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Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Why you should forget the past and believe in this year’s Sharks

In Hockey on January 30, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Forget, for a moment, the San Jose Sharks’ unfettered record of playoff futility.  Set aside the fact that they bowed out rather meekly in the first round last year after dominating the regular season en route to the President’s Trophy.  Erase from your memory the image of Joe Thornton during that fateful series, wearing a look on his face like that of a man who just had his cereal peed in.

If you can ignore all those factors, you’d be hard-pressed not to consider the San Jose Sharks as the odds on favourites to hoist the Cup this June.

They have the NHL’s second-ranked offense (3.28 goals for/game), fourth-ranked defense (2.33 goals against/game), second-best goal differential (+0.96 goals/game), second-best save percentage (.925) fifth-ranked powerplay (21.7 %) and number one penalty kill (88 %).

Oh, they also have the league’s best record (35-10-9) and are red hot as of late (7-1-2 in their last 10 games, as of Saturday afternoon).

So why don’t more people believe in them? Well, there’s the playoff history, for one, but there also seems to be a fundamental lack of faith that the team’s veterans can provide the type of leadership necessary to make a deep playoff run.

It’s odd, because the Sharks are a squad filled with character players and grizzled Cup veterans.

To wit, captain Rob Blake has been to two Cup finals, winning one (Colorado, 2001), Dan Boyle was a key contributor to the Lightning’s cup win a few seasons ago, and let’s not forget that Dany Heatley notched 22 points in 20 games when Ottawa made the Cup finals in 2007.

This team should be feared by the rest of the league. They should be a blueprint for success in today’s NHL. They should be held in the highest regard by fans and media alike.

Instead they have become the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. Or, more accurately, they are to hockey what the Cleveland Indians were to baseball for much of the 90’s and early 00’s.

Over a seven-year stretch from 1995-2001, the Indians won their division and made the playoffs six times. They averaged 93 wins, posting the best record in baseball twice. Yet their record in playoff series over that time was a middling 5-5. They made it to the World Series twice, but were bested both times (thank YOU, Jose Mesa!).

The thing was, as good as those Indian teams were, the pundits rarely tabbed them as a World Series favourite come playoff time. They were perceived to have been lacking that certain je ne sai quois required of the truly elite franchises.

It’s getting to be a similar situation with these Sharks. They have won back-to-back division titles (49-23-10 in ’08, 53-18-11 last season) yet are 1-2 in postseason series.

So, will this year be any different than San Jose’s recent past?

Probably…for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, this year’s Sharks squad has more scoring than they’ve ever had before. The addition of Dany Heatley coupled with the coming-of-age of Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski have made San Jose downright frightening when they cross the red line. People generally only think of the big three (Thornton, Heatley and Patrick Marleau) when they think of San Jose’s offense, but the truth is they actually have a rather balanced offense. The second line of Pavelski, Setoguchi and Clowe have combined for 89 points and fourth-liner Manny Malhotra has chipped in with a rather robust 22 points.

About the only department that fails to tally their share of goals is the blueliners, who have combined for only 21 goals, 10 of them by Boyle. But that is a relatively small gripe.

The second reason that San Jose is likely to realize their potential this spring is the sudden fall of the Detroit Red Wings. For the first time in a long while, the Wings find themselves mired in the middle of the Campbell Conference standings. After the first-place Sharks and second-place Blackhawks, there is a rather precipitous drop-off in quality to the third-place Vancouver Canucks. Furthermore, the bottom third of the West’s playoff teams don’t appear to be the kinds of teams that have a huge upset in them (like last year’s Ducks, for example). Nashville? Colorado? Dallas? Los Angeles? Calgary? Does anyone think these teams could hold a candle to last year’s Ducks? I don’t. Sure, it could happen, but last year’s Anaheim squad was one of the best 8 seeds in recent memory.

Finally, the Sharks should get over the playoff hump this year precisely BECAUSE they’ve had their hearts ripped out in the past. No one can deny that the Sharks have paid their dues, and that heartbreak should serve to galvanize the squad this time around. They should be fearless, because nothing they can do this year will match the disappointment of ‘09’s first round roster.

San Jose’s veterans have been through this before and won’t be surprised this time if they get a proverbial pop on the chin from a team that just sneaked into the playoffs. Sometimes the best teams need to suffer a little heartbreak before they reach the Holy Land. Remember the Red Wings of the early 90’s? The team that suffered two heartbreaking first round losses following 100+ point seasons?

Didn’t think so. Four Stanley Cups in a 12-season stretch will erase a lot of bad memories.

With the stellar goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov, the gritty two-way skills of Patrick Marleau, the playmaking prowess of Joe Thornton and the leadership of Rob Blake, the Sharks have a great opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug in June.

Sure, an injury or two could derail them (they’re sending no fewer than 8 players to the Olympics and could suffer from collateral damage) and they might get knocked out by a goalie standing on his head (Roberto Luongo, for example). And playoff success is never a guarantee, even to a team with so few weaknesses as the Sharks.

But I certainly won’t be betting against them this season, so long as no one pees in Joe Thornton’s Cheerios.

-Bill Duke

A Farewell to Arms (in two parts), and Looking Ahead

In Hockey on January 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm

1)      Cujo’s Pads

On January 12, 2010, the 4th winningest goaltender in NHL history – and the goalie with the most wins never to have lifted the Stanley Cup – Curtis Joseph, formally announced his retirement in front of a crowded room of reporters in the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Inspired by his career, later that evening, the Leafs went on to lose 4-2 to the bottom-feeding Carolina Hurricanes on home ice. As his post-lockout career never approached the heights of his prime, many may have forgotten how good Cujo was. Returning from his enforced absence as the starting goalie for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005-06, between the ages of 38 and 41, Joseph appeared in 145 games, which gave him an addition 58 wins (moving him from 10th all time to 4th), and raised his career GAA from 2.75 to 2.79 and dropped his career save percentage from .908 to .906.

Of course, it wasn’t all negative. He got to retire as a Toronto Maple Leaf, the scene of four of his greatest seasons both from a statistical point of view as well as team-wide, as they included his only two career appearances in the Conference Finals, losing in five to the Buffalo Sabres in 1998-99, and lasting six games against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2001-02. While that last season with the Leafs was less than stellar, he managed to leave fans of the Leafs and the game in general with fond memories through his performance in relief of the ejected Martin Gerber against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals last March 24. In a short period of time, Joseph found the zone.

Joseph’s retirement has culled forth a lot of debate about his Hall of Fame chances, as pundits conceded his career accomplishments, but deride his chances for the lack of viable peak and post-season accomplishments. As far as the latter point is concerned, I don’t think it would be fair to blame Cujo for not getting his name emblazoned on the Cup, as his career playoff stats are even better than those of the regular season (won-loss record notwithstanding). Playing against only the better teams in the postseason, over a sample of 133 games, Joseph has a playoff save percentage of .917, an incredible 11 points better than his regular season accomplishments, and his playoff GAA is 2.42, compared to 2.79 (+0.37) over is regular season record. The difference between his playoff and regular season record compares favourably to other top peers (with Cups), such as Martin Brodeur, (GAA 0.23 lower, save% .06 higher), Chris Osgood (GAA +0.39, SV % 0.11 better) and Tom Barrasso (GAA +0.23, SV% 0.1 better).

