximately 10-12% of the time and defensemen will sound the horn 3-6% of the time. This was illustrated to great effect by Dallas Stars centre Mike Ribeiro, who lit the lamp on over 25% of his shots in 2007-08, and then tumble to a far more pedestrian 13.5% the following season.
My point now? Richards scored on 12.6% of his shots last year, and sits at 13.9% now. He is scoring at, or very close, to the rate we would expect of him.
On the other hand, Carter has gone from scoring 46 goals last year on 13.5% pf his shots, to 12 goals while succeeding on only 7.5% of his shots. Unless Carter is hiding some arm injury, sapping him of his strength, we can expect his success rate to rise.
There are no doubt many other factors that may go into any potential trade scenarios. Differing scouting reports both internal and external. Public opinion about players as civic institutions. The following opinion is merely the best guess given the snapshots we have observed. If Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren can get a decent return for Mike Richards, he should. Maybe something can be worked out with Tampa, from where countless rumours about the future of franchise icon, Vincent Lecavalier, have spewed. Perhaps Richards could be packaged with Simon Gagne (contract expiring after next season) for Lecavalier and the disappointing duo of Lukas Krajicek and Alex Tanguay*. Like Richards, Lecavalier is locked up long-term, with his contract expiring after earning $1M in the 2019/20 season, while Krajicek and Tanguay will be let free after this year.
* As far as cap hits go, that would send a commitment of $11.702M to Philadelphia and $11M to Tampa.

This would not give the Flyers the solid goaltending they need and have been sorely lacking since Ray Emery tore an abdominal muscle, but it might help balance out the roster and allow Laviolette to re-mould the team’s on-ice leadership muddle.

Wales Profile: Atlanta Thrashers

In Hockey on December 7, 2009 at 3:37 am

As the 2009-10 season slowly unfolds, plenty of virtual and actual ink has been spilled extolling the virtues of the surprise teams of the NHL’s Western Conference; The Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes and the continued resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks. But I’ll leave those hosannas for Bill Duke to sing in the Campbell section of this humble slice of the net.

As I am here to focus on the Wales (Eastern) half of the NHL, I will start by pointing out the current top four spots in the conference are being held by the same four clubs who finished last year with one ice advantage in the 1st round o the playoffs – The Capitals, Penguins, Bruins and Devils (right now, in that order). Not much surprise there. The top three were selected to finish as such by Puck Prospectus in their pre-season preview, while the Devils were viewed as a very close 6th.

An interesting story lurks behind the at least temporary rise of the other four current playoff aspirants (although I haven’t yet thought up a suitable angle for the Sens), my most recent article truly brought to the forefront the heightened level of play by one of the league’s Southern contingent, the Atlanta Thrashers. With the league’s 6th most efficient power play and 2nd most effective penalty killing units, John Anderson’s Thrashers may be emerging the Eastern answer to the San Jose Sharks, with stellar play in all common situations. Their 9-2-1 road record helps them overcome a more lacklustre 6-6-2 home mark, a telling rejoinder when noting their 27th-placed ranking in the attendance front, prompting a meagre average attendance of 13,511 through their first 14 home contests. As far as percentage of capacity, that total indicates that the Phillips Arena is only 72.9% full, on average, a figure better only than the presumed lame-duck Phoenix Coyotes (56.2%).

So how are they doing it? Holding back for a moment that their most notable, and highly respected player, standard analytical thinking tells us that a team must be strong between the pipes. To that end, the Thrashers went into the season presuming that Kari Lehtonen, at one time the #2 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, would be their stalwart. Although Lehtonen underwent back surgery in mid-July, at the time, he was expected to be ready for training camp. But training camp came and went, as did the months of October and November, and Lehtonen’s presumed availability is still a matter of general dispute. Instead, the Thrashers have split the chores to a ratio approximating 3:2 between youngster Ondrej Pavelec and resurgent veteran Johan Hedberg. Last year, in more limited playing time, Pavelec and Hedberg were among the worst goalies in the game with cumulative Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT numbers of -5.8 and -13.3 respectively. A new lease on life has Hedberg stopping 93.2 percent of opposing shots, while Pavelec is more than respectable at 91.9%.

