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A Final Look at Special Teams in 2009-10

In Hockey on September 5, 2010 at 4:29 pm

By Ryan Wagman

As I’m sure many of you have waited with bated breath for my final special teams rankings for the 2009-10 season, I would like to start off with an apology. With the post-season, comes a certain malaise, born of the knowledge that no matter how much we can write about hockey, think about hockey or argue/fight about it, there is no hockey. Just backroom drama.
So, too, is there backroom drama within this writer’s life. Since my last entry, my job description has changed drastically, I took on other hockey writing projects, first with draftamerica.com and now with premiumscouting.com, and I managed to squeeze in a short vacation in San Francisco with the Mrs.
Now tomorrow is Labour Day and many pre-season hockey rags are already out. My former colleagues at Hockey Prospectus (soon-to-be-formerly Puck Prospectus) are about to release their first ever annual.So without any further ado, (and no real commentary) I give to you last season’s final rankings.
Power Play Efficiency (the average time between goals when up by a man. Two man advantages are double-counted in time)
1) Was 382.266
2) SJ 449.877
3) Mon 453.719
4) Van 463.319
5) Phi 476.621
6) LA 476.797
7) Ana 477.190
8) TB 513.841
9) Det 522.593
10) NYR 534.200
11) Dal 535.525
12) Min 536.328
13) NJ 536.765
14) Clm 549.800
15) Col 551.429
16) Chi 560.442
17) Pit 568.643
18) Buf 571.945
19) Edm 583.115
20) StL 584.226
21) Car 594.589
22) Ott 595.449
23) Bos 612.818
24) Nas 620.213
25) Cal 653.023
26) Atl 653.520
27) NYI 658.061
28) Pho 686.000
29) Fla 700.467
30) Tor 758.523
Penalty Kill Efficiency (counted as with the Power Play, but in reverse)
1) StL 784.044
2) Buf 772.816
3) Bos 760.838
4) Chi 715.737
5) SJ 657.420
6) Ott 648.980
7) Pit 646.404
8) Pho 641.816
9) NYR 640.300
10) Det 627.302
11) Mon 594.642
12) NJ 592.000
13) Cal 585.778
14) Phi 585.649
15) Atl 582.561
16) Min 567.113
17) Van 543.220
18) Clm 531.738
19) LA 517.305
20) TB 511.831
21) Car 511.532
22) Col 503.083
23) Fla 485.793
24) Ana 473.821
25) Was 472.851
26) Edm 451.701
27) Dal 431.338
28) Nas 428.103
29) NYI 407.239
30) Tor 384.123
And the combined ranking, being the power play efficiency number, minus the penalty kill efficiency number. The lower the number, the better the organizations’ special teams were last season. This is as it is desirable to go longer between power play goals allowed by your team’s penalty killers, while you hope your team can score power play goals as often as possible
1) SJ -207.543
2) Buf -200.871
3) StL -199.818
4) Chi -155.295
5) Bos -148.020
6) Mon -140.923
7) Phi -109.028
8) NYR -106.100
9) Det -104.709
10) Was -90.585
11) Van -79.901
12) Pit -77.761
13) NJ -55.235
14) Ott -53.531
15) LA -40.508
16) Min -30.785
17) TB 2.010
18) Ana 3.369
19) Clm 18.062
20) Pho 44.184
21) Col 48.346
22) Cal 67.245
23) Atl 70.959
24) Car 83.057
25) Dal 104.187
26) Edm 131.414
27) Nas 192.110
28) Fla 214.674
29) NYI 250.822
30) Tor 374.400
OK, so I lied about the commentary. Now would be a good time to look at how my special team efficiency socres differ from the common version’s results.
Let’s start with the power play numbers. The traditional measures also had the Capitals as sporting the game’s best power play, clicking 25.2% of the time. That worked out to be over 15% better than the cluster of teams between 20.9-21.8%.
In that case, we agree again, as Washington’s power play score was also just over 15% better than the 2nd-ranked Sharks’ unit. At the other end of the spectrum, the traditional system does not quite appreciate how bad the lowly Leafs’ power play was last year. Scoring 14% of the time, they seemingly finished just below Florida, a difference of less than 1.5%. Looking at the game on a mor granular level, as I have attempted to do, shows the Buds to have fallen behind the Panthers by a much wider margin, being 7.65% less effective than Florida. The actual rankings don’t vary too much between the traditional system and mine, unless you’re a Sharks fan (move from 4th-2nd) or support the Rangers (13th-10th), but the granularity is interesting.
On the penalty kill, the changes in raw ranking are minimal, generally being the difference between placing in tight clusters, such as the Coyotes dropping from 6th in the traditional method to 8th here. They were in a cluster with the Rangers, Senators and Penguins that was separated by 0.4% in the traditional method and 8.5 seconds of efficiency here. Unlike the power play, there was not a single team that breezed past its peers like the Capitals. The Blues, leaders on both forms of measurements, were 1% more efficient than the 2nd-ranked Sabres in the traditional method and the same here. On the bottom, the Leafs (again – that must have been historically bad among special teams), were around 2% less likely to kill a penalty than the 29th ranked Islanders in the traditional method, while the granular data showed that they were, in fact, nearly 6% less efficient at killing penalties than the Isles, or any other team.
Looking at the universal special teams’ rankings, I never could have expected such a spread between best and worst of 581.943. Even if we remove the Leafs (I wish I could forget), we still end up with a number of 458.365. In seconds, that’s over 7.5 minutes of efficiency difference between the great San Jose and the poor Islanders. Nearly ten minutes if we include the Maple Leafs.
Before the 2010-11 season gets underway, let’s ponder the numbers and compare them to this summer’s transactions – did your team adjust based on their weaknesses in special teams play? How responsible was Chris Mason for the Blues’ ability to kill penalties? Evgeny Nabokov for the Sharks? Will a full season of Ilya Kovalchuk raise the Devils’ power play? Will a full season of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel and a healthy Mike Komisarek and the absence of Vesa Toskala improve the fortunes of the Maple Leafs? I could go on, but you get the picture.
I hope to continue to track special teams efficiencies during 2010-11, to see if we can learn more, and frankly, because no one else is doing it.
Happy hockey everyone.
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Draft Day – Final Rankings

In Hockey on June 25, 2010 at 8:40 am

Today is the day when boys become men, amateurs become professionals and hockey becomes Hollywood. I have spent the last two months compiling as much information as I could on our future heroes, and am proud to present here a composite ranking list that should reflect the ideas of the best and the brightest out there today.

Enjoy the show!

1 Hall, Taylor
2 Seguin, Tyler
3 Fowler, Cam
4 Gormley, Brandon
5 Gudbranson, Erik
6 Connolly, Brett
7 Niederreiter, Nino
8 Johansen, Ryan
9 Granlund, Mikael
10 Forbort, Derek
11 Tarasenko, Vladimir
12 Burmistrov, Alexander
13 Pysyk, Mark
14 Watson, Austin
15 Etem, Emerson
16 Skinner, Jeff
17 Kuznetsov, Evgeny
18 Bjugstad, Nick
19 Merrill, Jonathon
20 Sheahan, Riley
21 Campbell, Jack
22 Pitlick, Tyler
23 Schwartz, Jaden
24 Howden, Quinton
25 McFarland, John
26 McIlrath, Dylan
27 Toffoli, Tyler
28 Rensfeldt, Ludvig
29 Coyle, Charlie
30 Bennett, Beau
31 Tinordi, Jarred
32 Kabanov, Kirill
33 Galiev, Stanislav
34 Petrovic, Alexander
35 Nelson, Brock
36 Pickard, Calvin
37 Jarnkrok, Calle
38 Weal, Jordan
39 Straka, Petr
40 Hishon, Joey
41 Hayes, Kevin
42 Spooner, Ryan
43 Ross, Bradley
44 Zucker, Jason
45 Pulkkinen, Teemu
46 Faulk, Justin
47 Martindale, Ryan
48 Johns, Stephen
49 Telegin, Ivan
50 Nemeth, Patrik
51 Biega, Danny
52 Kuehnhackl, Tom
53 MacKenzie, Matt
54 Larsson, Johan
55 Kitsyn, Maxim
56 Knight, Jared
57 Culek, Jakub
58 McKegg, Greg
59 Marincin, Martin
60 Beukeboom, Brock
61 Holl, Justin
62 Bournival, Michael
63 Smith-Pelly, Devante
64 Hamilton, Curtis
65 Sundher, Kevin
66 Melchiori, Julian
67 Alt, Mark
68 Gauthier-Leduc, Jerome
69 Brickley, Connor
70 Gardiner, Max
71 Donskoi, Joonas
72 Basaraba, Joe
73 Smith, Dalton

Profiling Top Prospects

In Hockey on June 20, 2010 at 9:49 am

The following profiles were originally published on draftamerica.com in a different format. The players are listed in terms of their ranking as of mid-season. I will publish an updated draft list early this week in preparation of next weekend’s NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles. Without further ado, these are the names to watch next week, and why:

Taylor Hall

LW, Windsor Spitfires
Born Nov. 14, 1991  Draft Day Age=18.7
Ht/Wt…  6-1/185,   Shoots Left
2010 Regular Season: 57 games: 40 goals, 66 assists, 106 points, +46, 56 PIM

Seen as the favorite to be drafted at the top of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft for at least two years, Hall has put together a stellar draft-year to erase many concerns that he would slip behind Tyler Seguin this June. Hall was Team Canada’s only draft-year player at the WJC where he finished 2nd on a star-studded lineup (and 3rd overall in the tournament with 6 goals and 6 assists in 6 games. Hall is able to elevate his game above the crowd in large part due to his excellent skating ability highlighted by top-notch acceleration, allowing him to create plays before his opponent has even set their legs. More than skill, Hall excels as his desire to be the best does not allow him to coast on talent alone. Of course, that’s not all. Hall has what is widely considered to be an NHL-ready shot and release, great on-ice vision and outstanding hockey instincts.

On the downside, he could stand to gain 10 pounds, and do a bit more work in the defensive zone. But whoever drafts him, will do so looking for a 1st-line left winger. Hall should have a few more chances to make a good final impression, with his Windsor Spitfires beginning the OHL playoffs as the top seed in the Western Conference. A run to the Memorial Cup should cement Hall’s place as the first overall selection as long as the team drafting first is not dead-set on picking a centre.

Tyler Seguin
C, Plymouth Whalers
Born Jan. 31, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.4
Ht/Wt…  6-1/186,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  63 games: 48 goals, 58 assists, 106 points, +17, 54 PIM

Seguin (Say-gen) has spent of this year battling with Taylor Hall for the claim to be the top draft eligible prospect in the hockey world and he has not disappointed. In fact, the two 18-year-olds tied for the OHL scoring championship with 106 points each. Seguin, long known as this year’s top playmaker to Hall’s sniper, has actually out-goaled Hall 48-40, albeit in 6 extra games played. Whereas Hall was seen as the potential top pick as far back as 2008, Seguin has steadily raised his profile from the day when Plymouth chose him 9th in his OHL draft year. Playing with Plymouth meant that Seguin had to do more on his own, and he consistently rises to the challenge, playing substantial minutes for the Whalers in all situations (even strength, power play and penalty kill) and takes pride in his two-way game, as well as his strength in the faceoff.

There are many who feel that Seguin has the higher upside of the two skaters, in that he may truly take off once he is given more freedom to focus on the traditional offensive responsibilities of a first-line centre. Seguin has also been a team leader at most of his stops, from wearing the “C” for Plymouth, to his role on the national stage with Team Canada at the 2009 Ivan Hlinka Tournament or in this year’s top prospects game, lending weight to the comparisons he has received to Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman. If the team picking first wants a Centre, Seguin will be the guy. He’ll fall no later than 2nd overall.