As far as peak seasons are concerned, Joseph never led the NHL in wins or GAA, and only topped the leader-board in save percentage once (.911 as a St. Louis Blue in 1992-93). Joseph only made two All-Star Games (1994 and 2000). But he was always near the top, with 10 top-10 finishes in wins, seven top-10’s in shutouts, two top-10’s in GAA and five for save percentage. That last stat may be more telling, as Joseph tended to see a lot of vulcanized rubber, leading the league twice in shots against, and six more season in the league’s top 10. Looking at the advanced stats, Cujo sat at 66th all time in Goals versus Threshold (GVT – measuring a player’s relative contributions against an expected replacement-level player, such an AHL veteran) as of last season with 251.3. He is 13th all-time in GVT among goalies, behind historical luminaries as Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Jacques Plante, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall, Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour, Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Billy Smith, John Vanbiesbrouck and Johnny Bower. Of the aforementioned who are Hall of Fame eligible, only Vanbiesbrouck is not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Finally, to give a little bit of perspective to his career accomplishments, Curtis Joseph made his mark as an NHL’er after not even being drafted as an amateur. In Joseph’s draft eligible year (1985), the NHL draft ran for 12 rounds, with 252 players hearing their names called. The three most successful goalies drafted that year were Mike Richter, Sean Burke and Bill Ranford. None had the impact on game that Joseph did, Richter’s place in the hearts of Rangers fans notwithstanding. All the above taken into consideration, I think Curtis Joseph will have to write another speech of gratitude about his career in the next five-seven years as he accepts his place among Hockey’s all-time greats.

2)      Playing the Role

Competent 3rd-line forwards are necessary for any successful hockey team, but the men filling those roles rarely see the limelight, outside the Frank J. Selke, dedicated to the League’s best defensive forward. Although with past winners including Steve Yzerman, Bobby Clarke, doug Gilmour, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk (each of the past two years), even here, the 2rd-liner does not always get his due. So I will show a little love now to one of the best at this role in the past generation, Michael Peca, who formally announced his retirement from the game as an active player this past Tuesday (January 19, 2010). With a career line of 176 goals and 465 points over 14 seasons split between six teams (Canucks, Sabres, Islanders, Oilers, Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets), there will not be any argument about Peca’s place among the all-time greats. He never won a Stanley Cup, never scored 30 goals in a season, nor did he ever top 60 points (his high with the Islanders in 2001-02). Yet Michael Peca must rank among the all-time leaders for forwards who value was tied in with his defensive abilities. Back to Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT), which also separates offensive from defensive contributions, we can see that of Peca’s career score of +88.7 (nestled between Manny Fernandez and Bill Mosienko), 36.6 was for his defensive play, or 41.3% of his on-ice worth.

I must admit to having followed his career with interest from his time as a junior. A second round selection of the Canucks in 1992, after a solid OHL season split between the Sudbury Wolves and the Ottawa 67’s, Peca, a Toronto native, entered my consciousness when he purchased a van from my Father and gave him a signed OHL hockey card to show his kids. When Peca won his first Selke Trophy after the 1996-97 season, his second full season as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, I, an 18-year old who had only rarely seen him play, applauded the award as just and proper. After all, Peca led the league in shorthanded (SHG) goals that year with six (the only time he would ever lead the league in anything), and he drove a car bought from my Father. When he won his second Selke, after the best offensive season of his career (25 goals, 60 points and a +19, with 6 more SHG), I was more jaded, but no less delighted. When he finally signed on to play with his hometown team for the 2006-07 season, as a 32-year-old veteran, I had high hopes, but we were both dashed, as Peca broke his leg and only managed to appear in 35 games, as the Leafs missed the playoffs once again.

Once we throw in the Gold Medal he received (as a teammate of Curtis Joseph’s no less…ironic?) as a member of Canada’s entry at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Peca had a nice career for himself.

3)      Notes on the CHL All-Star Game

Even though my Toronto Maple Leafs currently have no shot at drafting any of the bigger CHL names this year, as they do not hold picks for  the 1st, 2nd or 4th rounds, it is still enjoyable to see the next wave as they build up steam for this summer’s draft. Three players caught my eye at the game this week.

–          Calvin Pickard – G – Team Red/Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL) – The younger brother of former Nashville Predator’s 1st round pick Chet (also a goalie), Calvin had a few great poke checks to break up some spicy chances by the opposing team. Currently the top ranked North American goalie by the CSS, Calvin may not be selected as highly as his brother, but his level of awareness, athleticism, pro size and bloodlines leave him as one to keep an eye on. IF only just to see a few more poke-checks.

–          Jordan Weal – C – Team Red/Regina Pats (WHL) – Jordan Weal is small. The ISS lists him as 5’-8.5” and 156lbs. That’s slightly taller, and much leaner than Theoren Fleury was. Only three current NHLers (Sergei Samsonov, Francis Bouillon and Brian Gionta) are smaller. Watchig Weal reminded me of when I played rep-league football when I was 15. Although I was taller than, than Weal is now, I was also thinner. I was a 3rd-string cornerback. One day at practice, we were working on our extra-point conversion. The kicker protection unit was out against a random sample of 11 other kids, of whom I was one. One the first attempt, I squirted between two much bigger linemen (line-teens?) and jumped in front of the kicker, blocking the football with my stomach. I was proud and the linemen were embarrassed. On the 2nd attempt, the two guys I had slipped between wanted to make an example of me.  They pancaked me. With that, they assumed that I had learned my lesson and focused on their positioning for the 3rd attempt. So once again, I snuck through them and blocked a second kick with my stomach. With that, the coaches were disgusted enough to end the drill. So why does this remind me of little Jordan Weal? Because every time I saw him, he was either being horribly outmuscled on the boards, losing every physical battle, or he w3as sneaking up on people in the middle of the rink, at one point completely pick-pocketing an opposing skater, creating a great goal-scoring chance. Ranked 45th among North American skaters by the CSS, I don’t think he’ll be drafted in the top two rounds, but with another 20lbs of muscle, and sticking to the middle of the rink, he could make waves across the league.

–          Nino “Night Rider” Niederreiter – RW – Team White/Portland Winterhawks (WHL) – I don’t know if that’s his nickname, but it does suggest itself, doesn’t it? I saw a bit of him at the recent WJC, where he was the star player for the Swiss side that upset the Russians and made it to the Bronze medal match. A chippy, forward who plays the full 200’ of ice, Niederreiter seemed to be in the middle of every solid chance for team White in the first half of the game, scoring the team’s first goal. It was an impressive goal, too. He got the puck in the slot, but not so as he could immediately control it. Many players, with such an opportunity, would rush their shot and flub the chance. Not Night Rider. He created a few extra inches for himself by bringing the puck in, before firing it home, hard and accurate, through the aforementioned Pickard. As impressive as that was, Nino gained more attention before the game, with his jaw-dropping goal in the shoot out competition. If haven’t seen it yet, here it is. Style and substance. I don’t know that he needs to add much to his game before being ready for the big time. He is currently ranked 14th among North American skaters (although he is Swiss, the CSS groups players by where they play, not where they are from) in the CSS’ midterm list, don’t be surprised if he slips into the top ten on draft day.

