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Posts Tagged ‘NHL’

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.

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

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.

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

As the Olympic Bell Tolls; Prepping for the Big Test, and Looking Back at the Games that were

In Hockey on February 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

—  By Ryan Wagman

At the Campbell and the Wales, both Bill and myself have chimed in on some thoughts on the Men’s Hockey schedule of the Vancouver Olympic Games that opened in tragedy and failure before we were able to gawk in amazement at sports that most of us never give second thoughts to more than once every four years. So far, I have been involved in several heated conversations about Moguls and the Biathlon, two sports I honestly haven’t a clue about. While Bill has let the world know what his crystal ball told him about the Men’s Hockey tournament that begins tomorrow night, I have yet to do more than simply comment on the team selection for the North American entrants. Until today, that is.

You may say that I am cheating, what with the first game result already in, and you wouldn’t be too far off. Not that I doubted the outcome, but the process did provide more information as far as what to expect from each team going forward. I absolutely expected the Americans to win today, but I am mildly surprised by the unconvincing nature of the victory. The Swiss only fired 15 shots on Ryan Miller in the American goal, beating him only on a bad bounce from a goalmouth pass by Roman Wick, the type of player who could use a good Olympic run to inspire a North American contract offer. That is, if he wants one. It seems that the Swiss team has a few guys who were drafted by NHL teams at one point (Wick, Raffaele Sannitz, Philippe Furrer, Julien Sprunger and others), and simply stayed in Switzerland. It’s a living, I suppose.

The Americans only managed 24 shots on the Swiss net, manned by Ducks’ stopper Jonas Hiller. I’ll have to see how they do on Thursday against Norway, but Canada probably wasn’t fazed by today’s performance. I fully believe that Canada will take Group A, with a clean sweep. Beyond their mildew performance this afternoon, I am unconvinced by the American blueline, especially after Martin and Komisarek (especially Martin, if I’m being honest) were replaced by Tim Gleason and Ryan Whitney. Team USA will finish 2nd in the pool, ahead of Switzerland, who should be favoured to beat Norway in the final match of the preliminary round and will hope to advance to the Quarterfinals.

The Russians are the class of Group B, called the Group of Death, if only because they have the strongest 3rd seed. That 3rd seed will be Slovakia, the last current member in hockey’s Big 7. The Slovaks have some big weapons in Marians Hossa and Gaborik and the biggest of them all in Zdeno Chara, as well as a pretty hot goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. But depth often wins the game, and the 2nd seed has more of it than does Team Slovakia. For those of you who thought that I was going to name Latvia, I fooled you! The Czech Republic will grab 2nd place in Group B, with a solid veteran line-up top to bottom, and an absolute game changer in net in Tomas Vokoun. Also, the Czechs may have the best washed-up former NHL’er in the tournament in Jaromir Jagr. Compare Jagr with Hnat Domenichelli of Switzerland, Ziggy Palffy of Slovakia, Peter Forsberg of Sweden, Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov of Russia and the great Patrick Thoresen of Norway. Latvia will finish 4th, proud and pointless.

The defending Gold Medal champions, Sweden are the odds-on favourites to win Group C, but if any group has an upset, it will be here. Finland, with its Koivus and Ruutus (two pairs of brothers beats one pair), pose a daunting obstacle to a Swedish repeat. Both Nordic nations have very strong goaltending (this could be a trend) and aging, yet consistent skaters. In 3rd place, I am taking Germany over Belarus, especially after two thirds of Belarus’ top line (Andrei Kostitsyn and Mikhael Grabovski) had to bow out of the tournament with injuries.

With the preliminary round out of the way, I have to stop. I have no clue how the seeding for the Quarterfinal Qualification round and the Quarterfinal actual round are defined. But I will offer my own version of seeding.

1)      Canada – the entire initial roster made it to Vancouver unscathed  – even Getzlaf! – and there are no KHL players involved.

2)      Russia – healthy, but NHL>>KHL

3)      Sweden – Even if they lose the top spot in the preliminary round to Finland, they are strong enough to bounce back

4)      USA – Miller is a great goalie, but there aren’t many slouches at this level. The team needs to gel against Norway. Has to be a statement game.