Cam Fowler
D, Windsor Spitfires
Born Dec. 6, 1991  Draft Day Age=18.6
Ht/Wt…  6-2/190,   Shoots Left
2010 Regular Season:  55 games: 8 goals, 47 assists, 55 points, +38, 14 PIM

A teammate of Taylor Hall’s, Fowler left the vaunted US National Development program in Ann Arbor and a chance to play in the NCAA to suit up for Windsor in the OHL and the chance to play in probably the most competitive amateur hockey league in the world. Fowler has nearly lived up to the hype in his first season with the Spitfires, scoring at a point per game clip in helping Hall lead Windsor to the top seed in the Western Conference and a good chance to play for the Memorial Cup. Fowler is a plus skater and puck mover with a long reach. He has great ice vision and a hard slap shot that he can keep down and in play. Like most defensemen his age, he could use more strength, but his frame suggests that it will come soon. As seen by his low penalty minute total, Fowler is not considered a very physical defender and has been noted to defer to more experienced teammates (such as 2009 1st rounder Ryan Ellis) on more than one occasion. In that sense, Fowler is not everyone’s idea of a top pair blue-liner.

While Hall and Seguin are near locks to be the top two off the board in June, Fowler, once seen as a potential threat to the top, is now in danger of falling (not out of the top ten, but falling). In the minds of some, Fowler was hurt by simply not standing out at this year’s big showcase events in the CHL Top Prospect Game or in the World Junior Champinship, where Fowler had only 2 assists as the US took Gold and was overshadowed by much less heralded teammates like John Ramage and Jake Gardiner.

Brandon Gormley
D, Moncton Wildcats
Born Feb. 8, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.4
Ht/Wt…  6-2/190,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  58 games: 9 goals, 34 assists, 43 points, +31, 54 PIM
Gormley began his Junior career with very high expectations as the first overall pick in the QMJHL covering Quebec and Eastern Canada) draft in 2008 as a 16-year-old from Murray River, P.E.I (hometown of Brad Richards). Gormley did not disappoint, maturing to become one of the top prospects in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft and a serious threat to be the first defenseman chosen. Used to playing with players up to 3 years older than him, Gormley took on a big role with the Wildcats immediately and has seen his status continue to rise in his draft year, nearly doubling his offensive output.

A strong two-way defender, Gormley has seen his offensive end play come on in leaps and bounds as he is more able to take advantage of his mobility, smooth skating and exemplary ice vision. Of course, he also has a booming shot indicating that he will be able to man the point. Gormley will get to extend his season a little longer as Moncton enters the QMJHL playoffs as the third seed and look to make a strong push for a spot in the Memorial Cup tournament. The intelligent defender has also earned accolades for his play in his own zone and his ability to control the gaps. The complete defenseman, Gormley should be able to combine his intelligence for the game with his obvious skills to be a blueline mainstay for years to come for the team smart enough to draft him.

Brett Connolly
RW, Prince George Cougars
Born May 2, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.1
Ht/Wt…  6-2/181,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  16 games: 10 goals, 9 assists, 19 points, -3, 8 PIM

Connolly has seen his stock suffer this year, and if you want to know why, check out his stat line below and to the right. He’s only played 16 games this year due to an injury. He originally hurt one of his hips last summer at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial and later hurt the other while overcompensating the first injury. The fact he is still rated this high is a testament to the raves he drew in his age 17 season with the Cougars when he scored 30 goals in 65 games and earning the CHL Rookie of the Year honours. His early success was thought to come from playing with Tampa Bay prospect Dana Tyrell, but an injury to his older linemate saw Connolly continue his stellar play and zoom up watch lists for this season.

The offensive talent must hope that his ability to suit up in a handful of games at season’s end will help convince scouts and GMs that he has not lost his scoring flair, awesome shot and world-class offensive positioning and that pre-draft physicals sign off on the talented, if mysterious winger. A clean bill of health could see Connolly keep his standing as a top-10, if not top-5 player. Remaining doubts could cause him to plummet.

Erik Gudbranson
D, Kingston Frontenacs
Born Jan. 7, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.5
Ht/Wt…  6-3/195,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  41 games: 2 goals, 21 assists, 23 points, +11, 68 PIM

Another top prospect to lose significant playing (and developmental) time to health concerns in his draft year, Gudbranson at least suffered from an illness that, now that he is fully recovered, should not effect him in the least going forward; Gudbranson missed over 20 games and the OHL Top Prospects game while recovering from mononucleosis.

Tall and rangy, with ample room to fill out his frame, Gudbranson is also a very strong and fast skater. Gudbranson, coached by former NHL All Star Doug Gilmour at Kingston is known as a very smart player who can fulfill top pairing blue-liner duties on both ends of the ice as he is both physical and a good puck mover. Although the Frontenacs were knocked out of the OHL playoffs in the first round by the favoured Mississauga squad, Gudbranson probably helped his stock with a number of very strong performances keeping his team in the hunt until the end. Many, including the experts at the Central Scouting Bureau now believe that Gudbranson may be the top defenseman in this year’s draft and he should not be viewed as any lower than third among eligible blue-liners.

Kirill Kabanov
LW, Moncton Wildcats
Born Jul. 16, 1992  Draft Day Age=17.11
Ht/Wt…  6-3/176,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  22 games: 10 goals, 13 assists, 23 points, +4, 34 PIM

Perhaps Kabanov is amateur hockey’s closest thing to a player with million dollar talent and a ten cent head, his stock has fallen heavily in his draft year and most experts doubt he will still be taken in the first round at all. But if he does fall, it will likely not have much to do with his hockey playing ability. Before this season began, many pundits were calling Kabanov the most hyped junior-aged player out of Russia since the days of Ovechkin and Malkin. Tall and lean, Kabanov is an explosive skater with excellent stick handling ability that allows him to dazzle at high speeds, leading to a number of embarrassed defenders, deked out of their jock straps. While he will need to beef up before going pro, Kabanov is not afraid of playing a physical brand of hockey when required.

Even earlier, though, there were questions about Kabanov’s commitment level. Both on and off the ice, he skates to his own tune. Originally a member of Moscow Spartak, Kabanov was traded to Ufa Salavat (KHL), which triggered an out clause in his contract which allowed the youngster to follow his hockey dreams to Canada to suit up for the Wildcats, settled after a dispute brought to the IIHF. With a draft year riddled by a wrist injury, and after being a healthy scratch for Moncton during the early rounds of the QMJHL playoffs, Kabanov was allowed to return to Russia to participate in the U-18 World Championships. Yet within days of arriving in Russia, Kabanov was removed from the national team in a mysterious move, claimed by some to be due to his attitude as being a star, by others as a case of Kabanov quitting on the team and by others as a young man being blacklisted by his homeland for preferring Moncton over Salavat. On talent alone, Kabanov is a top-10 pick. How teams weight his off-ice actions will determine how close his draft slot matches his talent level.

Mikael Granlund
C, HIFK Helsinki
Born Feb. 26, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.4
Ht/Wt…  5-10/176, Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  43 games: 13 goals, 27 assists, 40 points, 2 PIM
From the beginning of his draft year and up through his inclusion in Finland’s entry in this year’s U-18 World Championships in Belarus, Granlund has been the near unanimous choice for the top skater to come out of Europe this year. Many scouts are also of a mind that Granlund may be the best talent to ever come out of Finland, very heady praise for a country with super-stars such as the Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne and the Koivu brothers among their ranks. Granlund is an elite playmaker and skater, who, playing at age 18 in the Finnish Elite League against players many years older and more physically mature, has been largely able to negate his size disadvantage. In fact, his lack of size may be his sole drawback at this point.

Granlund, scoring nearly two per game as a Junior, elicited a fair amount of controversy in his native Finland, when his rights were picked up by powerhouse HIFK Helsinki from his native team of Karpat, who were understandably loath to give him up. Despite missing a fair chunk of his first season with the men due to injury, Granlund still impressed mightily with his nearly per-per-game pace. To contrast with a fairly recent high draft pick forward who played in Finland’s top league in his draft year (there weren’t many), Sean Bergenheim scored only 4 points in his 28 games as an under-ager in the Finnish Elite League in 2001-02. Similarly, Mikko Koivu, drafted one year earlier, scored only a single point in 21 games for TPS Turku before being drafted 6th overall by the Wild.

The playmaking Granlund has exceptional skating ability and hockey dexterity who sees the ice extremely well and has a knack at creating plays for his linemates. He also has a strong wrist shot. His hands are soft, but he can play with a bit of grit and sandpaper when he has to. If he is teamed with bigger wingers who can create some space for him, Granlund can be a genuine first line centre. He is simply one of the most talented players eligible for this year’s draft.

Mark Pysyk

D, Edmonton Oil Kings
Born Jan. 11, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.5
Ht/Wt…  6-2/178,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  48 games: 7 goals, 17 assists, 24 points, -19, 47 PIM

Mark Pysyk may have the total package NHL team’s look for in a steady top-4 defender, bringing a package that includes top flight skating, height and a frame that will to be tougher to play against as he fills out, the ability to man the point on the power play as well as kill penalties. The brainy Pysyk, awarded the top Scholastic player for his Junior Oil Kings (aws well as top defenseman and team MVP) uses his intelligence on the ice with his ability to control the game from the back. Unfortunately, like many of the other top candidates for this year’s draft, Pysyk missed substantial amounts of his draft season due to injury; in Pysyk’s case, a broken ankle suffered in late January caused him to miss the rest of the cellar-dwelling Oil Kings season and potentially hurt his draft stock. As you may have been able to guess with his taking team MVP honours, the Oil Kings were a poor outfit, with or without Pysyk, which likely plays a big role in his largely being out of the draft spotlight even as he may yet be taken with a top-10 selection.

As the 3rd overall choice of the WHL draft in 2007, Pysyk joined his hometown Oil Kings, at the time an expansion franchise. While the Oil Kings have not been able to cement a place as serious contenders at the WHL level in Pysyk’s time with the club, it is through no fault of his own as he has more than lived up to his status as a 16-year-old with his calm and steady play. Pysyk has ample experience playing and succeeding in all game situations. His increased scoring rate (up nearly 50% in points-per-game from the last year) bodes well for his abilities as a puck mover. The team that believes in his ability to improve his skating (perhaps his biggest shortcoming) will have a shutdown defender who handles man-on-man coverage exceptionally well and whose game is expected to suit the professional level very well.

Nino Niederreiter

LW, Portland Winterhawks
Born Sep. 8, 1992  Draft Day Age=17.9
Ht/Wt…  6-2/203,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  65 games: 36 goals, 24 assists, 60 points, 11, 68 PIM

Niederreiter was, for a time the most talked about draft eligible Junior-aged player this year as his solid play for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks was brushed aside by his electrifying performances at the CHL All-Star game (see the video linked here for his incredible shootout goal in the skills competition) and dominance at the World Junior Championships as he led the upstart Swiss squad over the favoured Russians and into the tournament’s quarterfinals. Neiderreiter may be this year’s prototypical power forward, combining top-shelf hockey skills with a level of toughness and size that has some thinking he could be ready sooner than most 2010 draftees to suit up for the NHL team lucky (and smart) enough to draft him in the first half of the first round. Nino is fully expected to gain the distinction as the highest ever drafted Swiss-native, beating out Michel Riesen, drafted 14th overall by the Oilers in 1997.
In his first year playing in the CHL after coming over to the Winterhawks in the Import Draft from small Chur, Switzerland, Niederreiter has won over legions of followers with his play, at turns physical and remarkably deft, with great offensive instincts and steadily improving two-way play. Nino is a solid skater who admittedly tries to pattern his game after Tampa Bay star Vinny Lecavalier, with a lot of shifty movement and an eagerness to battle in the corners, giving and receiving bodychecks. His quick hands and strong shot also help Niederreiter force the play towards the opposition’s goal crease, traits that should help him greatly at the next level.

