campbellandwales

Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

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.
Advertisements

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.

Playoff Predictions: Plenty of Questions Between the Pipes

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

-By Bill Duke

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

WESTERN CONFERENCE

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

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

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

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

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

EASTERN CONFERENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stretch Drive: Handicapping The Rest Of The Season

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

The Olympics are now over and the sprint to the finish line begins. In true Campbell and Wales style, Duke (West) and Wagman (East) are here to lay it out for you.  Without further ado, here are our takes on what to expect in the NHL’s stretch run.

Wales Conference – by Ryan Wagman

With one team already guaranteed a spot (and a top-three seed) and three teams seeing their slim mathematical hopes dwindling every day, there is relatively little to project in the Eastern Conference down the stretch. That said, there is nothing guaranteed in this game and each team still has games to play, and with those games, keys to that organization’s success, either now, or in the future. Rankings are through games of March 14.

1)      Washington Capitals (101 pts, 13 games remaining) – With 101 points, the Capitals have already sewn up the Southeast Division, a top three seed and home ice advantage through the first round of the playoffs – at least. With a 14-point lead on the 2nd ranked team (each with only 13 games to play), they are also odds-on favourites to end the regular season as the top seed in the Wales. As today’s incident reminds us, the key for the Caps may be to keep Alex Ovechkin in check so he is ready for the second season. The other key thing to watch during the Caps’ remaining games is who they play in net. According to GVT, Semyon Varlamov has been the better goalie this year (5.9 GVT in 19.5 games, while Theodore has trailed with 4.4 GVT in 34.7 games. Each tender played two of the Caps last four games, Theodore winning both of his and Varlamov losing his starts. Pay attention to how Boudreau allocates his stars the rest of the way. If either goalie starts to see more than half the ice time, it may be the sign that he will be the man (at least initially) for the playoffs.

2) Pittsburgh Penguins (87 pts, 13 games remaining) – Although 4 points in front of the 4th seed Devils, Jersey has two games in hand and it would not be a shock for them to win those and force Pittsburgh’s hand. If the Penguins can get a good result in New Jersey this Wednesday, they should be able to control their own destiny. Outside of Washington, the Penguins are the best scoring team in the East, and with stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Jordan Staal in the lineup, it is to be expected. The Pens’ accomplishments this season have been felt throughout the roster, as only three even semi-regular players (Craig Adams, Eric Godard and Maxime Talbot) have put up cumulative GVT’s below 0. Going forward, it should be interesting to see how new top-6 forward Alexei Ponikarovsky continues to mesh with his new linemates before the playoffs begin. With six of their last seven games against teams that are currently on the outside looking in, I expect the Penguins to finish the regular season with the Atlantic Division title and the number 2 seed for the playoffs, setting us up for another series pitting Crosby and Ovechkin. Hockey fans win again.

3)      Buffalo Sabres (82 pts, 15 games remaining) – The Sabres have a three point lead on the Ottawa Senators for the Northeast Division with two games in hand as a bonus. Considering a large part of the Senators’ current position comes from their earlier 11-game winning streak, it is fair to say that the Sabres have been the better team this year, game-in, game-out. One factor that may test this team before the playoffs is that 10 of their remaining 15 games are on the road, including the next four against the underbelly of the southeast (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina). The Sabres have only been 15-12-4 on the road this season, so they will have to play at least a little bit better than that to close the season to ensure themselves of home ice and the third seed for the 1st round. Also look for Patrick Lalime to spell Ryan Miller at least four more times (they have four more back-to-back sets), if not more, as the Sabres need Miller to be fresh to advance in the playoffs. The Sabres will win the Northeast

4) New Jersey Devils (83 pts, 15 games remaining) – After a slow start to his life as a Devil, Ilya Kovalchuk has stepped up his game with two goals and two assists in his last two games. In his only career playoff experience, Kovalchuk has two points in four games as the Thrashers were swept back in 2007. Four points behind the Penguins for the division lead, the Devils are also four points ahead of the Senators in fifth and I expect them to maintain their hold of home ice in the first round. Like with the Sabres above, the Devils will want to try to give Martin Brodeur a few more nights off before the playoffs. Allowing four goals to the Islanders on Saturday will not make Jacques Lemaire any more confident in his abilities to produce going forward.