Hedberg in particular, is of plenty of socio-hockey-logical interest as a player who seemed to have just about used up all of the grace he had received after leading the 2000-2001 Penguins to the Conference finals as a rookie with only 9 games of NHL experience under his belt (similar to Semyon Varlamov’s emergence last spring). Hedberg followed up that spring with a workhorse 2001-02 season in which he led the league in losses with 34 with otherwise average peripheral numbers and performance. A second full season saw him split tending duties more evenly with the other organizational goalies (Sebastian Caron and JS Aubin) before beginning the journeyman/worst-regular-NHL-goalie phase of his career. Should he keep up this level of performance for another 25-30 games, or even a level approaching Pavelec’s, he may yet be able to continue his career beyond the current season.

Pavelec, on the other hand, was a highly touted youngster drafted in the 2nd round of the 2005 draft (the 3rd goalie selected after Carey Price and Tuukka Rask)out of the Kladno, Czech. Junior ranks. After 2 years tending goal in the QMJHL and two more seasons honing his professional chops with the AHL Chicago Wolves (including cameos with the parent club, Pavelec seems to be coming of age. Between the two of them, current speculation out of Atlanta has the club shopping Lehtonen when he is ready to return.

Moving on to the blueline, we can see the immediate effect of some of the changes made by Thrashers GM Don Waddell over the past two years. In trading out 3 pairing defender Garnet Exelby for Pavel Kubina, they have vastly upgraded their top-4 defenders. The NHL maturation of former 3rd overall pick, Zach Bogosian, alongside that of former 239th overall selection, Tobias Enstrom and the steady play of veteran Ron Hainsey leave the Thrashers with a top-4 that can stand up to nearly any top four in the game. Enstrom, in particular, is quietly blowing away all pre-season projections for his expected output, already compiling 20 points and a plus 10 along with along with an above-average relative plus-minus and facing a similar quality of opponent according to Gabriel Desjardins’ Behindthenet.ca. All NHL predictions must assume health, and this applies to the Thrashers blue-line as much as any single team component in the league. While their top-4 is very strong, and should rightly claim much of the credit stemming from improving team GAA from 3.36 last year (29th) to the current 2.73, the drop between them and the 5-7 defenders (Christoph Schubert, Mark Popovic and Anssi Salmela does not inspire the type of confidence that plays over 20 minutes per game.

On to the elephant in the room. In spite of their early success, most press space devoted to the Thrashers is centred on the contract status of franchise cornerstone and former #1 overall draft choice, Ilya Kovalchuk. Reports vary between an imminent signing with the Thrashers and talk of crazy money to return to Russia. Kovalchuk has averaged greater than a point-per-game since joining the NHL in immediately after being drafted with a high of 98 points (52 goals) in 2005-06. His current pace would match that career high if he does not miss any more games from here on out. I will not predict to know the mind of another man, but judging from his stated desire to play on a winning team, as well as enjoying playing for Atlanta makes me think that he’ll stick around.

Kovalchuk has been benefiting from playing with an imported first line, a union that is likely spurred to greater heights through the ease of communication between himself and fellow Russian Maxim Afinogenov playing the right wing, while Kazakhstan’s own Nik Antropov pivots them. Journeyman turned top-6 forward Rich Peverley has been producing at a pace (1 point-per-game) that overqualifies him for secondary scoring. Vyacheslav Kozlov continues to hold off the advances of time, while young phenom Evander Kane pushes his own clock forward with a solid rookie showing (13 points in 26 games with a +8 and relative +/- of 1.13). It is this author’s belief that retaining the services of Kovalchuk along with the continued emergence of Kane as a top line player might do wonders for the marketability of hockey in a city like Atlanta, combining both excitement and a sociological point of identification.

A somewhat promising point for analysis is the potential for the Thrashers offensive to improve from its current level of relative proficiency. Kovalchuk has missed 6 games so far, while Bryan Little, who broke out with 31 goals last year, has only 2 to this point. Little is still young enough – and talented enough – that we have good reason to believe that last year was not a fluke and finding his touch is only a matter of time, giving the Thrashers another potent scoring weapon.

Looking at their parts in isolation and in sum, I am ready to publicly declare my faith in their ability to finally make an encore trip to the NHL playoffs as long as two conditions are met. First, Kovalchuk should be signed. The sooner the better. Without a contract by the Olympic break would set a large cloud over the team, potentially forcing Waddell to consider trading the superstar for pennies on the dollar. Second, while injuries are an inevitable part of such a physical game like hockey, long-term hurts to any of Kovalchuk, Kubina, Bogosian, Enstrom, or Hainsey could derail any hope of sustained success this season. I think Kane is being handled judiciously enough that any hitting of the proverbial rookie wall should not be too prolonged, while Little will pick up his pace as the season moves forward.