Vladimir Tarasenko

RW, Sibir Novosibirsk
Born Dec. 13, 1991  Draft Day Age=18.6
Ht/Wt…  5-11/202,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  42 games: 13 goals, 11 assists, 24 points, 18 PIM

For the team least concerned about the difficulties faced in bringing a young player over from the KHL, Tarasenko now seems like the best bet to make it it big if he makes it over the pond. Unlike many young players playing in Russia, Tarasenko played with the men in Russia’s top league, featuring on Novosibirsk’s second line as an 18-year-old. Tarasenko has a nose for the play, with great anticipation coupled with natural aggression. While not a large player, he is still growing and knows how to use his body to help him on the puck and has an improving defensive aspect to his game, often helping his teammates kill penalties.

Tarasenko is seen as a dynamic player, with the offensive acumen to be a top-six NHL forward as he matures. His skating ability is top-of-the-line in terms of both speed and side-to-side agility. His hands are soft and his stickwork is quick allowing him to carry the puck into the zone or into traffic and a quick shot release when the opportunity presents itself. As seen in one of the videos below, he is not afraid to carry the puck all the way to the net. There are some who believe that, if it were not for the inherent difficulties in drafting top Russian prospects, Tarasenko would be discussed with Hall and Seguin for the very top of the draft. As it is, the current level of fear in this area may cause his draft day stock to fall.

John McFarland

C, Sudbury Wolves
Born Apr. 2, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.2
Ht/Wt…  6-0/185,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  64 games: 20 goals, 30 assists, 50 points, -17, 70 PIM

Sometimes small trees grow from large acorns. Such is the status of John McFarland’s amateur career. After failing to be granted Exceptional Player status (as with John Taveras earlier) to gain early entry into the OHL the young phenom was the consensus /1 overall pick in the OHL entry draft in 2008, creating immediate high expectations with the Sudbury Wolves. His play helped the Wolves rise from the Eastern Conference basement, and into the playoffs from the 8th (final) seed in his first year with the team. Unfortunately, that was as high as McFarland could take them, as both of his OHL seasons have culminated in 8th place regular finishes and a first round ouster in the playoffs. Suffice to say that John McFarland has underwhelmed in his OHL career, tantalising with is skill but never living up to the early hype. Scouts still believe that McFarland ranks in the top 5 on skill alone, but that, for a myriad of reasons, he has not been able to put it all together in a package suitable for a top-5 selection.

McFarland is an exceptional skater, with a great wrist shot, the full package of hockey skills and sense and the experience of playing in all hockey situations. But there has always been something to hold him back. Some think the issue is with his desire-level, as he tends to look like he`d rather be somewhere else while on the ice. Others have noted that he does not take full advantage of his teammates, trying to do too much on his own, often to his great detriment. His compete-level often makes his hockey sense drop, as he can lose his positional sense and fail in two-way assignments. Some players of this ilk need to be humbled before they realize what needs to happen to excel at the next level. That may be all that stands between failure to launch and NHL superstardom for the talented, yet enigmatic John McFarland.

Derek Forbort

D, USNTDP
Born Mar. 4, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.3
Ht/Wt…  6-5/198,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  65 games: 5 goals, 23 assists, 28 points, 46 PIM

Currently leading the argument for the best draft eligible player at the prestigious US. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Forbort figures to go in the top half of the first round (if not the top ten) before undertaking a collegiate career at NCAA hockey powerhouse University of North Dakota. In fact, playing alongside other top blueline prospects such as Jarred Tinordi, Jon Merrill, Justin Faulk and Stephen Johns and still managing to overshadow them all regularly may allow Forbort to be drafted higher than anyone expects. Forbort may end up the highest drafted defenseman, period.

The package most obviously starts with his prototype size; he’s very tall and still filling out. His use of that seize on the defensive game is exemplary. His long reach helps him become a great poke-checker, and he is fearless in laying out to block opposing shots on goal. He will also make opposing forwards pay for trying to stand up in front of Forbort’s goalie. Scouts have also commented on Forbort being a great skater, with the obvious caveat, for his size. This certainly helps in his defensive game, as his great backwards skating, in combination with his innate sense for the game allows him to anticipate shots or passes in odd-man rush situations. Forbort is more than just a stay-at-home defensemen, however, as he is lauded for his puck moving skills and extremely hard slapshot from the point which has earned him four power play goals for the USNTDP this year. Forbort projects as a definite top-four defenseman at the next level and any further improvement to his offensive game could see him emerge as a top-pairing blueliner.

Alexander Burmistrov

C, Barrie Colts
Born Oct. 21, 1991  Draft Day Age=18.8
Ht/Wt…  6-0/170,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  62 games: 22 goals, 43 assists, 65 points, 32, 49 PIM

While many NHL teams have expressed fear at drafting Russian players early due to concerns about their ability to sway them over to the NHL, they should have no such worry over Burmistrov. The talented centre has been very clear over the past year that his goal is to play in the NHL, and he was one of the handful of Russian Juniors to make the jump to the CHL for their draft year. In spite of difficulties getting acclimated to a new culture and language, Burmistrov impressed his coaches, teammates and scouts with his willingness to learn the North American game as well as his use of the skills that he brought with him from Mother Russia, namely his superior skating, hockey IQ, vision and passing ability.

His debut season in the was nearly as good as could be imagined, as the Barrie Colts had the best record in the league and made it to the OHL Finals, before falling to the reigning Memorial Cup Champs, the Windsor Spitfires of Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler. Burmistrov was a critical figure on the powerhouse Colts, scoring over 1 point per game, a great sign for an OHL player in his draft year. He consistently impressed with his creativity and reflexes, and all around play, showing a willingness to play physical, even when his opponent held a great size advantage over him. And that brings us to his biggest weakness (outside of Passport fear). Alexander Burmistrov is pretty small. The listed weight above may be more than 10 pounds too generous and he will need to add more muscle before he can take his sublime skills to the next level. But once he does mature physically, the team who drafted him will not have any cause for regret.

Jon Merrill

D, USNDTP
Born Feb. 3, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.4
Ht/Wt…  6-3/198,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  22 games: 1 goals, 8 assists, 9 points, 12 PIM

Another all-around defensemen out of the US NTDP hockey factory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is not much that separates Merrill from the higher-rated defensemen on this list. In fact, thanks to a very strong showing at the recently completed U-18 tournament in Minsk, Belarus, there are scouts who believe that Merrill will go higher than his current position. His NHL size (assuming he fills out his frame), solid skating ability and especially hockey intelligence which he puts to good use in and around the puck. As the quarterback of the American team power play, he was able to show off this skill plenty. Also receiving high grades for his dedication to the game, he can be expected to maximize his natural talents as he moves his career forward, starting with an indeterminate stint with the University of Michigan next season.

Merrill would seem to be the right pick for a team that wants a safe pick on the blueline. Admittedly not blessed with the high-end talent that some others (including teammate Derek Forbort) have, Merrill recognizes that he will have to augment his skills with his mental game, thinking one step ahead of the opposition to succeed. This is already coming to the fore when Merrill is charged with moving the puck, whether carrying past the opposition blueline or pushing it forward with accuracy and force to one of his charging teammates. His intelligence allows him to play above his age, playing with the US U-18 team as a 17-year-old, and being one of two 18 year-old defencemen for the US in the WJC (20 and under) tournament. It seems he has shaken the potential bad rap a mid-season disciplinary suspension may have given him. The rough spots in his defensive game should be ironed out with the higher level coaching he is bound to receive soon.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk
Born May 19, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.1
Ht/Wt…  6-1/176,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  35 games: 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, 10 PIM

Oh, dear. By many accounts one of the top Russian prospects for the 2010 draft, Kuznetsov has recently ensured that he will not be drafted in a position commensurate with his talent as he re-signed with his KHL club for another two years. Bear in mind the stats below come from playing in the KHL, with seasoned pros. On the face of it, that alone may not be enough to cause his stock to plunge, but if his words to be believed, he would not guarantee a willingness to come to North America even after that time. He will, however, partake in the upcoming Draft Combine and plans to be present in Los Angeles. He’ll probably have to wait. Where he could have previously been selected in the top half of the 1st round, he is now more likely to sit until the 3rd round (at least) for a team who can take a risk on the talented Kuznetsov.

Now about the player. Evgeny Kuznetsov is an absolutely explosive skater with great hands enabling him to create wondrous offensive chances. On the other hand, he’s not very big and has a reputation for putting his energies to poor use, such as immature outbursts and needless penalties. He earlier this year gave scouts a reason for considering drafting him very early with a stellar showing at the WJC making the tournament All Star team – the second year in a row Kuznetsov has starred at the prestigious event. His high-end offensive talent will make him a gamble that some team will be happy taking.

Emerson Etem

C, Medicine Hat Tigers
Born June 16, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.0
Ht/Wt…  6-0/194,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  72 games: 37 goals, 28 assists, 65 points, 8, 26 PIM

In discussing Etem, the first comment people have is about his skating. While some find his stride a little awkward and strange, most simply note that he has blazing speed (see the second video clip below). The only prospect may be able to defeat Etem in a race would be Taylor Hall. This may be partially explained by his background. Coming from California, Etem began his love affair with the game as an inline skater. As he takes the game seriously, Etem left home at 14 to play with Minnesoate high school power-house Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Etem also gave up his membership in the vaunted USNTDP for the heightened atmosphere of the WHL with Medicine Hat. He had a stellar debut season, potting a very impressive 37 goals for the Tigers.

Etem also shines with his intangibles as his hard work, on and off the ice have made him a force at the Junior level along the boards and a player coaches can trust. His speed, combined with his great shot release, have made him one of the WHL’s top snipers from his debut at the level. He is also very offensively creative, which combines with his other attributes to make him a very dangerous player to face. His athletic bloodlines (both parents were top-class rowers) and heady, intelligent both portend to his ability to turn his now skills into future on-ice results. His main drawbacks at this point are general tendencies to be less lax in his defensive, especially when it comes to checking the opposition. That said, his aggressive nature on offense suggest that could change.

Quinton Howden

LW, Moose Jaw Warriors
Born Jan. 21, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.5
Ht/Wt…  6-3/183,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  65 games: 28 goals, 37 assists, 65 points, 14, 14 PIM

A fast, big-bodied, power forward type, Howden has earned Moose Jaw’s trust after they traded up in the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft to make the 15-year-old the league’s top selection. He has not only helped orchestrate a quick turn-around for the temporarily struggling Moose Jaw franchise, but his consistent play has almost guaranteed a first round selection at the upcoming NHL Amateur Draft. Howden’s combination of size and skill allow him to be employed as either a top-6 forward, using his offensive weapons (speed, stickhandling, nose for the net) to good effect, or as a third line checker, where his good character and brawn promise a player who is engaged at both ends of the ice.

Perhaps Howden’s most noticeable asset is his skating ability. He accelerates effortlessly, which has often helped his team transition smoothly from the defensive zone into an offensive rush. His soft hands aid in receiving and making those crucial outlet passes. He also turned some heads at the CHL Top Prospect Game, winning the shooting accuracy skill competition. Howden’s stock was further raised by is steady play at the amateur game’s higher levels, as he was recently one of (if not the) best players on the disappointing Canadian Roster at the 2010 World U-18 Championships in Belarus. He is not the most exciting player available in this year’s draft, but he may be the one most prepared for life in the NHL.