5) Ottawa Senators (79 pts, 13 games remaining) – Since winning 14 of 16 prior to the Olympic Break, the Senators have fallen a little bit flat since returning to action, picking up only 3 points in six games while being outscored 18-8. Like their division rivals from Buffalo, the Senators play most of their remaining schedule on the road (8 of 13 games), where they have been sub-par this season (14-18-1). Their 8 point cushion should keep them in the playoffs, but unless they turn things around quickly, they may be primed to drop a few spots in the seedings and end up with a first round matchup against Pittsburgh. And it says right here that that is what they will do. Ottawa will finish in 7th in the Wales.

6)      Philadelphia Flyers (76 pts, 14 games remaining) – If Ottawa falters, Philadelphia is primed to replace them. Michael Leighton will continue his Cinderella run at establishing himself as a bona-fide NHL goalie and play ten of the Flyers` 14 remaining games. His traditional and advanced statistics have been phenomenal since joining Philadelphia, with a .922 save percentage and 2.39 GAA. With only one shutout in 25 games, we can also see that he is consistent, not balancing perfection with blow-outs. According to GVT, Leighton has put up an otherworldly 11.1 GVT in 23 games, putting him ahead of US Olympians Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick. Speaking of Tim Thomas, there are some similarities in their narratives. Both were late draftees who took circuitous routes to starting jobs when they were already all but written off as NHLers. It’s hard not to root for guys like Michael Leighton. At least for one year. The Flyers will finish in 5th place in the East to play New Jersey in the first round.

7) Montreal Canadiens (76 pts, 12 games remaining) – Only 12 games to go, but unlike some of the preceding teams, the Habs get an even split between the Bell Centre and the rest of the league. Their travels will also be made lighter by playing four games against teams not currently holding a playoff spot. With six wins in their seven games since the Olympic break the Canadiens know that there is little time for finding their feet if they want to play past the middle of April. If they can maintain the power play efficiency, ranked second in the NHL as of the Break (1 goal per 392.188 power play seconds – behind only Washington), they should be able to hold their spot. With Ottawa stumbling, I think they can go one better, and will finish the regular season ranked 6th in the conference, opening the playoffs against Buffalo.

8)      Boston Bruins (72 pts, 15 games remaining) – Matt Cooke’s shoulder may end the Bruins season early. Their offense was already the worst in the conference, having scored only 167 goals so far, 7 less than anyone else in the East. Savard, leading the Bruins in offensive GVT (4.7 – not really that special, which says alot about this team), will be missed dearly, especially if he will miss the rest of the season, which seems more likely each day. They will need a few more games like that against the Flyers on the 11th if they are to make the playoffs. I don’t think they have it in them. Bruins fans can take some solace in owning two picks in or around the top ten in this summer’s draft. The Bruins will finish 9th, just out of the playoffs.

9) New York Rangers (71 pts, 13 games remaining) – While the Rangers are in the best position to take advantage of a Bruins’ slump, I don’t think they are the team for that measure of decisiveness. Henrik Lundqvist has been fallible this season and Marian Gaborik, has little offensive support, his 36 goals currently doubling that of runner-up Ryan Callahan’s 18 tallies. Their remaining schedule includes a six-game road trip, a number of games against other teams still jockeying for playoff position and ends up with a home and away against the Flyers. The Rangers will finish 10th in the East and miss the playoffs.