5)      Finland – This is my gut talking

6)      Czech. Republic – Jagr impresses enough to get a contract offer for next season in the NHL, but maybe not for the type of money he would want.

7)      Slovakia – The health of Hossa and Gaborik is in question, both missing some time leading up to the Games

8)      Germany – The big 7 will soon extend to the big 9 with Germany and…

9)      Switzerland – I would have picked them eighth or even seventh if they had included Nino Niederreiter on the roster

10)   Norway – Oslo is beautiful. But Grotnes is way better than Lysenstoen. Grotnes has to play the rest of the way or Norway finishes on the bottom.

11)   Latvia – my Grandmother was born there.

12)   Belarus – Dynamo Minsk takes some friends on a road trip

Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t post the Special Teams for January’s end. I figured that the short month of games in February would provide a better take on the state of the game. These will be the last numbers posted before the end of the season. For a recap of my methods, click here.

Power Play Efficiency through the Olympic Break

1)  Was 373.349
2)  Mon                392.188
3)  SJ      432.981
4)  Phi    449.396
5)  Van  463.698
6)  Clm  498.022
7)  Chi    505.786
8)  Ana  506.822
9)  TB     526.511
10) LA    527.455
11) NYR 533.024
12) NJ    537.134
13) Edm 545.833
14) Car  548.913
15) Dal  551.111
16) Bos 552.361
17) Det 552.884
18) Min 558.432
19) Buf  571.071
20) Col  585.190
21) Pit   588.293
22) StL   603.447
23) Atl   610.359
24) Cal   613.343
25) Nas 615.184
26) Tor  617.256
27) Fla   619.919
28) Ott  625.147
29) Pho 653.216
30) NYI  707.343

Big gains by Washington, their lately ended winning streak buoyed by incredible success on the power play, with 17 goals in exactly 5000 seconds, or 1 power play goal in under 5 minutes of the man advantage. While the chart above may not show it, Ottawa has also improved significantly, shaving more than 40 seconds off their man advantage efficiency. On the other hand, the Atlanta Thrashers have plummeted, and Ilya Kovalchuk is to blame. Not because he was traded, but because that drop mostly occurred with him still wearing a Thrashers uniform. Since New Year’s Day, the Thrashers have scored only 9 power play goals, in over 2.5 hours of power play ice time. That sucks.

The Maple Leafs are also around 70 seconds less efficient on the power play, but I’d rather not talk about them right now, but to say that the recent big trades may go some lengths towards turning around their special teams.

Penalty Kill Efficiency Through the Olympic Break

1)  Buf   755.321
2)  SJ      745.912
3)  Bos   719.600
4)  Chi    699.226
5)  StL    698.895
6)  NYR  646.744
7)  Mon  617.524
8)  Cal    616.293
9)  Ott   610.725
10) Pit   601.415
11) Col  598.100
12) Pho 593.756
13) Det 572.000
14) Clm 560.366
15) Atl   548.558
16) Min 537.513
17) Car  524.458
18) NJ    522.389
19) Van 519.870
20) Ana 514.531
21) LA    507.750
22) Phi  506.939
23) TB    505.188
24) Fla   495.256
25) Was 483.635
26) Dal  431.756
27) Edm 401.962
28) Nas 399.620
29) NYI  395.642
30) Tor  334.098

Quick note before the Canada-Norway game begins – Buffalo has improved its penalty kill efficiency by almost 100 seconds and Ottawa has also improved by almost a full minute.

NHL Special Teams Efficiency Score Through the Olympic Break

1)  SJ      -312.931
2)  Mon  -225.336
3)  Chi    -193.440
4)  Buf   -184.250
5)  Bos   -167.239
6)  NYR  -113.720
7)  Was -110.286
8)  StL    -95.448
9)  Clm  -62.344
10) Phi  -57.543
11) Van -56.172
12) Atl   -48.199
13) Det -19.116
14) Pit   -13.122
15) Col  -12.910
16) Ana -7.709
17) Cal   -2.950
18) Ott  14.422
19) NJ    14.745
20) LA    19.705
21) Min 20.919
22) TB    21.323
23) Car  24.455
24) Pho 59.460
25) Dal  119.355
26) Fla   124.663
27) Edm 143.871
28) Nas 215.564
29) Tor  283.158
30) NYI  311.701

Toronto is no longer in last. When we revisit these scores, we will be able to see how well they foretell overall team success and how much we are differing from the traditional special teams metrics.