People of Atlanta, it is time to jump on the Thrashers bandwagon.

The Numbers of November

In Hockey on December 5, 2009 at 12:11 am

As we waved goodbye to November, we at The Campbell and The Wales have another opportunity to look at – and maybe dissect a little bit – the special teams numbers throughout the league.

Once more, we are looking at the efficiency of each team in terms of both scoring when on the power play and preventing the opposition from the same achievement. Good power plays would be those that are able to score with relatively little time with the extra skater. Jumping from 13th to 1st overall over the last month is the Columbus Blue Jackets, with a rate improving from 1 PPG every 451.818 seconds all the way up to 1 goal every 375.320 seconds. This improvement is not simply a matter of having a great game, as they topped out with 3 power play goals on the 19th in Dallas, but rather consistent and quick power play efficiency throughout the month, potting 14 man advantage markers in 4413 seconds (just over 73 minutes).

Last month’s top power play finisher, the Vancouver Canucks, stayed relatively steady, currently sitting 4th, requiring 60 extra seconds per power play goal. It seems reasonable to chalk that up to simple regression to the mean. The same can also be said of the trailing end of the list. Last month, the power play efficiency trailer, the Nashville Predators, required a full 817.5 seconds to score with the man advantage. Not only have they improved their scoring to 1 PPG per 622.706 (26th), but the bottom score now, belonging to the St. Louis Blues, is the somewhat more palatable 797.75 seconds between PPG. One other surprising team on the power play is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even with the return of superstar Evgeni Malkin, their efficiency rate dropped from a mid-pack 552.364 down to 27th place at 699.882 – more than a full minor penalty extra between power play goals. I would have to almost assume that as more of their wounded return to action, that number will rise moving forward.

On a league level, the overall power play efficiency has remained remarkably stable, moving only a fraction of a second, from 521.606 through October only, to 521.165 between power play goals through all games played by the end of November.

Looking at the opposite end of the calculation, San Jose has the leagues most efficient penalty killers, going 757.5 seconds between power play goals against, nearly a full minute better than the runner-up….wait for it…Atlanta Thrashers! Not only were the Thrasher extremely tight-fisted on the penalty kill throughout November, allowing only 7 power play goals against in over 5795 seconds, but they also managed to score twice while killing time. Buffalo and Chicago round out the top four, after which the numbers begin to coalesce. Still holding the bottom on the defensive ledger are the Toronto Maple Leafs, allowing an opponents power play goal once every 372.308 seconds. Perhaps Leafs fans can take solace in the knowledge that, as pathetic as that number is, it is still a damn sight better than the 284.059 efficiency total they put up through October. Considering the heavier goaltending burden placed on the shoulders of the Monster in November, that is probably more than just regression. They may yet escape the basement. Another notable improvement was put forth by the Bruins, from a lowly kill efficiency score of 405.9 all up to 637.867 and 5th overall.

Heading in the opposite direction is the penalty kill of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Mid-pack through October at 525.222, they have slumped to 28th at 417.320, having surrendered multiple power play goals on four occasions last month, including 3 twice (in Anaheim and in Dallas). It could be that playing 9 out of 14 games on the road have had an adverse effect on their penalty kill, while somehow not effecting their bottom line as much, as they still managed to take 7 games to overtime last month, accumulating a total of 16 points altogether.

And to tie this all together, let’s combine the numbers, subtracting the power play score from the penalty kill score for our aggregate special teams scores through November. Ideally, teams would want numbers below zero, indicating that they are scoring power play goals faster than they surrender them when penalty killing.

Here goes:

1)  SJ    -363.981
2)  Atl    -258.124
3)  Chi    -237.929
4)  Buf    -192.004
5)  NYR    -188.387
6)  NJ    -111.188
7)  Phi    -85.066
8)  Clm    -79.960
9)  Pho    -64.248
10) Ana    -43.596
11) Van    -39.661
12) Bos    -32.067
13) Cal    -25.874
14) Ott    -7.133
15) Col    4.153
16) Was    4.652
17) Dal    22.585
18) Edm    28.727
19) Min    34.508
20) Det    49.803
21) LA    50.583
22) Pit    76.529
23) NYI    87.662
24) Tor    92.010
25) TB    125.013
26) Mon    127.866
27) Nas    132.412
28) StL    167.809
29) Car    326.577
30) Fla    328.027