10) Tampa Bay Lightning (68 pts, 14 games remaining) – They have done themselves no favours picking up only 4 points in 7 games since returning from the Olympics, the Lightning are my dark-horse team to make a late run and finish the season in a playoff position. Between Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St.Louis, Steve Downie and Alex Tanguay, they should have two lines of proven scorers (some performing better than others this year). They have a big and talented blueline featuring veteran Mattias Ohlund, phenom Victor Hedman and the emerging two-way threat of Kurtis Foster (leading Lightning D-men in GVT with 8.8 – tied with Lecavalier). To help with their stretch run, the Lightning need to commit to Antero Niittymaki, who has vastly outplayed Mike Smith this year. They have played a near-equal amount, but Antero’s GAA is better by 0.37, his save percentage is better by .012 and his GVT is 11.9 higher. Assuming Niittymaki is given the reins, the Lightning will begin their rise to the playoffs. Mind you, as the 8th seed, it should be a short ride against the Capitals, but a worthy one nonetheless. Pay attention to their game on the 25th in Boston. A poor result there may negate the aforementioned prediction.

11)   Atlanta Thrashers (67 pts, 14 games remaining) – As Don Waddell promised after dealing Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils, the Thrashers were not sellers at the deadline. With their big move being a trade for Clarke MacArthur from the Sabres, I wouldn’t exactly call them buyers either. If a top team is willing to trade a guy, it is a pretty good sign, he wasn’t highly thought of. After a great start to the season, the comeback story named Johan Hedberg has come to an end. The Thrashers are leaking goals, allowing more than everyone in the Wales, but the basement-dwelling Maple Leafs. At some point soon, John Anderson will turn to Ondrej Pavelec and preview their goaltender for next year.
12)   Florida Panthers (66 pts, 15 games remaining) – Tomas Vokoun kept the Panthers in the hunt for most of the season, but there was no one on hand to consistently put pucks past the opposition goalies scoring more than only the Bruins. After their upcoming three game homestand against high-flying Washington, Phoenix and Buffalo, the Panthers would be well served by looking to the future over the last 10-12 games. Look to see youngsters Keaton Ellerby, Dmitry Kulikov, Kenndal McArdle and Shawn Matthias get more ice time from here on out.

13) New York Islanders (65 pts, 13 games remaining) – With four points in two nights against the Devils and the Maple Leafs, the Islanders want us to believe. We shouldn’t. Rick DiPietro may or may not return to play this year. It doesn’t really matter. The Isles will need him for next year, when Martin Biron will be playing somewhere else. Next year Matt Moulson will have to answer questions about whether this year was a fluke. John Tavares will have to show more consistency and a more well-rounded game. Rob Schremp will get more chances to finally show that he belongs in the NHL. Josh Bailey will continue to develop into a top-six forward (sleeper pick for fantasy next year), as will Kyle Okposo. Another good draft this summer will push the Islanders much closer to being a team to be reckoned with seriously going forward. But not this year.

14) Carolina Hurricanes (64 pts, 14 games remaining) – With a five game winning streak heading to the Olympic break and 8 points in 7 games since returning, the Hurricans are certainly making things interesting, even after selling off most of the roster (excluding the Abominable Snowman, Ray Whitney). Next year Cam Ward and Eric Staal will presumably be healthier. Brandon Sutter will continue to stake his claim to a top line spot. Zach Boychuk will get an extended run. And with less than $42 million tied up in salary for next season, there is plenty of room to bring in reinforcements, particularly on the blue-line, where only Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen are signed for 2010-2011. As I expect them to be picking in the top five in this summer’s draft, their newest member stands a good chance to jump right up into the NHL as more and more first year draftees are now wont to do.

15) Toronto Maple Leafs (58 pts, 13 games remaining) – Without a first round pick this summer, the Leafs have no reason to lose, but no chance to win. The remainder of this season will be about measuring what the young guys have. Jonas Gustavsson will be a restricted free agent and he should get around half of the remaining starts to give GM Brian Burke an idea of what kind of contract to offer him. Youngsters including Luca Caputi, Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Carl Gunnarsson will vie to create expectations for themselves going into camp next year. The core of a future winner may be here, but it’s hard to say just when that future will start.

Campbell Conference – by Bill Duke

-All stats and standings as of Tuesday, March 16

The Campbell (nee Western) Conference playoff picture is slightly less muddled at this point in the season than it has been in year’s past, but there should still be plenty of drama between now and the beginning of the postseason.