Enjoy the Olympics!

Game Blog – Bleacher Notes from Tuesday Night in Leaf Nation

In Hockey on February 3, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Wednesday, 02.03.2010 / 8:09 PM
Ryan Wagman– on special assignment

Toronto – Sitting four rows from the top in the Southwest corner of the arena, with an oversized Canadian flag in front of Dougie Gilmour’s banner, but with a clear view of those honouring Frank Mahovlich, Borje Salming and Syl Apps, I can hear the house announcer mention that Christian Hanson is now on the roster – called up to be the 12th forward, while Jeff Finger is the odd-man out once more on our relatively crowded blueline. The new Leaf acquisitions are debuting tonight, while the Devils are taking advantage of an away game against the team currently projected to finish last in the Wales (Eastern, for the neophytes among you) Conference to give Martin Brodeur a much-needed break ahead of the Olympics and start backup Yann Danis in goal.

As Dion Phaneuf is called out as part of the starting lineup, the almost-full audience lets out a lusty welcoming applause. More than a few Devils’ jerseys in the crowd tonight, including my seat-mate and good friend, Rafi, who lent me his Leafs jersey as a sort of bet-hedging protection scheme.

1st Period

4:40 – The hometown Buds open the scoring relatively early, on their first real scoring chance, as Nik Kulemin slots in a rebound from newcomer Fredrik Sjostrom’s (pronounced Shoe-strum) shot. I have railed against Rickard Wallin since he began his NHL comeback, but he did well on this play, digging the puck out from a scrum along the boards and inside the blueline to allow Sjostrom to drive the net. The three might make for a productive two-way third line. Phaneuf has had a few shifts and the break in the action allows me to reflect on the physical nature of his game. Did the applause get his blood up?

6:51 – Phaneuf tries to pinch the puck in at the blueline and loses, so he does the wise thing and starts a scrap with his Devil counterpart Colin White. The gloves drops and the crowd goes wild. “Dion, Dion…” I have to believe that he set out to make a good first impression on his GM and the Toronto fans, and he has. The city that embraced Tiger Williams and Tie Domi will always embrace a heart and soul tough guy who can fight and play, something I’ve documented before. It is hard to say who “won” the fight based on fisticuffs alone, but Phaneuf won the battle, as White took an additional two-minute penalty, giving the Leafs the first power play of the game. As is becoming more and more prevalent among Leaf power plays, nothing came of it. (The Leafs’ power play efficiency has dropped from 1/538s to 1/637s since January 1).

Before the big trades over the weekend, I had begun to notice that most Leaf rushes saw the Buds controlling the puck along the perimeter of the offensive zone, and firing many off-angled shots, perhaps contributing to their low goal totals. The rarely went up the middle, either shots from straight ahead or puck-carrying attempts. Now that three of our top nine forwards are gone (guess which one I’m not including…), they seem to be struggling even more in that regard, with numerous pass attempts from the centres down low out to the blueline escaping past the pointmen and killing the so-called opportunity.

13:27 – Another fight. This time, 4th-liner Jay Rosehill (yes he can fight, but I have misgivings about the rest of his game) squares off against the longest name in hockey, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The fight lasts longer than the penalties will, as Rosehill and the aristocrat performed an icy waltz across the rink.

17:20 – The Leafs fully kill their first penalty. Like their power play, this has been a sore point for the Blue-and-White all year, with (by far) the worst penalty kill in the game (1PPGA/317s, a full 50 seconds less efficient than the 2nd worst team – the Oilers).

In the intermission, I get to thinking about the type of crowd who sits up top, as compared to those who sit closer to the ice, where I sat last week. As most Leafs fans know, ducats are hard to come by without means or connections. I have neither, and the loss to the Kings last Tuesday (Jan. 26) was the first NHL game I have attended in over 10 years. In any case, the people sitting up top were much more fun.