– Ryan Wagman

Dead-monton: The Woebegone Oilers

In Hockey on January 13, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Generally speaking, Oilers fans are a curious bunch. They aren’t quite as cynical and jaded as Leafs fans (ahem, Ryan Wagman) nor are they as supportive and optimistic as Flames or Senators fans. Indeed, the Oiler faithful seem to vacilate rather regularly between neurosis and fanaticism.

Back when I was a freshman at the University of Calgary I knew four Oilers fans who shared an apartment together. There were very few “rules” of that apartment, as evidenced by the pot of cold soup that remained on their counter for approximately 3 weeks or the fact that no one cleaned a sink, shower or toilet for over a year. However, they did have one house law: whenever the Oilers were on, all four were required to put on their jerseys and watch the game. Two of them went so far as to wear giant foam puckheads adorned with the Oilers logo. It was quite a sight to see all four of them jammed onto a severely overmatched couch, drinking Lucky Lager, looking like matching buffoons. In a related note, none of them got laid very often.

But I digress…

My point is that Oilers fans are unique for their ability to consistently pump themselves up and drink the kool-aid management continues to serve ($5.5 million a year for Shawn Horcoff? Sounds great!), yet can turn cruel and unforgiving at the drop of a hat (like the time Kevin Lowe traded Ryan Smyth and they mercilessly booed him ON MARK MESSIER NIGHT!) Of course, it doesn’t help that the team has been incredibly inept at attracting top talent or even getting their own players to stay happy in E-town (think Chris Pronger, Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa, etc) nor has it been good for morale that no fewer than three local boys are currently starring for the rival Flames (Jay Bouwmeester, Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf).

With that in mind, I’m surprised there haven’t been mass suicides in Edmonton this winter. Not only is the the hockey team in last place in the Campbell Conference, but they have exactly zero star players, zero quality goaltenders, and one grumpy old coach.

The Mighty Oil is 16-24-5, good for 37 points and a .411 point percentage. They have been outscored by their opponents to the tune of 2.67 goals for per game to 3.29 goals against per game. Their save percentage is .896. Their penalty kill is third-worst in the league. They have but one skater with more than 30 points (Dustin Penner, 41). Their chances of making the playoffs are nil. The Oilers are a mess and they may not be fixable for another year or two.

Edmonton management has committed more than $13 million a year (cap hit) to Shawn Horcoff (19 points, -21), Dustin Penner (finally producing after two abysmal years) and the injury-prone Ales Hemsky (out for the season). Sadly, Horcoff’s deal runs until 2013/2014. Yikes!

They badly overpaid for 37-year-old goalie Nikolai Khabibulin this summer after Dwayne Roloson left for Long Island. GM Steve Tambellini signed the ‘Bulin Wall to a 4-year, $15 million deal on July 1, hoping that the aging backstop would lead them to the playoffs. Much to the contrary, Khabibulin appeared in only 18 games this season before being placed on the injured reserve. News broke earlier today that the ‘tender will undergo surgery to repair a herniated disc and is now out indefinitely. Double Yikes!

Furthermore, the Oil have been absolutely terrible against their provincial rival this season. In 5 games versus the Flames, Edmonton has gone a woeful 0-4-1. To put that in perspective, out of a possible 10 points, the Flames snatched exactly 1 from Calgary while handing the Flames 10. Triple Yikes!

One has to wonder if Pat Quinn will last the season as head coach. I thought that the cotton-topped Irishman would serve as a great motivator for the young club, especially with Tom Renney in charge of x’s and o’s. Boy was I wrong. Quinn’s press conferences have devolved into the gripings of a crotchety senior citizen – he is often openly critical of his players and seems to have lost all patience with his guys. One can only assume that his tone and demeanor in the dressing room has been similar. It’s not exactly a message that this young generation responds to.

So how can Edmonton turn things around?

Step 1: Wait for Jordan Eberle.
The young sniper has become a World Junior legend with his perpetual late game heroics. By all accounts he is the real deal and his skills will translate well to the pro game.

Step 2: Find a goaltender.
One has to think the Oilers would have been far better off investing their money in a young, inexpensive goaltender like Craig Anderson ($1.81 million cap hit) or even Jason Labarbera ($1 million cap hit) this offseason instead of handing the keys over to a chain-smoking 37-year-old. But what’s done is done. What is clear is that the Oilers can’t count on Khabibulin, nor can they cont on Devan Dubnyk or Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers (at least for the near future). So what can be done about it? Well, with Rick DiPietro coming back, perhaps the Islanders would be interested in trading one of their plethora of goaltenders for a young defenseman like Ladislav Smid. Perhaps they could part with Martin Biron. Or….wait for it…Dwayne Roloson.

Step 3: Toughen up the pups.
The Oilers’ young forwards, like Sam Gagner, Patrick O’Sullivan, Gilbert Brule, Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano have promise, and by no means should the club give up on them. But they are all small or smallish and all play a little soft (except for Nilsson, who plays physically but is a defensive liability). O’Sullivan and Gagner in particular would benefit greatly from getting stronger and becoming more difficult to knock of the puck. The shine is off this group, but they can still be the core of a successful team. Interestingly enough, Gagner, Brule and Cogliano are all restricted free agents this offseason. If they can be locked up at low cap figures, Tambellini will have plenty of space to go out and beg some free agents to come to Northern Alberta.

Step 4: Think long and hard about giving Renney the head job.
I’m never a big fan of replacing a coach after one season, but by golly, Quinn has been a mega-disappointment. If they don’t finish strong, it will be hard to believe that the rebuilding effort is really in full swing with such an old-school coach at the helm.

So, while things may look grim right now, don’t fret, Oilers fans. With some competent netminding, a little luck and some maturation in your forward ranks, you should be back to finishing 8th in the conference within a couple years.

-Bill Duke

The Don Valley Blues; or, Throwing in the Towel in Toronto

In Hockey on January 12, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Outside of a digressing piece on the merits of employing a goalie such as Vesa Toskala, as a native Torontonian, and a die-hard Maple Leaf pessimist, while watching the hometown team bring new meaning to the meaning of struggle, there is one serious question that has been un-broached by the mainstream media. As we (the royal We) bemoan the loss of a potential top-3 pick next June in LA (Hall? Seguin? Fowler? Maybe Melchiori…) We ponder the meaning of not having a captain (either trade Kaberle, or make him the man. And if they trade him, Ian White would make a good on-ice leader). As their hopes are dashed repeatedly (killer, even) by their inability to kill penalties (or play at all with only four skaters – they have been outscored 7-0 in 4-on-4 situations, all seven goals against coming in overtime settings). We share glee at the prospect of Tyler Bozak being called up for his 2nd career game, or from a great pre-season from Viktor Stalberg, or in light of the great performance of Jerry D’Amigo in the WJC.