San Jose and Chicago are the clear cut class of the conference, ranking in the top 3 in terms of goals for and the top 5 in goals against.  They are virtual shoo-ins for the conference’s top 2 seeds.

Positions 3 through 10, on the other hand, are going to see a lot more action.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Campbell Conference playoff picture as it currently stands with slightly less than a month remaining in the regular season.  I’ve listed the teams in order of their current standings and included my prediction for their final seeding.

1) San Jose Sharks (96 points, 14 games remaining): I’ve written in the past that San Jose is my pick to win the Stanley Cup this year, and I have no reason to waiver from that assertion.  Well, maybe one little, teensy-weensy reason: the sub par play of Evgeni Nabokov of late, including the Olympic tournament.  He wasn’t just bad at the Olympics, he was terrible in Russia’s quarterfinal loss to Canada.  However, forwards Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley were terrific in helping Canada to the gold medal (Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle were serviceable).  Such a confidence boost might be just what the doctor ordered for Marleau and Heatley, who will need to equal their Olympic performance if San Jose is to hoist the Cup this June.
Final playoff seeding: 1

2) Chicago Blackhawks (94 points, 14 games remaining): The ‘Hawks suffered a very disheartening loss to the Flyers on Saturday when Chris Pronger scored the game winner with just more than 2 seconds remaining in the third.  It was the kind of game that exposed the subtle flaws in what many consider to be a bulletproof team: Huet, while not terrible, failed to come up with the big saves when needed; the defense suffered two breakdowns that directly led to Philadelphia goals; Patrick Kane was terrific between his own blue line and the top of the circles in the Flyers’ end while ordinary everywhere else; and finally, the ‘Hawks seemed to take their foot off the gas once they went up by a goal.
But surely they followed that downer with an inspired performance at home to the Captials on Sunday, right?  Not exactly.  They coughed up 3-0 lead and lost in OT.  Am I nitpicking here?  Maybe a little.  The ‘Hawks did play a back-to-back in which they traveled from Philly to Chicago, and they did lose blueliner Brian Campbell to an injury in the first period of Sunday’s game (granted, Alex Ovechkin was given a game misconduct on the play, thus taking the best position player in hockey out of the game), but the goaltending concerns are real, as is the fact that the ‘Hawks are young and may be prone to similar mental breakdowns in the playoffs.  It says here that the Blackhawks will live to regret the fact they didn’t make a move for a goaltender (Martin Biron? Dwayne Roloson? Tomas Vokoun? Marty Turco?) at the trade deadline.  I just don’t trust either Cristobal Huet or Annti Niemi to come up big when the games matter most.  They also could be without Campbell and his 11.6 overall GVT for the balance of the season.
Final seeding: 2

3) Vancouver Canucks (89 points, 13 games remaining): The Canucks look to be peaking at just the right time.  A case can be made that Vancouver should be lumped in with Chicago and San Jose as the top teams in the conference.  In fact, Puck Prospectus’ Tom Awad has them ranked a smidge above the Sharks and Hawks in his latest power rankings.  They have fantastic goaltending, plenty of skill at forward, a great powerplay and just enough grit to go toe-to-toe with anyone.
One thing they lack is great depth.  An injury to either Sedin would sink their Stanley Cup hopes, as would seeing Willie Mitchell (who is currently hurt) or Kevin Bieksa miss significant time.  Bieksa in particular has been prone to injury the last few seasons, so much so that one must wonder if he drinks enough milk, gets enough sleep and takes his vitamins.
With Calgary underperforming this year and Colorado having plateaued, the Northwest Division is Vancouver’s for the taking.  And take it they will.  Eight of Vancouver’s remaining games are on home ice.  They play some tough teams (San Jose x3, Detroit, Colorado, L.A.) but are 5-1-1 since the Olympic break and boast the gold medal-winning netminder.
Final seeding: 3

4) Phoenix Coyotes (89 points, 13 games remaining): The ‘Yotes were as aggressive as anyone in improving their team at the deadline, mortgaging their future (at least to some degree) in order to acquire playmaking forward Wojtek Wolski and veteran defenseman Derek Morris.  They have been a real surprise this year, thanks primarily to the stellar play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, and are a lock to qualify for their first postseason since 2002.  However, their remaining schedule is as difficult as it gets – of their 13 remaining games, only 3 come against opponents currently at .500 or below.
Final seeding: 5