Jeff Skinner

C, Kitchener Rangers
Born May 16, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.1
Ht/Wt…  5-10/197,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  64 games: 50 goals, 40 assists, 90 points, 7, 72 PIM

As the second leading scorer in the OHL in his draft year (Bryan Cameron, the one guy ahead of him, was an over-aged player), Skinner was destined to turn some heads. CSS certainly agreed, as Skinner made one of the biggest leaps between their midterm and final draft rankings. There are some who think that CSS still underrates the smallish sniper. Those voices are louder now that Skinner scored an amazing 20 goals in 20 OHL playoff games, before his Kitchener Rangers fell to the eventual Memorial Cup champs from Windsor. Ignoring for a moment his breathtaking goal-scoring prowess and his less-than-ideal size for an NHL forward, many scouts point to Skinner’s toughness as a key element that helps his game play better than his skills may inherently allow – and those skills are pretty good to start with!

Jeff Skinner gets further passing grades for his on-ice vision, something which attributes to his ability to improve the play of his linemates. With his goalscoring exploits, there should be no real question about his offensive ability. His background as a top figure skater speaks to his ability to move his feet on the ice and those 50 regular season and20 post-season goals offer a stark reminder that this is a skater who knows how to finish with a snap shot that some deem NHL-ready. Those who don’t see future greatness in Skinner point out his size (or lack thereof) and, oddly enough, his skating ability. The figure skating past, which should provide him with a weapon as far as dexterity goes, does not necessarily give him the first step quickness that scouts covet. There are likely enough organizations who can see past those limitations and see in Skinner a future top-six forward who production will always outweigh his perceived abilities.

Riley Sheahan

C, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Born Dec. 7, 1991  Draft Day Age=18.7
Ht/Wt…  6-2/200,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  37 games: 6 goals, 11 assists, 17 points, -12, 22 PIM

A rare first-time draft eligible player from the ranks of the NCAA, Sheahan is a big man with great hands, impressive skills with the puck and a good understanding of the game of hockey, demonstrated by his performing in all game situations this year as a freshman. That, in a nutshell, is the positive with Sheahan. Unfortunately for the young center, he has also amassed negatives both on and off the ice this season. First, his overall play with Notre Dame was disappointing for a prospect once considered to be one of the top ten prospects in this draft. Those who want to hold on to their view of Sheahan as a young phenom will blame the system at Notre Dame, which is not known for preparing its players for the NHL, especially offensively as they play a very defense-heavy brand of hockey. Others, turned off by his play, will point to his recent arrest for underage drinking, along with teammate and Anaheim Ducks prospect, Kyle Palmieri.

Whether you are in the optimist or pessimist camp regarding Sheahan, while many of the CHL and USHL prospects were lining up against kids sometimes two years younger, Sheahan was generally one of the youngest players on the ice whenever he played. This fact alone makes his ability to play on the second forward line, taking shifts both on the power play as well as the penalty kill all the more impressive. He was impressed scouts and coaches with his stick work, being not only slick, but more importantly, smart, knowing when to dangle and when to protect, contributing greatly to his ability as a playmaker. The team that selects Sheahan, who may yet drop in the draft if General Managers are not convinced that his off-ice transgression were only a one-time youthful indiscretion, will be rewarded with one of this year’s best all-round players, who just needs some more seasoning to step right into a second or third line spot in the NHL.

Nick Bjugstad

C, Blaine HS (Minn)
Born Jul. 17, 1992  Draft Day Age=17.11
Ht/Wt…  6-5/190,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  25 games: 29 goals, 31 assists, 60 points, 24 PIM

In winning Minnesota’s highly coveted Mr. Hockey award this year, Bjugstad was truly a man among boys. Averaging over one goal and over two points per game for Blaine HS, Bjugstad has fast tracked his education to put himself in position to attend the University of Minnesota next year. This, in comparison to his cohort, Brock Nelson, who will need another year of seasoning in the USHL before skating in the NCAA. One of the biggest complaints among scouts looking at high school prospects is that they are often surrounded by much weaker competition, as Bjugstad would frequently be competing against 14-year-old freshmen, while CHL prospects get to stand in comparison to players aged 16-20. This dichotomy leaves many scouts unsure if his numbers and overall performance are indicative of his true skill level, or from simply being matched up against players much younger, and much smaller than his 6’-5” stature.

Bjugstad often plays much faster than he looks, with great reach and anticipation of the play before him. He displays very good stick and puck handling skills which are expected will help him at the next level. Bjugstad also deservedly gets praise for his level of maturity and determination, as even though he turned down the USNTDP to remain at Blaine, he went the extra mile both to ensure his eligibility for the NCAA next season as well as ensuring he followed the same training and dietary regime the USNTDP would at Ann Arbor. Bjugstad first showed signs of what he might be in his freshman year when his booming shot belied his youth and skinny (at the time) frame. He is expected to continue filling out as he matures and some feel that he will eventually leave the centre position for a spot on the wing. For a team selecting in the middle of the first round and beyond, a patient approach to Bjugstad will reap a tremendous talent down the road.

Stanislav Galiev

C, Saint John Sea Dogs
Born Jan. 17, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.5
Ht/Wt…  6-1/178,   Shoots Right

2010 Regular Season:  67 games: 15 goals, 45 assists, 60 points, +41, 38 PIM

If there’s any Russian prospect who teams should not fear losing to the KHL, it’s Stanislav Galiev. That alone might see him selected ahead of some of his more talented countrymen (yes – I’m referring to Kirill Kabanov here). Galiev left Russia at the age of 16 to suit up for the Indiana Ice of the USHL. Following an impressive season there, the Saint John Sea Dogs made the young center the top pick in the CHL Import Draft for foreign born players. Playing on an older team for each of the last two seasons, scouts have not had the chance to see if Galiev has front line talent, as he’s generally been relegated to the second line. That said, in spite of his numbers, Galiev has shown the skills to produce even more down the road.

As is, Galiev is a very talented player. He has sharp offensive instincts allowing to find the open man, or an opening seam for his team to generate offense. He can also take advantage of an opportunity for himself, finding openings in the defense to drive shots to the net. He’s a smart stickhandler and strong skater, with excellent acceleration. As shown in two of the videos linked below, Galiev uses his relative size to gain position in the offensive zone and isn’t afraid to play in the dirty areas of the ice. Willing to play in his own zone, Galiev still has some room for improvement in that area, although he certainly shows the drive to succeed there as well. Wherever he ends up, Galiev represents a good blend of high upside with many projecting great improvement from him once he is able to settle in at a given level of play, and a high floor, as his future employers should be secure in the knowledge that he will not be returning to Russia anytime soon.

Jaden Schwartz

C, Tri City Storm
Born Jun. 25, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.0

Ht/Wt…  5-10/180,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  60 games: 33 goals, 50 assists, 83 points, -6, 18 PIM

Jaden Schwartz may have the most unforgettable birthday of his life this year, as Day one of the 2010 draft falls on Jaden’s 18th birthday. Not the biggest of prospects, the recent success of smaller players such as Patrick Kane and Steven Stamkos should provide enough clues that the right player will no longer be held back just because he stands under 6’ tall and weighs in at under 200 lbs. The question is whether Schwartz is, in fact, the right player. His production says he might be. In is rookie season in the USHL, he led the league in scoring, with numbers that have not been bested since Thomas Vanek in 2001-02, before he was selected as the 5th overall player in that draft. And remember – Vanek was then in his 3rd year of USHL play and he has since gone on to record two 40-goal season in the NHL for the Buffalo Sabres.

Schwartz is the type of player who sees the game slower than everyone else. In other words, he seems to be thinking two strides quicker than the opposition. That, combined with NHL-calibre hands make Schwartz a good candidate to be the next little big man on the ice. Schwartz also impresses everyone who crosses his path by his demeanour, as he is extremely humble for a player who led his league in scoring (against generally older competition) as a rookie. He plays in all aspects of the game, both special teams and in the dirty areas of the ice. The team that drafts him, however, will do so for his offensive upside, as Schwartz has a hard, accurate shot, equal passing ability and sublime puck-handling skills. The cast he wore to the recent NHL Draft Combine is a testament to his willingness to play defensive, as it was earned blocking a shot in the USHL playoffs. If he were a stronger skater, he would likely be mentioned as a likely top-ten pick. As is, no one should be him surprised to be given a new NHL jersey for his birthday. Schwartz is committed to playing for Colorado College in the NCAA next season.

Ryan Spooner

C, Peterborough Petes
Born Jan. 30, 1992  Draft Day Age=18.5
Ht/Wt…  5-11/174,   Shoots Left

2010 Regular Season:  47 games: 19 goals, 35 assists, 54 points, -5, 12 PIM

Another in a group of smallish offensive forwards at this year’s draft, Ryan Spooner was also hurt this year (in more ways than one) when he broke his collarbone right after the CHL Top Prospects game. He managed to return for the last three games of the Petes’ short playoff run, but it may have been too late to regain his earlier standing as a top prospect. Above all else, Spooner is an offensive player. With a weakened collarbone, he was not able to show his full skill set in the minimal time remaining in his season, neither in the OHL playoffs nor in the World U-18 postseason tournament. The shame of it is, before the injury, Spooner had been building nicely on his fine rookie season in Peterborough, when he scored 30 goals and complied 58 points in 62 games. Scoring over one point per game in his draft eligible season often portends to a player’s ability to continue producing as a top six forward at the next level.

Spooner’s production is largely a mix of his world class hands and hockey sense. While not big, he is not afraid of fighting for the puck, knowing that if he wins, he can quickly create an exciting scoring opportunity for his team, such as his shorthanded game winner in the CHL Top Prospects game this year. In his abbreviated draft year, Spooner showed more determination to developing into a complete player, becoming more involved in the defensive side of the game. If Spooner drops out of the first round, as many are now expecting, the team who drafts him may have one of the steals of the draft as long s he can prevent his stature from becoming an on-ice hindrance.

Interview with Prospect Guru Corey Pronman

In Hockey on June 19, 2010 at 4:41 pm

By Ryan Wagman

The following transcript is a re-posting of an interview I recently conducted with Puck Prospectus and PremiumScouting’s prospect guru Corey Pronman, as we look forward to the upcoming NHL Entry Draft

NHL Draft: Interview with Corey Pronman

Ryan Wagman: Corey, thanks for taking some time for my readers. Tell us about your newest project.

Corey Pronman: The site is called Premium Scouting. The purpose of it is to bring regular reports, analysis and news on pre-and post NHL draft prospects throughout North America and the world as well as reporting on the leagues themselves. What will make this site unique is how frequent the content will be.

RW: When do you expect it to be up and from where will the reports be coming?

CP: It will be up in late- June and the reports come from scouts from all around the world.

RW: How did you get started in the world of scouting? What’s your hockey background?

CP: Really it’s just like any other job, you start at the bottom and work your way up. I obviously love hockey and scouting to me was more of a hobby, just going out to the rink and micro-analyzing players once a week or so, I enjoy it, so I offered a junior team my services and just got into it that way. Being in an area like Florida which is just starting to produce quality players into the junior and college ranks with limited coverage was a big bonus for me also, as not many teams gets coverage down here.

RW: How typical is your arrangement?

Being in Florida, do you feel the NHL’s movement into non-traditional, warm-weathered areas like Florida, California, Phoenix, Nashville, etc.. is bearing fruit? Are more kids from these areas taken in by the lure of the ice?

CP: Well the southern expansion is definitely working. It may not be immediate, over-whelming effects that some pundits or mainstreamers may want to see, but the effects are there. California is a major hockey state now. Cali-born players are in the Olympics, in the World Juniors, in this draft (Etem) and next year’s draft a in my opinion top 5 pick in Shane McColgan. Geoffrion born here in Florida and raised in Tennessee won the Hobey Baker.