But the big question remains unanswered. As the light of dawn emerges on Leafs Nation and a new generation understands the curse of Tom Kurvers (don’t worry – Kessel is better than Kurvers, and much younger than Kurvers was at the time of that ill-fated deal. And the odds of any of the picks surrendered to get him turning out to have careers as valuable as Scott Niedermayer are very, very, very slim), we may anxiously wonder when Brian Burke will take action. According to a recent article in the Toronto Star, “I’ve been moving heaven and earth on the trade front for some time, I would be more concerned if there were deals going down all around me. There aren’t,” said Burke. “We’ve looked at call-ups. No one at this point has kicked down the door to the point where we have to give them a recall. Bozak and Rosehill have been strong the last couple of games, so we’ll think about giving them a look.”

Since that time some players kicked down the door to the point where they have proven that they definitively do not belong in the NHL, Rickard Wallin was scratched again and Bozak received the aforementioned recall in his stead. Brian Burke’s reasoning aside, it may be the case that he has simply been too busy preparing for his duties as General Manager of the US Olympic team to take proper charge in his day job with the Leafs. Granted, the Red, White and Blue will likely be far more successful than the plain old Blue and White, but a job is a job. For example, Mike Zigomanis, after earning a non-participatory Stanley Cup ring as an injured member of last season’s Pittsburgh Penguins, spent seven games with the Leafs’ local AHL club, the Toronto Marlies. In that time, he provided 13 assists. Now he plays in Sweden for Djurgarden.

Ron Wilson has failed colossally so far with the Maple Leafs. His record with the Leafs is 49-58-22. That’s 49 wins in 129 games (38.0% winning percentage). But Burke has repeatedly stated that his job is 100% safe. How many people honestly believe that if Wilson (who I do believe to be a good hockey coach – just not here) were not also slated to work under Burke next month in Vancouver, he would not already have been fired? More successful coaches have been fired for less failure.

How about his band of merry assistants? I have been unable to find concrete task breakdowns online, but I have heard on the airwaves that Keith Acton, who has been with the Leafs since the 2001-02 season, is responsible for special teams. Not that they have been good at any point since the lockout, but my special team aggregate score (rating efficiency of the power play against team efficiency killing penalties) has them ranked 28th in the NHL. This includes a penalty kill ranked dead-last in the league, surrendering power play goals at a rate of more than 70 seconds more frequently than the nearest competitors as of games ending December 31, 2009, as they have averaged 1 power play goal against for every 5.5 shorthanded minutes. Six NHL teams have proven able to kill double the shorthanded time as have the Leafs before giving up a goal. Whether it’s Acton, Tim Hunter or Rob Zettler, it isn’t working.

The big question Toronto Maple Leaf fans need to be asking is why they should believe that Brian Burke is paying attention? Why has he not addressed the woeful special teams? Why is Wilson’s job safe? Why has he not been able to come up adequate and ready replacement level players from the AHL to replace the sub-replacement players performing in the NHL? What is his plan to turn things around? Will the Leafs sacrifice more of the future (by not trading assets for future promise) so as to try to avoid the ignominy of having traded away a top pick?

What’s done is done. In the big picture, it no longer matters who the Bruins get with the first round pick of Toronto’s they own this summer. What should matter is what the Burke can do to ensure that they only get one lottery pick. It’s time to tear the house down.

– by Ryan Wagman

Team Profile – Washington Capitals

In Hockey on January 9, 2010 at 10:54 pm

While a compelling narrative could be made for the New Jersey Devils, a quick look at the divisional standings shouts hosannas to the Buffalo Sabres, I continue to hold on to the belief that the Washington Capitals are the strongest team in this year’s Eastern Conference.

The Sabres’ case is strengthened by their 7-0 record against the West (prior to Saturday’s shoot-out loss to Colorado). I know they are widely considered to be the strongest conference, but that mark is held aloft by getting out the gates quickly. Three of those games were among their first four, and resulted in wins against the pre-surging Coyotes, the low scoring Predators (also pre-surge) – both one-goal victories, and a resounding win over the Red Wings, who still saw Chris Osgood as the man to lead them back to the Cup. That victory happens to be the only one of their seven against the West that was won by a margin over 2 goals.

The Devils may not get the respect they deserve. Outside of the ageless Brodeur, they aren’t very sexy, are they? Their special teams are currently in 8th place, on the strength of being above-average (but not terribly so) in both power play and penalty kill efficiency. The Devils have racked up winning streaks of 8, 5, and 4 games, as well as a few more 3-gamers. Since blowing their first two games of the season, they have not embarked on a regulation losing streak of more than 1 game all season (8 times). There was that three game road trip in mid November (Philadelphia, Nashville and Dallas) that held the Devils to a single point, but the issue remains that they have been remarkably consistent. So why do I not give them a chance? Brodeur seems ageless, but proved human last year, with his first long-term injury. His expected role as the #1 goalie for Team Canada next month may leave him vulnerable for a slump. Anyone who says they expected Scott Clemmensen last year is probably lying, and I don’ think anyone would have much faith in the Devils if they had to rely on Yann Danis for any stretch this year. Take away their defense (first in the East and second only to Chicago in the league) and their prowess is doubtful. At 2.85 goals per game (GPG), they rank 10th in the NHL and well behind conference foes Philadelphia (2.95), Pittsburgh (3.02), Atlanta (3.07), and the topics of this article, the Washington Capitals, currently the most prolific scorers in the NHL at 3.51 GPG, more than a quarter GPG over the runner-up Blackhawks.

So…about those Capitals. Unlike the Sabres, the Caps have a very sustainable record, as their 5-5-1 performance against the West is balanced by going 8-1-0 against their Southeast Division foes (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina). With a 14 point lead on second-place Atlanta, their place as a top-3 seed come playoff time seems to be secure. They have 6 games remaining against Western teams, which are more than balanced out by 15 more games within the division – unbalanced schedules are kinder to some teams than to others. This schedule should allow them to earn a few more cheap victories down the stretch than the Devils and the Sabres, not to mention trailers like the defending champion Penguins and the Bruins.

Like the Devils’ offense, the Caps are not known for being strong when their opponents have the upper hand. They have thus far (through Jan.8) allowed 2.74 goals per game, 12 in the league, more than 0.5 a goal more than both Marty’s Devils or Ryan Miller’s Sabres. This is even more manifest in their deficiencies on the penalty kill, sitting 19th in PK efficiency through the end of December. But while it is difficult to believe that the Devils’ offense will improve going forward, it is easy to envision drastic improvements in the defensive game of the Capitals. For one thing, their best goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, has been out with an injury since shutting out the Lighting on December 7. His rehab is underway, and if coach Bruce Boudreau is to be believed, he is about one week away from an NHL return. The relevance of his return is proven by a GAA that is 0.79 better than his nominal replacement, Jose Theodore, and 0.68 better than the third-stringer, Michal Neuvirth. Varlamov’s save percentage is likewise much better than the other two, as he has stopped .924% of all shots against, compared to .898 (Theodore) and .899 (Neuvirth). As a team, the Caps have surrendered 2.92 GPG since Varlamov went down. Expect their team GAA to shrink in the coming weeks.