5) Los Angeles Kings (85 points, 14 games remaining): L.A.’s success this year is a surprise only to those who weren’t aware of the fantastic young talent GM Dean Lombardi has been stockpiling over the past handful of years.  Anze Kopitar is rapidly blossoming into a superstar (12.1 offensive GVT, 17.1 overall) and netminder Jonathon Quick has been a revelation between the pipes.  But the real heart and soul of the Kings is Drew Doughty, who is a +16 with 52 points in 68 games.  Not too shabby for a 20-year-old defenseman.  Thanks to a much easier remaining schedule (7 games against non playoff teams) the Kings should jump up and claim home ice in what promises to be a very close first round series with the Coyotes.
Final seeding: 4

6) Colorado Avalance (84 points, 14 games remaining): As much as the Wolski deal made sense for the surging Coyotes, Avs fans were left to wonder why their front office would deal away their fourth best forward (according to overall GVT) during a season in which they have a real shot to win a playoff round.  However, after 6 games in an Avalanche uniform, budding forward Peter Mueller has 8 points and looks as though he may really benefit from the change of scenery.  The real key to Colorado’s success has been the excellent season turned in by goaltender Craig Anderson.  When Colorado got off to their hot start (10-2-2 in October), it was largely due to Anderson’s stellar .939 save percentage and 2.0f GAA.  He suffered through a mini-lull shortly thereafter, but has rebounded nicely and the Avs are a lock for the postseason.
Final seeding: 6

7) Nashville Predators (81 points, 13 games remaining): As of Tuesday, the Predators have given up 198 goals this season, the most by far of the top 10 teams in the conference.  That, coupled with their inability to score (only 193 goals on the season) make them ripe to collapse down the stretch and relinquish the playoff position they’ve held for most of the season. Nashville’s strength is their defense corps, as Shea Weber (10.1 GVT) and Ryan Suter (7.3 GVT) are the type of young studs that any team would be happy to have.  However, any time a team’s top scorer is Martin Erat (43 points, 7.6 GVT), their validity must seriously be questioned.  Goaltender Dan Ellis has been merely okay this year, posting a .908 save percentage and a 2.72 GAA to go along with his middling 3.6 GVT.  Add it all up and you get a 9th-place team.
Final seeding: 9

8 ) Detroit Red Wings (80 points, 13 games remaining): It’s been shocking to see Detroit hover around the middle of the Conference this season after their dynasty-like run of excellence.  However, they do seem to be putting it all together just in time to earn a postseason berth.  With super-rookie Jimmy Howard between the pipes, Detroit may actually be in better shape at the goaltender position than they have been the last few seasons.  It looks like the Wings are destined for a 7th or 8th-place finish, which would set up a dandy of a first round series with either the Sharks or the Blackhawks, neither of which would be very happy with the prospect of turning in an excellent season only to face the defending Conference champs right off the bat.
Final seeding: 7

9) Calgary Flames (77 points, 13 games remaining): While it’s a tough task to make up 4 points on any team in only 13 games, the Flames should be able to turn the trick and overtake Nashville.  Calgary is a better team with the likes of Matt Stajan (whom they have resigned long-term), Niklas Hagman, Ian White, Jamal Mayers and Christopher Higgins in the lineup than they were with Dion Phaneuf, Freddie Sjostrom and Olli Jokinen.  The new Flames’ GVT numbers may not be as good as the departed players’ (the highest rating of the new acquisitions belongs to Ian White and his 2.0 overall) but the team has been more consistent and better at doing the little things since their wheeling and dealing.  More importantly, Calgary has been getting much better production out of Jarome Iginla since the deals.
So far the only duds have been Steve Staios (-0.4 GVT) and Ales Kotalik (-0.4), the latter of which may find himself out of the starting lineup sooner than later.  Their remaining schedule is tough, but given that they play Washington, San Jose and Chicago late in the season (once they will have clinched their division titles), they are unlikely to get those teams’ best shots.  Expect the Flames to see a lot of backup goalied down the stretch.  With continued brilliance from Miika Kiprusoff,  Iginla and Mark Giordano, the Flames will be play just well enough to be bounced in round one for the fifth straight year.
Final seeding: 8