There’s more kids being taken from non-natural areas into junior A, tier 2 college, NAHL and USHL teams etc. One of the junior teams that has been in contact with me was intrigued with the Florida region because of the Florida players that had come into their organization.

It’s still not great, there is no Crosby or Stamkos, Tavares or Hall coming out of Oklahoma yet (even though Seth Jones – a Texas-bred defenseman may be the first sunbelt top pick in the 2013 draft – that’s obviously a ways away though) but the difference is significant from 10-15 years ago.

A lot of people get into the game from their parents, who move down here from New York, Michigan, Minnesota, etc. There is a small handful of pure Floridians growing up with the Panthers. If they could actually put a product down, it would help tremendously, though. Also the hockey in the state gets watered down because of the lack of coverage, the second a player is labelled as decent, they move north. Or the local Bantam AAA or Midget AAA organizations form a travel team to play in bigger northern tournaments.

RW: A few weeks ago, we engaged in an interesting discussion about providing “comps” for prospects. You were very much opposed. Can you tell us more about why you do not like the practice?

CP: Doing player comparisons in my opinion can give false impressions of players to the readers, even if it’s completely unintentional. You may mean to say a player plays a style similar to Joe Sakic, but others will read it and say, “Wow he’s like Joe Sakic?!” By doing complete profiles, with proper detailing and clear explanations of the player, doing comparisons is unnecessary as long as you give the most proper picture of the player possible.

RW: As a scout, what are some of the thing you look for in a player? Both positive and negative? Also, in what ways can junior-level statistics be deceiving?

CP: When looking at a player, the key to scouting is looking at a player and seeing how are they going to fit down the road at a higher level. If a player tries to toe drag between two defenseman going 5 miles an hour and gets away with it in the QMJHL, that looks pretty and all, but he’ll get flattened doing that in the pros. You’re essentially looking for the skills of a player or what in baseball they call tools. Mainly their skating, puck skills, shot, hockey sense, size/strength and if you want to call it a skill (albeit debatable), work ethic as well.  For example, every year there’s some wonderkid in the CHL or some league that’s small but puts up big numbers, however he lacks the high-end skills to compensate for his lack of size/strength to be a productive player at the higher levels.

Red flags, asides from lacking the skills I mentioned, would be intangible issues or lack of work ethic. Hockey is a very tough game to play and the willingness to work, to learn, to be a quality player and person is essential to getting through the grind of developing through the minors and to overcome the hurdles of the pro game.

RW: In your view, what is the main difference between scouting at the Junior level and scouting for the pros?

CP: Well when you’re scouting junior or pre-draft, you’re projecting, you’re trying to make an educated guess of where player X is going to be in 5 years. Doing pro scouting, you kind of have an idea of what the player is and you’re mainly doing as much in-depth evaluations of the current player as possible. Pre-draft scouting is by far the hardest and more complex which is why a guy like Hakan Andersson will never be without a job in hockey.

RW: Would you be willing to give the readers a scoop on a draft prospect who may be underrated but will surprise?

CP: There are quite a few names I could bring up, Jordan Weal or Joey Hishon come to mind even Troy Rutowski. A guy I really like that even though he’s in the bottom-end of most top 30’s, is Jaden Schwartz out of Tri-City in the USHL. I really don’t understand why more people aren’t talking about him. I had him at #10 in my mid-season rankings, he may slide down for the end of year, but this is a talented kid.

He is very smart, shifty with the puck and can make some great distributions and decisions to continually create offense.  He is a complete player as well, good in his own end and can kill penalties. He destroyed the USHL in a league where he won the scoring title with 83 points as a 17-year-old. Mind you in the USHL 75-80 points is usually what makes you a lock for a scoring title, not a tremendously offensive league. That point total was also double that of the 2nd place Tri-City Storm player, showing he wasn’t benefiting from a great team.

His skating could stand to get better and his size will be in question, but to a team picking around 20, I recommend taking a chance on Jaden Schwartz.

RW: What do you think about the growing trend of players going right from the draft to the NHL? I did a study a while back, and while used to be 2-3 per draft, there are now 4-5. I think it has a lot to do with the new salary cap world – what’s your take?

CP: The cap is an obvious factor. Not because people want to rush their prospects, but because they have gaps on their rosters and they need cheap production to fill those roster spots.  With how quickly these players under the current CBA reach free agency, I’m sure there’s nothing more a team would like more than to keep them out of the NHL if possible.

RW: Corey – thank you for your time and patience.

The Grand Finale – Chicago vs Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Finals

In Hockey on May 29, 2010 at 2:02 pm

By Ryan Wagman

And so it comes down to this. Perhaps the two teams most expected to make it this far when the season started, have, after all, made it this far. A fairly unreported story so far (at least that I’ve seen) is how closely these two rosters resemble those that started the year. Neither the Blackhawks nor the Flyers were very active at the trade deadline. Of most significance for the ‘Hawks, they sent former #3 overall pick Cam Barker to Minnesota in exchange for Kim Johnsson, thinking that the Swedish vet would provide a big upgrade for their third pairing. Instead, Johnsson got his bell rung after 8 games as a Hawk and has yet to play since. The absolute dearth of news on that front indicates that he will miss the Finals as well. The Flyers are also a testament to the team architected by Paul Holgren when the season began. Famously, their goalie is changed, as the flier they took on Ray Emery washed out (although not for the reason many expected when he was signed). Waiver wire pickup Michael Leighton has done his best Tim Thomas impression as a late bloomer who simply can’t be beat. Michael Leighton, last Canadian, nay, last North American goalie standing. Whoda thunk it? Other than between the pipes, third line energy-bringing winger Ville Leino is the only other significant change from the team that opened the season for Philadelphia way back on October 2, in Raleigh.

The lesson here? I say there are two. First, that getting the best goalie is not as important as getting a good goalie and then surrounding him by a rock-solid blueline. At this time last year, no one (seriously – NO ONE) could have possibly anticipated that the Stanley Cup starting netminders would be Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi. The former, career journeyman who had yet to appear in a postseason matchup of NHL significance, and the latter, a kid who had barely had a single full AHL season under his belt.

The second lesson is that a team’s best bet to win is build the team in the off-season, and use the trade market only to augment a minor piece here and there. Paul Holmgren and Dale Tallon (he built the team – don’t let his fall-guy role from last summer’s debacle tell you different) have both done an outstanding job with their respective teams, and fans of the Florida Panthers (if you’re still out there) have good reason to hope for a change to finally appear.

So now a phenomenal hockey season comes down to one winner-take-all series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. A quick look at the regular season standings tells us that the ‘Hawks had a far better year, finishing with 24 more points than Philadelphia, while playing in the supposedly superior Western (Campbell) Conference. The Blackhawks also scored 35 more goals than the Flyers while surrendering 16 less. But as I’ve said before, and I’m now saying again, the regular season is over. The playoffs are a new season, played under different rules and heightened urgency. Both teams have seemingly gotten stronger and stronger as the postseason has progressed. The Flyers easily handled the Devils, even as they lost Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. Gagne returned and they emerged from an early 3-0 hole (3rd time in NHL history) to overcome the Bruins in the second round, even as the surprisingly effective goaltender Brian Boucher went down to injury. Michael Leighton came back from his long-term injury, and shut the door on the suddenly punchless Bruins. And then came the vaunted 7-8 matchup between the Flyers and the Canadiens, fresh off of consecutive giant-slayings of the Alex Ovechkin’s Washington capitals and Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins. But the Canadiens were flat (outside of game 3) and the Flyers took the Conference in a five game set.

The Blackhawks struggled a little bit against the Nashville Predators in the first round, requiring six games to advance. In the second round, they faced a re-match against the run-and-gun Vancouver Canucks. After starting soft and dropping the first game 5-1, the Hawks handily outplayed the ‘Nucks over the next five to advance to the Conference Finals for the seconds year in a row, looking to prove that they were a better, more mature team than the one that fell to the Red Wings last year. And they were. Facing the top seed from San Jose, the Blackhawks advanced to their first Stanley Cup Finals since 1992 by sweeping the Sharks in four closely fought games.

The things I look for in these series, are if there are matchups that can be exploited by the opposing teams. The Blackhawks do a very good job of shielding their bottom end guys. Ben Eager and Adam Burish, their fourth-line wingers, are both averaging under 7 minutes played per game. As we could expect, neither has really done anything – but they haven’t hurt the Blackhawks overmuch either. Their centre, John Madden gets a few more minutes as he kills penalties and is used for some important faceoffs, as well. Their sixth defensemen, Jordan Hendry, is also hidden, getting 8:15 per game, more than ten minutes below that of their 5th d-man, Brent Sopel. Hendry is definitely a weak spot as he has the worst +/- on the team, even though he has played so little. Expect more (or less) of the same on that front. The Hawks’ top three forward lines and five defensemen can all hurt most teams, with speed, size and tenacity. They control the puck, so the opposition cannot.

The Flyers have a very strong top four on their blueliner, led by the consummate winner, Chris Pronger and able augmented by Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle. Unfortunately, their third pair has been very weak, and there isn’t much to suggest they can turn things around against such a deep and talented team as the Blackhawks. Peter Laviolette will try to limit the time on ice of Ryan Parent and Lukas Krajicek, but (especially in Chicago) Quenneville will attack them. Furthermore, while the Flyers can ice two awesome forward lines using some combination of Mike Richards, the recently returned Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Simon Gagne and Ville Leino, their remaining forwards offer more scrap than ability (Hartnell, Laperriere, Carcillo (who has taken to not dressing), Asham), or like the young James van Riemsdyk, have simply not been producing.

I fully expect a great series to give this season a fitting end. No matter the outcome, a champion will be crowned who has not seen glory in many of our lifetimes. And if my thinking is correct, the NHL’s longest running playoff drought will cease. Marian Hossa will finally show up on the right side of Stanley Cup finals. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say he will score at least two goals and overturn the curse of the Hossa. Seabrook and Keith will clear most of the rebounds that Niemi allows and will otherwise force the Flyers to the perimeter where they will shoot low percentage shot after low percentage shot. Patrick Kane will score at least one amazing goal and Dave “the Rat” Bolland will draw at least two silly penalties from the Flyers. Michael Leighton will play well enough to earn a nice two-year deal from the Flyers, but not well enough to lift the Stanley Cup over his head.

Prediction: Blackhawks in six. Jonathan Toews wins the Conn Smythe.

For extensive coverage on the forthcoming NHL Entry Draft, please follow my work at Draft America.

1 & 2 7 & 8 – Here We Go!

In Hockey on May 15, 2010 at 5:16 pm

— By Ryan Wagman

I’ll admit it once more; I stumbled in the first round. The Western Conference was straight-forward enough, but the East threw me (and not just me) for a few loops, knocking out the top three seeds before anyone really knew what was going on. But I recovered. Understanding what I missed in the first round, I looked again, and nailed the second round, correctly seeing the Sharks true top line (Thornton, Marleau and Heatley) waking up to contribute to Little Joe Pavelski’s line and knocking off the Red Wings. I saw Luongo’s propensity for fallibility and the world-class, playoff-level grit and class of Jonathan Toews and a rock-solid blue line allowing the Blackhawks to knock off the Vancouver Canucks. That gives us 1 and 2 from the West. Somehow, someway, I saw the Canadiens knocking off the defending champs of Pittsburgh in a seven game set. More amazing that they did so without Andrei Markov after the first game. For the most part, I was even correct about it being a generally low scoring affair, with four games of five or fewer goals, and only once more than seven. I did think it would be easier for the Flyers to knock off the Bruins, while they instead gave us history. While most of Canada was watching the Habs defeat the Penguins, riveted by Mike Cammalleri and Jaroslav Halak, we largely ignored the one series of this year’s playoffs that will likely have the longest lasting impact on history. For only the third time in NHL history, a playoff team has come back from a 3 games to nothing deficit and win a series. The Flyers did it even as they lost another goalie to injury, Boucher going down just in time for Michael Leighton, their star of earlier in the year, to return with a glorious two and a half games. Not only did the Flyers return from a 3-0 hole in games, but in game 7, they also trailed 3-0 in the first period, slowly chipping away at the lead until Simon Gagne reminded us that he, too, had returned from his injury woes and scored the winning goal. The 2010 Boston Bruins will now forever stand in ignominy beside the Pittsburgh Penguins of 1975 and the Detroit red Wings of 1942 as the biggest chokers in the history of the game, team category.