Moving out from the crease, the Washington blue-line is very much a star-and-scrubs affair. Mike Green, a nominee last year for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman in the NHL, and a “just missed”, almost member of Team Canada at the upcoming Olympics, represents the “Star” faction. Last year, when Green broke out and averaged over 1 point-per game ( 31-42-73, in 65 games), was just the beginning. Through 42 games (he’s only missed one so far), Green has ten goals (4 on the power play) and 31 assists. Looking at the advanced numbers, he is currently 2nd in the league (behind only Duncan Keith of the ‘Hawks) in Tom Awad’s Goals-Versus-Threshold (GVT) statistic, comparing a player’s contributions to what would be expected from a non-prospect from the AHL at +11.8. His adjusted +/- is currently +8.2. One thing worth keeping in mind, however, is his Quality of Competition score, as tracked by behindthenet.ca. At 0.021, he is only 5th among Washington blue-liners, suggesting that Boudreau may be shielding him from the best their opponents have to offer, and leaving the heavy defensive lifting to Tom Poti, big Shaone Morrisonn and bigger Jeff Schultz. With a relative +/- of 11.4 (2nd on the team), 23-year-old Schultz, a former 1st rounder may be an unsung hero on the Washington blue-line. Among regular D-men, Schultz also leads the Caps in blocked shots per 60 minutes at 5.6 and has the highest Corsi Rating (measuring the difference in shots on goal for and against while a given player is on the ice), at 7.1 among Capital defenders. The strength of their top four defencemen has allowed the Capitals to trade away Milan Jurcina, as well as exhibit great patience with former 5th overall pick, Karl Alzner, as he has not yet shown NHL readiness in his limited ice time with the big club. His extended AHL development may yet pay dividends down the road.

Any look at Washington’s forwards must begin (but definitely does not end) with #8, Alex Ovechkin. The Big O currently has the best GVT among NHL forwards, at 15.5 and is behind only Zach Parise in relative +/- at 2.82. In simpler numbers, Ovechkin has an incredible 27 goals and 26 assists (53 points) in spite of missing 8 games, putting on pace for 113 points over 74 games – assuming he doesn’t miss any more time. The current NHL leading scorer, Henrik Sedin, is also on pace for 113 points – but he has the benefit of not having missed a game. How does he do it? Beyond the at turns bullish and graceful stick-handling, akin to Maradona with the ball in his prime, Ovechkin plays with All-World line-mates, generally teaming up with compatriot Alex Semin on the other wing, sandwiching Nicklas Backstrom, possibly the most overshadowed player in the game today. By virtue of playing of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin are ranked 1 and 2 respectively in Behind The Net’s Quality of Teammate score, measuring a given player’s shift-mates. Semin, injury-prone and electrifying would be even more valuable if he was able to fine-tune his marksmanship (among the league leaders with shots missing the net). Semin was slated for free agency after this season, but was recently signed to a one-year extension for $6 million. Ovechkin is locked in until the summer of 2021, at a cap hit of $9.291 million. On the other hand, Backstrom’s entry level contract expires in less than six months. A roughly comparable player, such as Joe Thornton, was signed to a three-year, $20 million contract after reaching restricted free agency. It could easily be argues that Backstrom, being 5 years younger now than Thornton was then, might even be worth more. The Caps have 12 players locked up for next year at a cap hit of $35.902, giving them in the neighbourhood of $20 million for 11 players. In addition to inking Backstrom, Washington also must come to terms with a number of other restricted free agents including the aforementioned Jeff Schultz, the unsung and improving duo Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr, backup goalie Michal Neuvirth (if he isn’t traded), and role players Boyd Gordon, Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle.

We’ll round out the Capital forwards with a look into the character guys, the 2nd and 3rd liners whose job it is to ensure that the opposition cannot rest when the top line takes a breather. A feel-good story among this group belongs to Brooks Laich. A former 6th-round pick, Laich’s career began its ascent in his third full NHL season. After compiling 40 points in his first 151 games, Laich scored 21 goals and 37 points for the Capitals in 2007-08. That was followed up by a 53-point season last year. After 44 games this year (he has not missed a game since the 2006-07 season), Laich is currently on pace for a new career high, with 58 points. Rounding out the character portion of the line-up are seasoned veterans Mike Knuble, Brendan Morrison and Jason Chimera (all added since the end of last season.

While the second and third lines are a drastic drop-off in talent after the big three, they are all potent enough to provide ample scoring support if Semin is knocked out for a game, or Ovechkin is somehow neutralized. As is, the capitals have only been shut-out once this year (by Ryan Miller and the Sabres on December 9) and were held to a single goal twice. This type of scoring depth can only bode well for the team, as does the valuable experience gained in last year’s playoffs, including the comeback against the Rangers in the first round and the riveting, and ultimately doomed, matchup against the eventual Stanley Cup champion, Pittsburgh Penguins. It says here that this depth, in the forward lines as well as the back-line, and the solid goaltending provided by Varlamov, will propel the Washington Capitals to the top of the Eastern Conference in May and to the Stanley Cup Finals.

– Ryan Wagman

Bill’s Midseason NHL Awards

In Hockey on January 7, 2010 at 7:15 am

If I’m not mistaken, we hit the exact midpoint of the 2009/2010 NHL season with one of the games played on Saturday. Therefore, my midseason NHL awards are a few days overdue. I apologize.

I’m confident you will forgive me when you see the airtight and hyperlogical cases I make for each of my selections. I’ve included my picks for the first half of the season as well as a prediction of who will be named the real winners this summer.

Norris Trophy (best defenseman)

Top 3 candidates: Dan Boyle (SJ), Mike Green (Was), Duncan Keith (Chi)
Midseason winner: Keith
Predicted real winner: Keith

It seems odd to be discussing the Norris trophy without mentioning 6-time winner Nicklas Lidstrom…so…there, now we’ve mentioned him. This is a particularly deep category this season and the midseason honour could have gone to any one of my three candidates (as well as Drew Doughty, Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara). I chose Keith because he is third in scoring by defensemen (37 points), eighth in +/- (+13), sixth in shots (106) and third in TOI (26:38). He is Mr. Everything for the Blackhawks, who just so happen to be the best team in hockey.

Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)

Top 3 candidates: Ryan Miller (Buf), Miika Kiprusoff (Cal), Ilya Bryzgalov (Pho)
Midseason winner: Miller
Predicted real winner: Kiprusoff

It’s hard to keep Martin Brodeur out of the top 3, but the fact is that Miller, Kipper and Ilya have all seen more rubber than Brodeur has this season and still managed to put up at least slightly better Save percentages and Goals Against Averages. Miller gets the nod for the midseason honour because his 2.05 GAA and .934 SV% lead all goalies with more than 30 starts. He is the heart and soul of the Sabres and his consistency this season has been remarkable; he has allowed four or more goals in a game exactly three times this season. THREE! He gives the Sabres a chance to win every single night.
That said, I think that Kipper will snatch the award away from Miller by season’s end, whether he deserves it or not. Voters still get too caught up in win totals, and since Kipper plays for a better team he will likely catch and pass MillerTime in that category. Also, if Miller comes back to earth at all, he and Kipper’s peripheral stats will be almost identical.