During the intermission, Rafi and I went to the lobby for some refreshments. A boy around 8 years old saw us chatting, me in Rafi’s Leafs jersey and Rafi in Devil red, and was shocked. He asked me, completely confused, how we could be friends if we liked the same team. I tried to explain to him that there was more to life than your hockey team, but he wasn’t buying it. I asked him what he did in the summer when the hockey season was “over,” and he replied that he played summer hockey. I was wrong. There is nothing in life outside of hockey.

2nd Period

2:23 – Tyler Bozak brings the puck up the middle (sounds good already, doesn’t it?) and pushes the puck to his left and towards the net towards Alexei Ponikarovsky, drawing Danis over to the left. Poni the pony bangs it off the goalie and the rebound goes up the middle to a streaking Phil Kessel. With Danis out of position, Kessel makes no mistake, firing the puck through the middle of the net, bulging the twine. The Leafs are in front by a pair. I accept that Ponikarovsky will probably be traded soon (I’m guessing Pittsburgh for a 2nd rounder and maybe a mid-level prospect), but his work with Phil Kessel proves that Kessel needs to play with a big guy. When he was paired earlier with Bozak and Kulemin, the trio were frequently outmuscled and Kessel scored a solitary goal in 15 games. Bozak may be alright as his centre, but he isn’t big (6-1”, 180) and plays small. Maybe Hanson will get the opportunity once Ponikarovsky is dealt.

3:33 – The Leafs are put down a man once more, as Rosehill trips old man Deam McAmmond earning a two minute breather away from his mates. And the Leafs miraculously kill another penalty. Sjostrom and John Mitchell (a poor man’s Matt Stajan – I know how pathetic that sounds) carry the penalty killing load.

At this relatively early stage of the game, Jean-Sebastien “Jiggy” Giguere has not really been tested. The Devils have taken 13 shots through 28 minutes of action and Giguere has displayed solid positioning, challenging the shooter when possible, but not being pushed too hard.

14:09 – Not only are the Leafs killing penalties, but they make the Devils pay for their own misdemeanours. Lee Stempniak, near the left point, passes the puck to Francois Beauchemin standing right by the blue line, with a direct line in front of him to the goal. He uses his skate to push the puck slightly forward, steps towards the goal and rifles a low slapshot through the goalie and into the net. From the middle. Either Yann Danis was screened, or he simply isn’t very good. Or both. Maple Leafs – 3; Devils – 0.

17:09 – Giguere finally gives the fans his own personal reason for their enthusiasm. After stopping a Dainius Zubrus wrister from 17-feet out, the puck gets to Travis Zajac to the goalie’s left, with Jiggy seemingly out of position. No matter. Giguere lunges to his left to make a brilliant save. Phaneuf clears the puck for a quick Leaf break. They get called for offsides releasing the boo-birds.

Between that stop and the end of the period, there were five faceoffs. Mitchell took one (he won it) and Wallin took the other four – he lost each one. He’s currently at 45.9% on the season. I’m not really sure what he brings to the table.

3rd Period

At the starts of both the second and third periods, Rafi notes that the fans with the best seats in the house – the fine folks sitting in the Platinum section behind the benches and the penalty boxes – are entirely absent from their seats for the first few minutes of action. 17 minutes is not enough for peeing and sushi.

With the Leafs leading by 3, the third period is a duller affair. The Devils outshoot the home team 12-5, but nothing looks too challenging. Most interesting is that the Torontonians are so used to losing, (myself included) that we don’t accept victory until it is over. The 3-0 lead was still secure with 6 seconds to go before the house erupted in cheering.

The big debuts were capped off by each newcomer getting a star. Sjostrom got the 3rd, Phaneuf (“Dion! Dion! Dion!”) took the 2nd star, and by  becoming the second Leaf goalie to ever post a shutout in his debut, Giguere took the 1st star.

Of course those stars are symbolic, but after a small sample of one, most of Toronto is pretty happy with Burke’s trades. The Maple Leafs looks better, tougher and smarter. He gave up a lot of quantity (30% of his active roster), but their contributions will be replaced. Stajan was decent on faceoffs and put up a lot of points when he was teamed with Kessel, but relatively little on other lines. White, a personal fave, is a solid #4 defender, with solid offensive touch and grit, but prone to clumsy giveaways. Hagman had great hands and a wicked backhand, but was one of the main culprits in the Leafs’ reliance on the perimeter game. Toskala, Blake and Mayers will not be missed at all.