10) St. Louis Blues (73 points, 14 games remaining): After shocking the hockey world last season by sneaking into the playoffs, the Blues have proven that with youth comes inconsistency.  The Blues are still a team on the right track, however, and this blip should be considered only a minor setback rather than the beginning of a trend.  Surprisingly, St. Louis’ struggles this season have come on home ice, where they’ve posted a record of 12-16-5.  Compare that to their stellar road mark of 20-11-4 and it becomes obvious that, had the Blues taken care of business on home ice, they would have been well on their way to back-to-back playoff appearances.
Final seeding: 10

11) Minnesota Wild (72 points, 14 games remaining): With a new coach and a new, offensive style of play, the Wild should be at least a little pleased with their modest success in this transition season.  Mikko Koivu (62 points in 68 games) is well on his way to being a star, while backstop Nicklas Backstrom, despite a disappointing season, looks to be a reliable starter for years to come.
Final seeding: 11

12 and 13) Dallas Stars (71 points, 14 games remaining), Anaheim Ducks (70 points, 14 games remaining): Given their level of talent, both these veteran teams must be very disappointed with their play this season.  They have given up the third and fourth most goals in the conference, respectively, and have only the draft to look forward to at this point.  In the case of the Stars, it will surely be a relief to see Marty Turco’s $5.7 million cap hit come off the books this offseason, however their summer mission will be to find a suitable replacement as backup Kari Lehtonen has proven he cannot be trusted.  Anaheim already made a move to shed their biggest goalie expense when they dealt the underperforming Jean-Sebastian Giguere to Toronto just prior to the Olympics.  Both teams have a lot of upside, but sufficient tinkering with each roster will be a necessity to ensure success next season.
Final seedings: Dallas 12, Anaheim 13

14 and 15) Columbus Blue Jackets (67 points, 12 games remaining), Edmonton Oilers (49 points, 13 games remaining): There are disappointing seasons, and then there are abject disasters.  File 2009/2010 in the latter category for both these clubs.  The only upside is that Columbus and Edmonton will likely be picking in the first five picks of a top-heavy draft. It will take a lot more than a single player to turn either of these franchises around, however, as both clubs have many glaring holes.
Final seedings: Columbus 14, Edmonton 15

Trader’s Special: Campbell and Wales Take on the Deadline

In Hockey on March 1, 2010 at 5:38 pm

After a thrilling Olympic tournament (not just the hockey), a packed schedule forces us all right back into the swing of things in the NHL. A few players are already back in action tonight as Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings take on Paul Stastny and the Avalanche in Denver.

The NHL trade freeze also lifts, for around 72 hours. In light of this abbreviated window, a few GMs got their deadline day shopping done early, with Lou Lamoriello picking up Ilya Kovalchuk from the Thrashers along with Anssi Salmela and a 2nd-round pick for a package consisting of Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Elbows Cormier, and 1st and 2nd rounders. Similarly, Brian Burke got a head start in re-building the Leafs, shipping Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake to Anaheim for JS Giguere, and sending Matt Stajan (now re-signed long-term), Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers to Calgary for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and touted prospect Keith Aulie. The Sutters continued their makeover by shipping Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the Rangers in exchange for Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik. Of somewhat less immediate significance, the Thrashers dealt the disappointing Kari Lehtonen to the Stars, where he will likely be seen as the goalie of the future in exchange for young offensive blueliner, Ivan Vishnevsky. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have began their anticipated dismantling, shipping Matt Cullen to Ottawa and Nic Wallin to the Sharks. The Panthers also put one leg into the seller’s pool by dealing Dominic Moore to the Habs for a 2011 2nd rounder.