Selke Trophy (best defensive forward)

Top 3 candidates: Ryan Kesler (Van), Patrick Marleau (SJ), Jordan Staal (Pit)
Midseason winner: Marleau
Predicted real winner: Staal

I’ll bet you are more than a little surprised to see Marleau’s name there, aren’t you? Allow me to make the case for a man who I believe is the single most underrated player in hockey.
Statistically, Marleau belongs because he is a robust +17 (fourth in NHL), plays more than 39 % of San Jose’s 3rd-overall penalty kill, is 53 % on faceoffs and is still managing more than a point per game (44 points in 43 games). Aside from statistics, he makes four or five hustle plays to prevent opposing scoring chances every single time I watch the Sharks. Nobody backchecks harder and nobody is better at picking up a man in the neutral zone on a backcheck.
Sadly, Marleau is never mentioned as a candidate for this award. Guys like Staal, Kesler, Mike Fisher and Patrice Bergeron get all the pub as far as defensive forwards. And to be fair, Staal does play 49 % of Pittsburgh’s 7th-ranked PK, but he is only a +8 and not nearly the overall force that Marleau is.

Calder Trophy (best rookie)

Top 3 candidates: Tyler Myers (Buf), John Tavares (NYI), Jimmy Howard (Det)
Midseason winner: Myers
Predicted real winner: Myers

No rookie has had more responsibility thrust upon him than the 19-year-old Myers. He is a +9 with 23 points while playing more than 23 minutes a game. The physical force is almost sure to be a Norris winner someday.
Howard is flying under the radar this year, but in 24 starts for the Wings the youngster is 14-9-2 with a .923 SV% and 2.23 GAA. He’s added one shutout for good measure.

Jack Adams Award (best coach)

Top 3 candidates: Joel Quenneville (Chi), Lindy Ruff (Buf), Dave Tippett (Pho)
Midseason winner: Quenneville
Predicted real winner: Quenneville

Let me just say that I think the Adams award is a waste of time. Of the last 12 winners, only 4 (the most recent 4) are still with the team they coached to the award. Two winners (Bill Barber 00/01 and Bob Francis 01/02) are no longer head coaches in the NHL. Frankly, I don’t know what happened to them. So what is the criteria for this award exactly? If it were simply awarded to the league’s best coach, either Ruff, Mike Babcock or Todd McLellan would win every year. But it’s no fun to give the award to a coach with a stacked roster, so the winner usually ends up being someone who is perceived to have gotten a roster to overachieve. That would lead one to vote for Tippett. However, the Hawks have been the best team in hockey this year and are well ahead of last year’s 104-point pace, so Quenneville is my pick.

Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP of the league)

Top 3 candidates: Henrik Sedin (Van), Alex Ovechkin (Was), Ryan Miller (Buf)
Midseason winner: Sedin
Predicted real winner: Sidney Crosby (Pit)

With his brother Daniel out of Vancouver’s lineup for 18 games Henrik more than picked up the slack. He leads the NHL in points (58), is a +16 and plays nearly 20 minutes per game. Moreover, he has carried an undermanned and undertalented Canucks squad to a 26-16-1 record, good for 6th in the very tough Western Conference.  In comparing him to fellow forwards Ovechkin and Crosby, Henrik stands out in a few key stats.
Sedin has turned the puck over a mere 25 times (compared to 38 for Ovie and a whopping 52 for Sid the Kid), he has more multi-point games than either Sid or Ovie (18 to 13 and 16, respectively) and is a much more efficient scorer (22.2 shooting percentage compared to Sid’s 15.09 and Ovie’s 14.92). Most importantly, he plays with much less talent than either of the other two forwards, especially when Daniel was missing.
I gave Miller the third nomination over Crosby because no one has been more important to their team so far this season than the Buffalo netminder. As for the real winner this summer, I expect Sedin’s numbers to level out a bit as Daniel continues to shake the rust off. I also expect the voters will be slightly bored of voting for Ovie and will perpetuate the incessant slurp-fest of Sidney Crosby that has overwhelmed Canadian hockey broadcasts since the Nova Scotian entered the league.

Lastly, my predictions for the playoffs are as follows:

West (Campbell)

1. Chicago
2. San Jose
3. Calgary
4. Vancouver
5. Detroit
6. Dallas
7. Los Angeles
8. Phoenix

East (Wales)

1. New Jersey
2. Washington
3. Boston
4. Buffalo
5. Pittsburgh
6. Philadelphia
7. Ottawa
8. New York Rangers

Conference Finals: San Jose over Chicago; Washington over Boston

Finals: San Jose over Washington

-Bill Duke

The 8 Tiers of Team Canada

In Hockey on January 4, 2010 at 2:25 am

Now that the nation has had a few days to catch its collective breath, it’s as good a time as any to take a closer look at the roster that will try to capture gold for Canada in Vancouver this February.
I think we can all agree that assembling such a team is an unenviable task, especially when you consider the high-end talent that must be left off. There just aren’t enough spots to include everyone who deserves to be there.
Still, there were a few shockers (at least for me).
Primarily, the absence of Martin St. Louis is both surprising and disappointing. He’s having a great year (45 points in 41 games) playing on a line with Steven Stamkos, and was one of only a handful of players who actually competed hard during the Travesty in Torino four years ago. I’m not saying loyalty should trump performance, but when a guy has a track record AND is performing, then for heaven’s sake put him on the team. St. Louis’ speed and creativity are tailor made for such a tournament: can you imagine him on a line with a pair of finishers like Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla?

I have a few other minor issues with the roster, but rather than type out a rant in stream-of-consciousness mode, I have decided to organize the invitees and omissions from Team Canada 2010 into 8 groups. This is my best attempt to organize the potential members of Team Canada and assess their situation regarding their inclusion or exclusion. Keep in mind that, for the most part, I think Yzerman and his minions picked a good team. But what kind of Canadian would I be if I didn’t complain at least a little?
Let the griping begin!

Group 1: The ‘they would have had to be dead/comatose/in jail to not make the team’ group

Sidney Crosby
Jarome Iginla
Martin Brodeur
Scott Niedermayer

Analysis: It’s startling to consider just how few sure things there were for Team Canada this time around. But you have to assume that these four guys were shoo-ins all along for their combination of skill and leadership. It’s no coincidence that three of these guys will be wearing letters for the red and white. It’s also worth noting that with his sub par season (4G, 21A, -9), Niedermayer did everything he could to play his way off the team and STILL made the squad as the captain.

Group 2: The ‘they were always strong candidates and didn’t screw up badly enough to be removed form consideration’ group

Chris Pronger
Rick Nash
Ryan Getzlaf
Roberto Luongo
Dan Boyle
Mike Richards
Eric Staal
Brenden Morrow
Shea Weber
Corey Perry

Analysis: The general consensus seems to be that Morrow and Richards were two of the last names added to the team. They’ve both had slightly below average seasons, but are strong two-way players, captains of their respective teams, and world junior veterans. Eric Staal’s season (and Olympic hopes) seemed ruined by injuries and a total meltdown by the Carolina Hurricanes this year, but his strong play of late (14 points in his last 10 games) showed the brass that he is healthy and motivated. He is a worthy addition and will be incredibly difficult for some of the smaller European defensemen to handle.