So there are now four teams left. On with it, then:

Campbell (Western) Conference

San Jose Sharks vs Chicago Blackhawks

To start with, both teams are pretty healthy, remarkable for this time of the year. The Sharks can play their optimal roster, and it looks like Kim Johnsson, the Hawks big mid-season addition will be ready to play early in the series, if not right away. We have here two marvellous hockey teams, possibly the two best teams overall this season. And they are both at the tops of their respective games. The Sharks did not any exploitable weaknesses in demolishing the Red Wings, other than one really bad period against the Mule. The Sharks have been resting since the 8th, enough time for rust to take hold of their previously finely oiled machine. Then again, the Hawks are also very well rested, completing their series against Vancouver on the 11th. Five days is also enough time to grow a little stiff without game action.

Reports came out that Blawkhawks coach Joel Quennville will play his top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook against the Thornton-Marleau-Heatley line, putting the onus back on Pavelski, Clowe and Setoguchi to repeat their exploits from their first round conquest of Colorado, when they combined for 22 points over the six-game series. Another great series from goalie Evgeni Nabokov would also go along way towards putting the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. He has quietly had a stellar playoffs, besting even Jaroslav Halak in 5-on-5 GAA (1.84 for Nabby, compared to 2.07 for Halak). Niemi has the worst 5-on-5 GAA among remaining goaltenders, at 2.47. The key here may be the power play. Bearing in mind that there really is no such thing as momentum in the playoffs, Niemi has the best shorthanded GAA of all remaining goalies at 3.72 (a phenomenal stat) while Nabokov came in at 7.94 – middle of the pack. A key to the series for the Hawks would be for Kane and Toews to continue drawing penalties (they have 6 and 5 respectively, so far) from the Sharks blueline. The more time they spend on the power play, the greater their chances of winning the series.

In taking all three games in Vancouver in the last round, the Blackhawks have shown that they can play as well, if not better, on the road, than they do at home at the United Center. They are not infallible. As I stated last time, Niemi is not the most convincing goalie out there. If the Sharks can crash the crease, Niemi will probably provide them with a few tasty rebounds to feast on. He will need his defense-corp to clear those pucks for him to minimize second chance shots. Beyond Keith and Seabrook, Campbell will need to continue his strong comeback from a broken clavicle suffered late in the regular season, and Niklas Hjalarsson will need to continue to play strong, quiet hockey. If Johnsson comes back soon and allows the Hawks to bench Jordan Hendry, they will be that much stronger for the change.

This has the makings of a remarkable, memorable series, something to think about during a long summer without hockey. I’m sticking with my earlier assertion. The Blackhawks appear in their first Stanley Cup Final since 1992.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.

Wales (Eastern) Conference

Philadelphia Flyers vs Montreal Canadiens

7 and 8. In so many ways, the opposite of the Western finals. Beyond the seeding, these are both teams missing key players with injuries, Andrei Markov still out with a knee injury and Flyers winger Jeff Carter still recovering from foot surgery and Brian Boucher shelved with a sprained MCL.

So far in these playoffs, besides bucking the odds, both the Flyers and the Habs have had very strong play on special teams, both among the most efficient penalty killers in the league and both around average on the power play. Montreal has had a number of players really step up so far, including the goal-scoring exploits of Mike Cammalleri, the Drew Doughty-level (seriously, it’s close) of P.K. Subban and of course, Jaroslav Halak. Hal Gill and Josh Gorges have been absolute rocks on the backline. The Flyers have succeeded through a team-wide effort, without any real leaders rising above the rest. The two forwards most conspicuous in their absence, James van Riemsdyk and Scott Hartnell woke up recently, Hartnell with 4 points during the Flyers’ historic comeback after amassing two in their first 8 playoff games and van Riemsdyk scoring his first career playoff goal to get the Flyers on the board in game 7, when they trailed 3-0. Chris Pronger has had a solid playoffs, with 11 points in his 12 games while generally matched up against the best his opponents had to offer. The top four defensemen consisting of Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn have helped ensure the Flyers were strong defensively, regardless of the man between the pipes. First, it was Brian Boucher, coming off of a lousy season, but responding to being pressed into emergency action, stonewalling the Rangers in a do-or-die shootout to end the regular season and then outplaying Martin Brodeur over 5 games in the first round. After he went down, Michael Leighton returned from his long-term injury to put up numbers reminiscent of his out-of-nowhere midseason arrival in Philadelphia after a decade in hockey purgatory. Another good series or two could pave the way for a Tim Thomas-like late-career renaissance.

More than perhaps any other series this year, this one is geared for an unsung hero to step up and create a new reputation. If I have to pick one guy from each team, I will go with Dominic Moore to show why two years in a row, a team has given up a second-round pick to rent his services for month and more. A good series could see Moore, a very good, generally unsung player reap a multi-year deal this summer, when or before his current contract expires. For Philadelphia, I am picking Braydon Coburn. He’s had a quiet playoffs thus far, playing well in his own end, but not providing much up the ice, with only a single assist to his credit. He’s shown the ability to score in the NHL before, and I can easily see him scoring two important goals for his team, beefing up his resume as he becomes an RFA in July.

Last June, during the first round of last year’s Entry Draft, Flyers GM Paul Holgren acquired Chris Pronger and AHL-fodder Ryan Dingle from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for D Luca Sbisa, a 19-year-old former 1st round pick who had already played 39 games in the NHL, Joffrey Lupul, another former first rounder who had matured into a decent 2nd-line winger, the 21st overall pick in last year’s draft (which was then traded to Columbus), a 1st round pick in the 2010 draft and another conditional pick this year or in 2011. Chris Pronger has been a king-maker since the lockout, taking unheralded teams much further into the postseason than anybody could have reasonably expected going in, including leading the Oilers to the Finals in 2006, winning the Cup with the Ducks in 2007 and taking the Ducks past top-seed San Jose last Spring. If he does it again, we can unequivocally state that Holgren won the trade, regardless of how Sbisa and the first rounders pan out.

I think Paul Holmgren made a great trade.

Prediction: Flyers in 7.

Predictions off the Cuff – the 2nd Round Begins

In Hockey on April 30, 2010 at 2:02 pm

– by Ryan Wagman

The first round of the 2009-2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs was fascinating, enthralling and humbling. Sometimes all at once and sometimes in turn. At The Campbell and the Wales, Bill and I both made the same core selections from the first round and now we are both forced to look at the next round with a new slant, especially for the Eastern (Wales) Conference. We both aced the West and flunked the East.

Most importantly, I learned a lesson. Maybe re-learned would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, I am looking at things differently now. In the NHL, the playoffs are called the Second Season for a reason. What went on before is no longer very relevant. Only today counts. The intensity of today trumps everything. So I won’t be looking at seasonal numbers as I preview the already-underway second round.

Campbell (Western) Conference

San Jose Sharks vs Detroit Red Wings

After taking their sweet time exorcising the demons of previous playoff failures, the Sharks, playing with a largely ineffective top line of Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley (who, for reasons unbeknown even to me, I will now refer to as the Tubthumpers), woke up to take the last three games against the “plucky” Avalanche, thanks to strong play from their ferocious “second” line of Pavelski, Clowe and Setoguchi.

The Red Wings did what Red Wings do and prevailed in a hard-fought seven game series against the “upstart Phoenix Coyotes.” Sometimes, after six evenly played matches, the seventh game is a beautiful, fairly even game decided by a lucky bounce or two, like the last game of last year`s second season. Sometimes, the seventh game is a blowout. It happened last year when the Penguins crushed the Capitals in the second round on their way to those same Cup Finals. And it happened a few nights ago as the Wings soared past the Desert Dogs with a 6-1 humbling when it mattered most.

Assuming Marleau recovers soon from his mysterious injury, one interesting take-away from this series will be in watching how Wings coach (and former Canadian Olympics coach) Mike Babcock handles his one-time charges, Dan Boyle and the Tubthumpers. He has seen them work together to great effect in the Olympics and should have a better grasp than most opposing coaches about what makes them tick.

But it won`t matter. With two more goals in the first game of this series, Joe Pavelski is still melting the ice he strides upon. At some point, the Tubthumpers will wake up. The Red Wings are here by dint of a strong will. The Sharks are the more talented team, and the sceptre of playoff failure is off after the collapse of the Capitals has allowed them to give that dubious honour to another batch.

Prediction: Sharks in 6.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Vancouver Canucks

Whenever anyone asks me who will win the Cup this year, I say that I don`t know. But if I had to guess, I would think the Hawks will be one of the teams fighting it out until the very end. Like last year, their journey passes through Vancouver. But these are not the same teams as last year. They are both stronger, smarter, and possibly more exhausted. Both rosters are littered with 2010 Olympians who have played longer seasons than they should be used to.

Both teams have strong offenses and suspect defences. The Canucks have a wonderful goalie with a relatively weaker defensive unit in front of him. Luongo has been brilliant at times, and fallible at others. He has yet to show the sustained excellence required of a long playoff run, but we all know that he has it in him.

The Blackhawks have suspect goaltending (Niemi is rebound prone) but have a very strong blueline corps to protect him, made evident by the way they lapped the field in fewest shots against per game this year. And Brian Campbell is back from his broken clavicle and has had a few games under his belt to get into the flow again.

The Sedins will have a few more synergistic moments of hair-raising beauty (Mikael Samuelsson – who knew?) and Toews will respond with grit to match Kane’s flash. And the Blackhawks will prevail in the most exciting matchup of the second round.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 7.

Wales (Eastern) Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Montreal Canadiens

The East, as a conference, humbled me. I sort of understood when the Flyers took down the Devils. I hinted as such, while nevertheless picking the Devils. Yet I thought that Pittsburgh over Ottawa, the one Eastern series I got right would be one of the biggest mismatches of the first round. Ottawa was without Kovalev and shortly lost Michalek as well. Yet the Penguins struggled to put them away, their power play sputtering along to the same miserable rate they played at for most of the season.

As for the Canadiens’ shocker, I can’t say that I saw it coming. Some others did (well played, Timo) but not me. After the Capitals stormed back from a 4-1 deficit back in Game 2, I thought the series was over. In a way, it was. That was the last spark we saw from Washington, even though they went on to win the next two games as well. In five of seven games in the first round, Jaroslav Halak was spectacular. The rest of the team did what needed to be done, scoring just enough do that Halak didn’t need to be perfect, just close. And he was. And now the reigning champion Penguins are the top seed remaining from the East, assuring home ice advantage for the Stanley Cup Finals belonging to the Western Conference representative, no matter who they may be.