So what’s left to be moved? In true Campbell and Wales style, we will be breaking up the action by conference, with Bill “Campbell” Duke handling the Western events and Ryan “Wales” Wagman with his eyes on the East.

The Campbell/Western Conference

-Edmonton trades D Denis Grebeshkov to Nashville for a 2010 2nd round pick: You have to think that this is just the beginning of the Oilers’ housecleaning.  Had Sheldon Souray not hurt himself in a fight (again!) against Calgary’s Jarome Iginla on Jan. 30 he likely would have been the first Oiler defensemen dealt.
Alas, Souray proved again he is made out of porcelain and scotch tape, making it difficult to deal him.  So Grebeshk0v, set to become an RFA after the season, was shipped to the Preds.  Grebeshkov is an offensive defenseman, sort of, with a penchant for playmaking, sort of.  His numbers are less than overwhelming: 6 goals and 13 assist in 47 games played.  He is -16 and has but one lone PP goal.  According to GVT, Grebeshkov has a decent rating of  3.2, but what has to be concerning is his defensive GVT rating of 0.6, which is terribly low for a blueliner.
That modest number is likely due to Grebeshkov’s penchant for giveaways in his own zone.
So why would Nashville make a trade for an “offensive” defenseman with a low point total and a Phaneufian track record when it comes to play in his own zone?  That’s tough to say, especially since the Preds already boasted Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis and…oh wait, I guess that’s why they traded for him.  Anytime Cody Franson, Francis Bouillon and Kevin Klein are regulars in your roster, Grebeshkov is a welcome addition.  To put it in perspective, Bouillon has a GVT of 1.1 and Klein has a very meager rating of o.1.
As for the Oilers, they might as well stockpile draft picks since this season very quickly turned into an unmitigated disaster and Grebeshkov is an upcoming RFA.  The Oilers have a lot of young talent in the pipeline, and still could very well be a Cup contender in the not so distant future.

-Calgary trades G Curtis McElhinney to Anaheim for G Vesa Toskala: In his never-ending quest to find a suitable backup to overworked starter Miika Kiprusoff, Darryl Sutter has once again looked to an ex-Shark tender to round out his roster. It’s a curious move, considering that Toskala has had a rather abysmal season (3.66 GAA, .874 SV %, -15.4 GVT). But Toskala is a UFA at the end of the year, so this move allows the Flames some flexibilty when it comes to the summer’s free agent market.
As for the Ducks, they get a 26-year-old goalie who never really got a chance to excel in Cowtown.  C-Mac was played so sparingly that it was impossible for him to get into a groove. Still, his 3.22 GAA and .885 SV % aren’t great indicators that he deserved more playing time. McElhinney is also a UFA at season’s end.

-Phoenix trades F Peter Mueller and F Kevin Porter to Colorado for F Wojtek Wolski: Seldom does one see two playoff-bound teams make a deal such as this at the deadline. Mueller, a former WHL stand-out and first round pick of the ‘Yotes, was suffering through a down season in the desert. With only 16 points, it’s been a very disappointing campaign for the former Everett Silvertip, who registered 22 goals and 54 points his rookie season before regressing slightly to 13 goals and 26 points last year. According to GVT, Mueller has been performing slightly below replacement level this season, as has Porter in his limited opportunities. Both men have a GVT of -0.1.
Still, at 21 years of age it is somewhat surprising that the Phoenix brass have given up on Mueller.
Not that they’re trading him away for nothing. Wolski is a 23-year-old forward who is gifted offensively and having the best year of his young career: 17 goals, 30 asisists, +15 in 62 games. He should immediately improve a Phoenix powerplay that is currently operating at 14.9%, second-last in the entire NHL. Wolski’s GVT of 6.9 suggests he is a bona fide top-6 forward on any NHL team.

-Phoenix trades D Sean Zimmerman and a conditional 6th round pick to Vancouver for D Mathieu Schneider: Looks like the Coyotes are going fot it this year, doesn’t it? The strategy makes sense, given that the franchise needs to do everything in its power to win back its fans and keep itself from being shipped to Kansas City or Las Vegas. Schneider, who has been playing with the Canucks’ AHL afilliate in Manitoba since December, registered 5 points in 17 games. If he brings a better attitude to the desert than he did to Vancouver, Schneider may provide some valuable veteran leadership for a Phoenix theam that has precious little playoff experience on the roster.