Group 3: The ‘they were considered too young or fell out of favour and needed to play their way back onto the team, but did’ group

Joe Thornton
Dany Heatley
Patrick Marleau
Jonathan Toews
Drew Doughty

Analysis: I, for one, was shocked to hear Steve Yzerman say in an interview on the Fan 590 that the San Jose forwards were essentially off the team but played their way back on with a strong first half. That’s how totally and vehemently the hockey world had soured on the Sharks, who have basically become the NHL’s version of the Atlanta Braves: regular season brilliance, postseason ineptitude. Well, they have been on fire so far in 09/10 and are the best line in the entire league. Yzerman would have been insane to leave them off and Coach Mike Babcock would be insane to break them up. As for Doughty and Toews, they are worthy candidates and I’m glad that their youth didn’t prevent them from being included. Toews is worth inclusion if only for his prior international shootout dominance.

Group 4: The ‘they always had a decent shot at the roster, just like 15 or so other guys’ group

Marc-Andre Fleury
Patrice Bergeron
Duncan Keith
Brent Seabrook

Analysis: I’ve been beating the drum for Keith since last year’s All-Star break, and Fleury essentially won the third spot by default when someone kidnapped Cam Ward and replaced him with an imposter this season. Seabrook makes sense, I guess, since he and Keith play so well as a defensive pair for the Blackhawks. Look for them to be kept together (Doughty is destined to be the 7th D-man). That brings us to Bergeron, the name that looked the most out of place to hockey fans nationwide. I don’t have a huge problem with his inclusion, but I’ll be shocked if he gets any significant playing time in the tournament.
Word from Hockey Canada is that P-Berg was included because of his strong penalty killing and 8th-best faceoff percentage (58.2%). That’s all well and good, but can you really see him taking an important faceoff in the Olympics over Crosby or Toews (58.4% and 59.8%, respectively). Even Marleau and Thornton (53.1% and 54%, respectively) are so close to P-Berg’s percentage that it hardly seems worth it to include another faceoff specialist. And as for his penalty killing, well that’s a hard thing to quantify, but for my money I would take my chances with a guy like Brad Richards, who does a lot of the same things as Bergeron but with much more offence (Richards has 48 points to Bergeron’s 31). I can be convinced that it’s a good idea for Yzerman to take an energy guy who is tough on the boards over another skilled guy like St. Louis, but if you are going to make that decision, at least go with Richards.

Group 5: The ‘they easily could have made the team and maybe should have’ group

Jay Bouwmeester
Martin St. Louis
Brad Richards
Mike Green
Steven Stamkos
Jeff Carter

The word in Calgary is that Bouwmeester is next on the list if any of the 7 Canadian defencemen get hurt. By the way, how glum do you think the Flames’ dressing room was following the Team Canada announcement? At one point the local media was making noise that there would be as many as 4 Flames on the squad, yet Iginla was the only one to ultimately make the cut. You can’t tell me that Bouwmeester didn’t fully expect to be heading to Vancouver.
But back to the Canadian defence for a moment… this is the deepest position on the team and undoubtedly led to a lot of headaches for Stevie Y. In one sense, it is hard to go wrong picking 7 defencemen from such a talented pool. In another sense, it is foolish to keep someone as offensively gifted as Mike Green off the roster. He is leading all NHL defencemen in point with 39, plays 25 minutes a night and is a +13. He quarterbacks the second-best powerplay in the league and by all accounts a fantastic teammate. So why was he passed over for the likes of Drew Doughty and Brent Seabrook (and if the rumours are true, Jay Bouwmeester)? I think it has to do with his defensive meltdown in last year’s playoffs. He’s not that bad a defensive player (at least he hasn’t been since) but that was a pretty epic failure and Hockey Canada was no doubt a little gun shy to replicate the Bryan McCabe disaster from Torino four years ago.

Group 6: The ‘they had a shot but played their way off the team or got injured’ group

Dion Phaneuf
Vincent Lecavalier
Robyn Regehr
Brent Burns
Simon Gagne
Steve Mason
Cam Ward

Former Olympians Lecavalier, Gagne and Regehr were left off this time, signaling that the brass was serious about the turning the page and moving on from Torino.

Group 7: The ‘they were inexplicably never really considered by Hockey Canada’ group

Marc Savard
Mike Cammalleri
Brian Campbell
Travis Zajac
Derek Roy
Nathan Horton
Ed Jovanovski

Can someone tell me what Hockey Canada has against Marc Savard? Despite being a gifted playmaker and offensive force (97, 96, 78 and 88 points the last four seasons, 22 in 25 games so far this year) he wasn’t even invited to the Olympic camp this summer. You know who was? Milan Lucic. Jordan Staal. Andy McDonald. Dan Cleary.
Huh? Dan Freakin’ Cleary?!?!
I have a sneaking suspicion Savard slept with Bob Nicholson’s wife. How else do you explain such a humiliating snub? Cammalleri was also summarily dismissed, despite his game-changing scoring ability.

Group 8: The ‘they never really had a chance but their names were bandied about nonetheless’ group

Shane Doan
Dustin Penner
Patrick Sharp
Mike Fisher
Stephen Weiss
Stephane Robidas
Milan Lucic
Jordan Staal

Shane Doan gets a lot of love for his Hockey Championship experience, and Sharp was a trendy pick for a while this winter, but c’mon, this team represents the best hockey players that our country is able to assemble. Let’s not fall to far in love with the scrappy underdog picks. Several of these guys might make the 2014 team (if NHLers go to Russia) but this time around it just wasn’t meant to be.

So how do I think Team Canada will fare in Vancouver? There’s no doubt they are the best team on paper, but I’m scared by the possibility that a hot goaltender (ie Ryan Miller, Miika Kiprusoff, Evgeni Nabakov) might steal the tournament. Still, I’m picking Canada for gold, with Russia taking the silver and Sweden the bronze.

-Bill Duke

Happy New Year! A post in three parts

In Hockey on January 1, 2010 at 11:09 pm

1) Special Teams through the 1st Half

1)  Chi -372.527
2)  SJ -352.009
3)  Mon -254.302
4)  Bos -253.956
5)  NYR -211.334
6)  StL -111.640
7)  Was -97.273
8)  NJ -87.917
9)  Cal -81.400
10) Clm -71.173
11) Van -57.047
12) Buf -47.693
13) Pho -33.160
14) Atl -30.834
15) LA -11.149
16) Ana -8.171
17) Phi 13.168
18) Dal 22.806
19) Pit 24.692
20) Det 42.237
21) Min 43.825
22) Col 44.320
23) TB 72.605
24) Ott 111.145
25) Fla 115.528
26) Edm 141.274
27) Car 207.239
28) Tor 207.726
29) NYI 252.646
30) Nas 284.978

The Blackhawks and Sharks, who were both in the top three through the end of November, consolidate their positions with another month of efficient work on the power play as well as the penalty kill. You want impressive? The Blackhawks were down a man for over 81 minutes over 15 games last month – they allowed a meager three goals! Two of them were in the same game, when they lost in Dallas on the 29th. That ended a streak of 8 full games with perfect penalty killing. A combined 44:18 in those games.