So now what? The Canadiens bend-not-break defensive unit can channel their combined energy into stopping the Penguins’ centres and push play to the perimeter. They will manage a few odd-man rushes against Marc-Andre Fleury and a few of those will result in goals. While the Blackhawks-Canucks series should be a joy for all neutral hockey fans, this series should be left to hardcore fans of the teams in question. We will see some ugly hockey, but not without its tense moments. Fewer goals, fewer blowouts. And Montreal’s Cinderella run will move on for one more round.

Prediction: Canadiens in 7.

Boston Bruins vs Philadelphia Flyers

This one is for the Boosh. But more than that, it’s about the Pronger effect. You see, Chris Pronger does not do short playoff runs. He carried the Oilers to an unlikely final against Carolina. He charged the Ducks to a Cup victory 12 months later. And now he is leading a pack of hungry and limping Flyers.

Boston will be boosted by the return of Marc Savard from what seemed like a season ending hit received from Matt Cooke. Had Washington knocked off Montreal last week, we would now be reading about redemption in the form of a long, bloody battle between the Bruins and the Penguins. But Savard now has to find his legs against a more rough and tumble bunch in this year’s version of the Broad Street Bullies. And the Bullies will need to be tough, what with Jeff Carter hurt again and Simon Gagne and Ian Laperriere also missing from their roster. Mike Richards will have to lead the offense. Daniel Briere will have to make phans believe that he is earning (if only for a few weeks) his outsized salary so that for at least parts of the next five seasons, he won’t be seen as a complete waste. Claude Giroux will need to continue to stamp his place as a bona-fide offensive force. A similar step forward by neophyte James van Riemsdyk would also be appreciated.

I don’t believe in the Bruins. Rask looks great in net. They have some nice pieces here and there. But Boston showing up for the second round has almost as much to do with Buffalo skipping out on their end of the first round. Thomas Vanek missed half the round and scored twice in the three games he did play. No one else picked up the slack while he was gone. The Bruins were the lowest scoring team in the regular season. The Flyers were one of the most prolific. The Bruins weakness plays into the hands of the Flyers (Boosh may be loved, but he isn’t respected as a winning goalie).

When was the last time a Conference Final was fought between the 7th and 8th seeds? I don’t know, but I can guess when the next one will be

Prediction: Flyers in 6.

Playoff Predictions: Counterpoint

In Hockey on April 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm

by Ryan Wagman

Among the things I think about when lying in bed awake before the alarm goes off is the concept of clutch performances in sports. In baseball Sabermetric circles, it is often repeated that there is no such thing as “Clutch”; that in typical clutch situations, such as “Late and Close”, or “2 Outs and runners in scoring position”, the ability to perform well is not repeatable beyond a player’s innate ability to perform at all. And lying in bed, I think to myself that maybe the issue is our bias of what constitutes clutch. Seasons are long and what a player can bring himself to do in a ‘late-and-close’ situation early in the season is probably not the same as later on, when extending the season seems in doubt. Anyone who watched the Flyers and the Rangers go to the shootout knows that Brian Boucher was facing a very clutch situation and responded with two of the biggest saves of his life in stoning Erik Christensen and “Chokin” Olli Jokinen. He knew what was on the line – look how high he jumped, in full gear, after winning. A given player may not respond to a typical “clutch” situation early in the season simply because that extra drive cannot come through. The player may not be able to suspend his disbelief (however deeply hidden) that there will be many more opportunities for that sort of heroics later on. Can there really be any doubt that, as hockey fans, we are privy to an extra level of desperation of play when the season becomes more played out and each point takes on that much more immediately understandable significance?

With that preamble out of the way, it is now time for clutch hockey, and by extension, clutch hockey writing. Yesterday, Bill Duke, our Campbell’s coverer, gave his take on each series in the first round. Having not yet seen his predictions, I will offer up my own, Wales-ian point of view.

Campbell (Western) Conference Quarterfinals

San Jose Sharks vs Colorado Avalanche

In sports, the reverse of clutch, is the propensity to choke, a phenomenon known only too well by the San Jose Sharks and their fans. A short look at their recent playoff history will provide ample evidence to that sad state. When Joe Thornton dropped his gloves against Ryan Getzlaf shortly before the 8th-seeded Ducks knocked out the Presidents’ Trophy winning Sharks in last year’s first round, some may have seen that as an act of bravado geared to try to spark his team. I saw that as an act of desperation and frustration borne out by the sense of impending failure. But I’m a writer, not a psychologist.

But not this year. At 27-6-8, the Sharks are second only to the Capitals in home ice record, while the Avalanche are among the worst road teams to make the playoffs with a record of 19-16-6 (not bad, but nothing special either). Momentum plays into the Sharks’ hands as well. From March 1 through the end of the season, the Avalanche stumbled into the playoffs at 8-10-3, including three losses to end the season, contributing to a drop from a likely 6th seed in mid-March to their final place in standings less than a month later. By contrast, the Sharks ended with a run of 11-7-2, including a season-ending three game winning streak (ominously having followed an overtime loss to the Avalanche on April 4th).

Also, according to my soon-to-be-released final special teams numbers, the Sharks ranked as the most efficient combined special teams unit in the NHL this year, far outperforming the Avalanche, who placed 21st. Health also favours the favoured. The Sharks enter the series with a healthy roster. The Avalanche should have Matt Duchene back from his recent torso injury, but Peter Mueller, who was excellent upon coming over in a trade from Phoenix near the deadline will miss at least the first few games of the series. Craig Anderson, so important to the Avalanche’s success early in the year, visibly tired and struggled down the stretch. For Sharks’ netminder Evgeni Nabokov, heavy minutes are a way of life. Outside of a short slump in mid-March, Nabokov performed steadily down the stretch. This year, the Sharks will make it out of the first round.

Prediction: Sharks in 5.

Chicago Blackhawks vs Nashville Predators

The Predators confuse me. They were among the consistently worst special teams performers – at both ends – in the NHL. Yet at 5-on-5, they seem to do alright. What does that say about Barry Trotz? The Predators went a blistering 14-6-1 down the stretch. Amazingly, they did not have a single player register more than the 51 points that both Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan generated. The Blackhawks had four players surpassing that total, led by Patrick (Cabbie) Kane’s 88. A fifth player, Marian Hossa, also put up 51 points, but remember that he missed over 20 games to start the season. The discrepancy in each team’s special teams play is also vast. The Blackhawks’ success when up or down a man mirrors the struggles of the Predators in similar game-play situations.

After a rough patch wherein the Hawks won only two of nine from March 13-30, they closed the regular season winning six of their last seven by a combined score of 28-14. They should take their elevated play into their first round matchup against the Predators, and Antti Niemi will claim his first playoff scalp.

Prediction: Blackhawks in 5.

Vancouver Canucks vs Los Angeles Kings

Now things get really interesting. You might not have realized (and I might not be the first to point this out either), but these two teams were only separated by two points over the course of the season. Their special teams play was likewise similar; both teams had very effective power play units and both were more-or-less adequate when killing penalties. The Kings are completely healthy, while the Canucks are a little banged up – although their most significant injury, the concussion to shutdown defender Willie Mitchell, has already kept him out of action for nearly three months, so that doesn’t change what we’ve seen from them recently.

The separation in this series will be between the pipes. Jonathan Quick has struggled of late, going winless in his last eight starts, including twice being pulled. Like Craig Anderson of the Avalanche, this young American netminder has never had to play so much in a single season before. Luongo has also had a few stuttersteps in net since leading Team Canada to an Olympic Gold, including a horrific performance against these Kings less than two weeks ago, surrendering 8 goals on 29 shots. So what’s a pundit to do? I think this will be a phenomenal series, the most exciting in the Western Conference. But the higher seed will prevail.

Prediction: Canucks in 7.

Phoenix Coyotes vs Detroit Red Wings

Kind of strange to think that the Coyotes are the home team, isn’t it? I still don’t quite understand how they did it. Maybe it is true that in hockey, more than in other sports, coaching can be the difference between winning the draft lottery and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Phoenix had the better record and the slightly better goal differential, but skater-to-skater, the Red Wings have the better team. The Red Wings have five players who tallied double digits in Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT) in rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Brian Rafalski. Tomas Holmstrom and Niklas Kronwall also likely would have reached that milestone if they hadn’t both missed substantial portions of the season to injury. The Coyotes had three such players; Star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, emerging defenseman Keith Yandle and the underrated Radim Vrbata. I suppose you could also say that their backup goalie, Jason LaBarbera, would have also achieved double digit GVT if he played a few more games. Ed Jovanovski, and Scottie Upshall may have also lost out on that mark due to injury, although Upshall still is injured. The Red Wings are now healthy.

The Coyotes biggest strength seems to be their coaching, with Dave Tippett seen by many as the odds-on favourite to win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. Then again, the Red Wings have Mike Babcock, generally viewed as one of the best over the last few seasons. Both teams are very efficient killing penalties, while the Red Wings have an upper echelon power play whereas the Coyotes have the worst power play among all teams in the playoffs, with over 1 minute more between power play markers than the runners-up, Nashville Predators. Going back to my earlier pre-amble on clutch play, we are all well aware of how the Red Wings have stepped up in the playoffs for several years in a row. No one can say that about the Coyotes, who have not been to the playoffs since before the lockout. We do not yet know if they have that “clutch” ability. Being wrong wouldn’t surprise me, but I think the Red Wings will advance.

Prediction: Red Wings in 6.

Wales (Eastern) Conference Quarterfinals

Washington Capitals vs Montreal Canadiens

I bet Habs fans rue the fact that their boys couldn’t beat the Maple Leafs in the last game of the season. One more point (they lost in overtime) would have seen a first round matchup against the Devils instead. C’est la vie, non? The Washington Capitals are the strongest team, up and down the roster, in the NHL this year. The Canadiens are….not. They have nice goaltending, with Jaroslav Halak showing well in his first extended run as a number one goalie and Carey Price a more than capable backup. Other than Halak, the only player from the Canadiens to amass over 10 GVT was forward Tomas Plekanec. Barring injuries, Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov would also have reach double digits. Lucky for Habs fans, they may have one advantage in this series; their power play. The Canadiens had the league’s 3rd most efficient power play unit and it may have finished even higher had Andrei Markov not missed nearly the entire first half with lacerated ankle tendons. The Capitals have one of the worst penalty killing outfits that is still active. The Habs will need to coax more than their share of penalties from the Capitals to have a good chance at a monumental upset.

Unfortunately for them, the Capitals can say the same. We said the Canadiens had the 3rd most efficient power play in the game. Well, the Capitals had the most efficient one. And no one was particularly close. The Capitals had six skaters with more than 10 GVT – four of them were over 20! (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Semin). If either Theodore or Varlamov had played true #1 goalie minutes, he might have also got to 10. As is, Theodore was named the starter for the playoffs by Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. Theodore has performed very well since the Olympic break, which should be cause for optimism for Capitals fans and players. Assuming he gets a longer leash than he did last Spring, this should be a short series.

Prediction: Capitals in 4.

New Jersey Devils vs Philadelphia Flyers

I don’t care what anybody says, I like Brian Boucher. I had him in my hockey pool one year as my third goalie, and he ended up my top goalie. Needless to say, I did not win that year, but at least that pick worked out well. Jacques Lemaire is still Jacques Lemaire. Teams under his thumb will score around 225-230 goals if they are winners and closer to 200 if they are not. And he hasn’t won a playoff round since 2002-03. Then again, this may be the most talented he’s had. Brodeur has earned another shot at a long playoff run. That whole Olympic thing didn’t work out so well for him on a personal performance level, but he has played very well since the break was over. If anything the time away from the ice may have given him fresher legs than he normally has come playoff time. I don’t think this will be his last chance to win another Cup, but this may be his last best chance. Ilya Kovalchuk will not likely be back for another run with the Devils. The dual scoring lines featuring the big Russian and Zach Parise make the Devils more dynamic than Lemaire knows what to do with.