Atlanta, the other team previously in the top three tumbled primarily due to a new-found inability to kill penalties. Over the month, they allowed 15 goals in just over 80 minutes for a penalty kill GAA of 10.53. Remember, the NHL average GAA when down 4-5 is 6.71, according to Puck Prospectus’ Philip Myrland. Their power play efficiency also dwindled, but not by much (441.143 down to 489.833).

The biggest change comes out of Montreal. Predictably, the return to health of #1 defenseman, Andrei Markov, gave the Habs a power play worth writing about. Through November, the Habs’ power play was just 23rd in the NHL, at 1 PP goal every 592.214 (nearly 10 minutes on the man advantage between power play goals. December started off well enough, with 7 power play markers in 2089 advantageous seconds, essentially halving their previous average. And on the 19th, on Long Island, Markov returned.

The Canadiens beat the Islanders, by a score of 3-0, with all three goals coming on the power play. Two were scored by the fresh stick of Markov. By New Years’ Eve, the Markov-led Habs scored 11 more power play goals in a mere 1829 seconds, 2:44 per power play goal. This titanic run has bumped the Habs all the way to the 1st half ranking as the most efficient power play in the NHL at 1 goal per 6:21.5. The runner-up Capitals were more than a half-minute behind, hitting the twine once every 6:58 in the power play.

Compare them to the eight bottom feeders, all requiring over 10 minutes with the man advantage to score (with the last three topping 11 minutes): Buffalo Sabres (10:18), Minnesota Wild (10:31), Pittsburgh Penguins (10:38 – a full minute improvement over their through-November numbers), Carolina Hurricanes (10:39), St. Louis Blues (10:41), New York Islanders (11:02), Ottawa Senators (11:07), and finally, the Nashville Predators (11:27).

We’ve already mentioned the stellar penalty killing of the Blackhawks, and we would be remiss to neglect the Bruins, currently second in the NHL in penalty kill efficiency. Look back on the league average 4-on-5 GAA. The Boston Bruins, led by the dual #1 goalies (Thomas and Rask), allowed on two opposition power play goals last month in nearly 72 minutes, for a 4-on-5 GAA of 1.67. If their scoring wakes up, they are well positioned for a big second half.

Meanwhile, holding on to last place (it may be all they have), is the Toronto Maple Leafs. They allow power play goals every 5:30. Combined with a slumping power play of their own, and their combined score dropped from 92.01 to 207.726 (remember – negative numbers are good here). Watching the Leafs, as I am wont to do, constantly reiterates the fact that Vesa Toskala is the biggest culprit of this downfall. He is a small goaltender (5-10″, 195), who plays smaller, deep in his crease and low to the ground. Earlier this year, Leafs’ GM Brian Burke had mentioned his willingness and intention to demote poorly performing salaries to the AHL. The line starts with Toskala. James Reimer, in his first AHL season, is performing admirably, albeit in a small sample size of 9 games. If he is healthy, and as he has not played in December, I am assuming he is currently injured, he might represent the best option the Leafs have to backup Gustavsson, the Polar Bear from Central Park.

Another team worth watching in the special teams standings is the Jimmy Howard Detroit Red Wings. It looks like the patience of GM Holland and coach Babcock has paid off. After allowing 15 goals in his first 5 appearances (one as a mid-game replacement), Howard seems to have taken over from Chris Osgood, ranking in the top ten in the league in both GAA (2.25, 8th) and save percentage (.921, 9th). His play has helped the Wings add 2 full minutes to their penalty kill efficiency, going from 6:59 (27th) at the end of November, to 8:59 (14th). If they can get more forwards (Zetterberg, Franzen, etc.) back from injuries, look for their power play efficiency to improve, and ultimately, their position in the standings, as well.

Finally, as proof that great special teams play does not guarantee greatness, look at St. Louis Blues. Their 5th-ranked efficiency score of -111.640 is held up by great penalty killing, but prevented from really taking off by a correspondingly poor power play. Playing down to the score (is it possible?), they are currently 9 points out of 8th place in the West. Their reverse image is supplied by the Nashville Predators, with an NHL-worst special teams score of 284.978. With the least efficient power play in the game, and ahead of only the woeful Toronto penalty kill, Nashville seems to be winning its games at full strength. Eyeballing the numbers, they seem to be among the least penalized teams in the game (mitigating their struggles on the penalty kill). From Gabriel Desjardins’ Behind the Net, the Predators are 4th in the league in average time spent playing 5-on-5, at 47.8/60 minutes.

2) The US Olympic Team

I nailed 22 out of their 23 selections, missing out only on David Backes (I had Burke selecting young Islander Kyle Okposo in his stead. I might not have said it before, but I’ll say it now: Mike Komisarek is only on the team to justify the outlay Burke made in signing him last offseason. For 5 years and $22.5 million, he must be one of the 7 best defensemen with a US passport, right? Not quite. According to the Puck Prospectus Goals-versus-threshold stat, measuring a player’s overall on-ice contributions, Komisarek is by far the worst among the 23 proud Americans, at -0.7. He has been playing error-prone hockey. I suppose he does block a mean shot. Rob Scuderi may have been a better pick. And, as already predicted, if Paul Martin is not able to play, Scuderi (or Ryan Whitney) may yet get a chance to wear the Red, White and Blue.

3) Fenway Park

Watching the game from the comfort of the new couches in my living room, the visuals were great. Ice hockey with shadows is a treat. The game itself was not the most exciting game of the year (or the week – did any of you watch the Canada-US World Juniors game on New Years’ Eve?), but it ended with a flourish. The Flyers, while they put up a good fight (and I’m not referring to Daniel Carcillo’s KO of Shawn Thornton), did not particularly impress. Michael Leighton may yet steal the #2 job from the generally disappointing Brian Boucher once Ray Emery returns from his abdominal surgery. James van Riemsdyk was pretty much invisible on the ice. Jeff Carter seemed involved in almost each one of the Flyers’ threatening moments. With 6 more shots on goal giving him 180, Carter takes over the league lead from American Olympian Zach Parise.

From the Bruins, I was particularly impressed by the play of Tim Thomas. Yes, he was at fault for the Flyers’ goal, but he also prevented several others with his ballsy and acrobatic play. Not much bigger than Vesa Toskala, he plays much bigger. When he puts his pads down, his back stays straight and tall, giving Thomas more net coverage. When Toskala puts his shin pads down, he also hunches over slightly, opening up valuable inches at the top of the net. Also impressing were the creators of the two Bruins goals, Derek Morris, whose shot from the point began many Bruins flurries, and surprise Canadian Olympian, Patrice Bergeron – great hesitation to get in position to put the puck on Marco Sturm’s stick in the goal crease to win the game.

The only real blight on the game, was the fans’ booing some of the Olympic announcements. I hope the kids representing each player didn’t feel that they were being booed.

Happy New Years, everyone!