The Flyers were thought (in some circles) to be leading candidates to win it all before the season began. With the caveat being that they get good goaltending from the mercurial Ray Emery. And he was pretty decent. Until he got hurt. Then, from out of the wild red yonder (Carolina) Michael Leighton arrived. And Leighton was even better. Until he, too, got hurt. And then Brian Boucher got the job. There was simply no one else – his backup going into the playoffs, Johan Backlund, has 40 minutes of NHL backstopping experience on his resume. Boucher had some stinkers, which he lost. He had some good performances which were not helped by a complete lack of scoring by his skating mates. So he lost those games, too. And he won a handful, including three of his last four to get the Flyers over the hump and into the playoffs, at the expense of the New York Rangers (and maybe the employment of Glen Sather). Boucher will need the series of his life for the Flyers to go forward. With two healthy rosters (notwithstanding the aforementioned goalie woes in Philly – Jeff Carter returns for the Flyers and Paul Martin is back for the Devils) this series could be a lot of fun. I think the team with the better playing goalie will win it. I have to go with the Hall of Famer.

Prediction: Devils in 6.

Buffalo Sabres vs Boston Bruins

There have been some rumours that Marc Savard may return in time to play in the playoffs. If the Bruins can hold the fort for him. It doesn’t look like he can be back for this round. Likewise, trade deadline acquisition Dennis Seidenberg is hurt and will not play. On the other hand, the Sabres’ injured forward, Tim Connolly, looks good to go by the third game at least. Both teams are among the lower scoring organizations competing in the playoffs, and among the best when it comes to preventing the opposition from scoring.  As such, I proclaim this series to be the one most likely to have multiple 1-0 games as well as most likely to go multiple overtimes. The Sabres have five forwards (Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Tim Connolly, Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht) with more production (as defined by GVT) than the Bruins top forward contributor, David Krejci.

A great sub-plot to this series is the matchup between the two towering defensemen; Tyler Myers (Buf) vs Zdeno Chara (Bos). Each has five letters each for both first and last names. Each compiled 14.6 GVT this season, although Myers was much more weighted towards the offensive side of the ledger. Another interesting sub-plot is the Bruins goaltending situation. Rask will be the starter, but last season’s Vezina winner, Tim Thomas was pretty good this season as well. How does he react if the Bruins are losing and he doesn’t get the call? And with that, my prediction – the Bruins will lose.

Prediction: Sabres in 6.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Ottawa Senators

Like in the Western Conference, this matchup of 4-5 seeds, which usually gives us the two most evenly matched teams, seems like a complete mis-match. One the one hand, we have the defending champion Penguins, with their superstars three centres deep (Crosby, Malkin and J. Staal). The Senators combat with Alfredsson, Fisher and Spezza. While Afredsson had a better year than Malkin according to GVT (14.8-13.7), and both missed over ten games (12 for Alfie and 15 for Geno), Malkin may be rounding into form in time for the Second Season, with four points in his last game and eight in his last five. And Sidney Crosby topped 50 goals for the first time in his career.

Surprisingly for a team with so much vaunted offensive talent, the Penguins were rather mediocre on the power play this year, finishing 17th in the league in power play efficiency. But the Senators were worse. And now the Sens will be without talented forward Alex Kovalev and most likely defenseman Filip Kuba as well, two of their most important power play performers. The Penguins are more or less healthy. In net, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pens has much more press and history than the Sens’ relatively untried Brian Elliott, but based on this season alone, they go into the playoffs as near equals. Finally, I should point out how weird the Senators have been this year. Before New Years, they never had a streak longer than four games. Since then, they’ve lost five in a row, won 11 straight, lost five again, won six in a row to cement their place in the playoffs and then lost three of four prior to the series. I think another losing streak is coming.

Prediction: Penguins in 5.

Playoff Predictions: Plenty of Questions Between the Pipes

In Hockey on April 13, 2010 at 9:18 pm

-By Bill Duke

Now that the pesky regular season is over, it’s time for the NHL to finally get down to business.  The playoffs start tomorrow night, so without further ado, here are some predictions for what to expect this spring.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1 San Jose vs 8 Colorado:
I’ve said it before, this just feels like San Jose’s year.  In much the same way Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings flopped repeatedly in the playoffs until finally breaking through and hoisting the Cup, this Sharks squad has paid their dues and should now have the necessary experience to finally get over the hump.  So long as Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle step up their games (as they’ve both done in playoffs past) the Sharks should breeze past Colorado without breaking a sweat.
If you’re one of those people who put a lot of stock into how a team ends the regular season, then you have to feel good about San Jose’s 8-1-1 record down the stretch.  But if the Sharks have an Achilles’ heel, it might be the fact that Evgeni Nabokov has choked both in last year’s playoffs (.890 save percentage) and at this year’s Olympics (.853 Sv %).  It’s a concern, but Nabby hasn’t always been a big-game choker.  The good news is that San Jose, and Nabokov, may have finally timed their late -season slump so as to allow it to pass prior to the first round.
PICK: SHARKS IN 4

2 Chicago vs 7 Nashville
I still don’t know how Nashville does it.  This team should, by all accounts, suck.  And yet, here they are, back in the playoffs once again at the expense of teams with real top shelf talent such as Calgary, Anaheim and Dallas.  Perhaps the Predators’ greatest asset is their discipline; they finished the regular season with by far the fewest penalty minutes against (710 mins, compared with the Lightning, who finished at the other end of the spectrum with 1377).  Some of that advantage is mitigated by the fact that the Preds’ powerplay finished 24th in the league at 16.4 %.  But enough about Nashville…the Blackhawks are a deep, talented team and are a real threat to not only win the conference, but to be the last team standing this June.  Their only red flag?  Once again, it’s between the pipes.
Youngster Annti Niemi was fine in the regular season (and perhaps even great down the stretch) but his lack of experience might be the Hawks’ undoing, though not in the first round.
PICK: BLACKHAWKS IN 5

3 Vancouver vs 6 Los Angeles
Make no mistake, the Canucks are Canada’s best chance to bring the Cup north of the 49th.  That said, their blue line is banged up and their first round draw is a frisky, young team capable of blitzkrieg-ing even the best team to death.  I’m already starting to sound like a broken record, but goaltending is, once again, a concern.
Roberto Luongo has been terrible down the stretch, and despite the fact he has come up big in playoffs past, he has also been prone to mental lapses.  He has been known to follow up a fantastic playoff performance with a total airhead special.
The Canucks are the ultimate wild card in this year’s playoffs.  They could win it all, or they could go down with a nary a whimper.
PICK: CANUCKS IN 7

4 Phoenix vs 5 Detroit
Poor Phoenix.  They tally more than 100 regular season points, give San Jose all they can handle in the race for the division title, and their reward is a date with last year’s conference champions. Detroit has been one of the best teams in hockey since Christmas, posting a 23-10-8 record in the second half and an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10.  They are peaking at the right time and have no obvious weakness.  Phoenix is a nice team, and they might even be able to steal a series or two if Ilya Bryzgalov stands on his head (which he’s done consistently this year).  But their work is certainly cut out for them.
The only argument against the Wings making noise in the playoffs this time around is the fact that they are an older team that has gone to back-to-back Cup finals.  Those extra games, plus the Olympics, have to be taking a toll on guys like Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Brian Rafalski.  Still, the tired legs likely won’t show up in round 1.
PICK: RED WINGS IN 6

Conference Championship: 1 San Jose vs 2 Chicago
It may be a tad bit convenient to choose the top two seeds to meet in the Conference Championship, but that is exactly what I’m going to do.  Give the nod to San Jose, whose leaders gained invaluable experience at the Olympics this February.  Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and, to a lesser extent, Joe Thornton all played integral roles in Canada’s gold medal run.  This is the year San Jose finally wins the West.
PICK: SHARKS IN 7

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1 Washington vs 8 Montreal
By every measure, Washington is the best team in hockey.  They won the President’s Trophy by 8 points, were the only sqaud to top 300 goals, led the league in goal differential (+1.05 per game), had the top power play in the NHL and took the 8th fewest penalties.  They boast two 100-point scorers and the league’s top scoring defenseman.
The only problem? C’mon, you know what it is…I’ll give you one guess…it rhymes with “shmoalbending.”
Word is the Caps are going with Jose Theodore as their game one goaltender.  That’s a mistake.  Semyone Varlamov was by far the better goalie in lats year’s playoffs and was the slightly better goaltender (5.3 GVT to Theodore’s 5.2) in this regular season.  He deserved the chance to open the postseason between the pipes.  Factor in that the Caps will be playing at least two games in Montreal Bell Centre, a virtual house of horrors for Theodore, and Bruce Boudreau’s decision becomes a real head-scratcher.
PICK: CAPITALS IN 5

2 New Jersey vs 7 Philadelphia
I don’t care that Philly won the season series 5-1.  I really don’t.  New Jersey finished with the second-best goal differential in the East and boast one of the most decorated netminders in the history of the game.  They may not be the highest scoring team in the world, but they do have two bona fide gamebreakers in Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.  They also were the only team in the league to surrender fewer than 200 goals this season (191).
After two straight first round losses (and an Olympic benching) Martin Brodeur has something to prove for the first time in a long time.  I’m certainly not going to bet against a future Hall of Famer with a chip on his shoulder.
PICK: DEVILS IN 6

3 Buffalo vs 6 Boston
The Sabres are a tough team to figure out; they look like world-beaters on one night and shrinking violets the next.  While the Sabres don’t really wow you in any way, they also don’t have any glaring weaknesses.  Their blue line was though to be thin this year, but the emergence of likely Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers made that concern an afterthought.
Buffalo also happens to boast a man who may just be the most indispensable player in the entire league.
Despite the fact he looks somewhat like a heroin addict, goaltender Ryan Miller should capture the Vezina trophy this season and single-handedly led Team U.S.A. to the brink of a gold medal at the Olympics.  It’s Miller time in Buffalo, and if Ryan is on, the Sabres will be a tough out.
PICK: SABRES IN 7

4 Pittsburgh vs 5 Ottawa
This has all the makings of a close series.  Like Detroit, the Pens have not only been to back-to-back Cup Finals but sent a bunch of key players to the Olympics.  Their legs may wear out after a series or two.  As for the Senators, it’s nice they’ve returned to the big dance this season, but they are ultimately a mediocre club that would have failed to qualify had they spent the season in the Western Conference.  A negative goal differential, terrible powerplay and rather porous defense means Ottawa’s return to glory will be short-lived.
PICK: PENGUINS IN 6

Conference Championship: 1 Washington vs 2 New Jersey
Oops, I did it again – I went chalk in my Conference Championship pick.  But really, when every Tom, Dick and Harry out there is picking Detroit and Pittsburgh, I think my selections are totally justifiable.  I expect that the Capitals’ firepower will be enough to solve the Devils’ outstanding defense.  As for the Capitals’ goaltending situation?  Expect Theodore to bomb out and be replaced by the superior Varlamov after a couple starts in round 1.
PICK: CAPITALS IN 6

Stanley Cup Final: 1 San Jose over 1 Washington
Sharks over Caps is the same prediction I made way back in January, and I see no reason to change my mind now.  Washington’s run-and-gun style will play just fine against Eastern foes, but the West was a superior conference that played more physical hockey all year long.  The Capitals won’t be able to take a full series of Western-style banging.
San Jose has paid their dues, but the Caps need a little more seasoning before they will be able to break through the glass ceiling.
PICK: SHARKS IN 6

-You can read more of Bill’s work at DukingItOut.com

The Stretch Drive: Handicapping The Rest Of The Season

In Hockey on March 16, 2010 at 12:45 pm

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