-Edmonton trades D Lubomir Visnovsky to Anaheim for D Ryan Whitney and a 2010 6th round pick: Everyone knew the Oilers would be moving a high-priced defenseman before the deadline, but I bet hockey fans in Edmonton hoped it would be Sheldonn Souray. However, it makes perfect sense for this team to deal away Visnovsky, primarily because he is a 33-year-old defenseman with a $5.6 million price tag that runs through the 2012/2013 season. He has 32 points in 57 games this season and is a rather impressive -4 on what has been a terrible Oiler team. Visnovsky has tallied a GVT rating of 8.9 this season, good for top spot on the Edmonton blueline.
Whitney, on the other hand, just turned 27 in February and has arguably more offensive upside that Visnovsky. In 62 games this season Whitney has 28 points, but notched a career-high 59 in his sophomore season of 2006/2007 with Pittsburgh. He comes with a $4 million salary that runs through the 2012/2013 season. Whitney’s GVT so far this season is 4.0.
So why would the Oilers trade for a more expensive player who has slightly better numbers but undoubtedly less upside over the course of his contract?
Well, Visnovsky has slightly more points on the PP than does Whitney (17 to 13) and is considered a better breakout defenseman with more passing skill. And Whitney was perhaps overrated when he came to Anaheim, which has likey tampered the Anaheim front office’s enthusiasm for him. One interesting note – Whitney has notched 71 hits this season to Visnovsky’s 32.

-Calgary trades F Dustin Boyd to Nashville for a 4th round pick (TBD): The Calgary dressing room just got a little less curly.  Dustin Boyd and his infamous mini-fro have been shipped to Nashville for a draft pick. This is little more than a move by the Preds to acqurie some depth while Calgary ships off a forward for whom they have little use. Since acquiring Niklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik before the Olympic break, the Flames have really reduced Boyd’s ice time. In fact, Boyd has played less than 11 minutes in each of his last 5 games. With 19 points in 60 games, Boyd doesn’t exaclty light up the scoresheet, but he is an energy player who should be an effective third or fourth liner with the Preds. He has a GVT of 3.4 so far this season.

-Edmonton trades D Steve Staios to Calgary for Aaron Johnson and a 2010 third round pick: Can you say Adrian Aucoin part deux? The Flames pick up a 36-year-old defenseman with 0 goals and 7 assist who, for some reason, is still regarded as a guy with some playmaking ability. Staios is a character player who may or may not provide leadership in the Calgary room (were the Flames really lacking in that department?) but his GVT of -1.0 would indicate his best days of on-ice performance are long gone. And it’s not like Staios is cheap – he is due $2.7 million in salary next season.
The Oilers reasons for making this deal are obvious (save money, get younger) but the Flames’ motivations are beyond me.
As an aside, TSN is reporting that this is the first ever deal made between the Oilers and Flames. So there’s that.

The Wales/Eastern Conference

– Florida trades D Jordan Leopold to Pittsburgh for a 2010 2nd round pick: aka Florida trades the rights to Jay Bouwmeester for 61 games of marginally above average 4th defensemen play and the Penguins 2nd round pick in this summer’s draft (should be between 50-55 overall). According to Puck Prospectus’ GVT stat, Leopold has been a little bit above replacement level on both the offensive and defensive components of his game this year with the bub-par Panthers, but his relative plus/minus (+/- while focused on who he’s been playing with and against) has been poor at -6.2, the lowest-ranked d-man in Miami. As per a few more proprietary metrics from Gabriel Desjardins’ Behindthenet.ca, we can see that Leopold has been lined up against slightly better-than-average players, while playing with teammates similarly below the line of demarcation. Florida has called up big Luke Beaverton to make an early impression in his place, but I expect former 1st rounder Keaton Ellerby to get an extended look down the stretch.

For Pittsburgh, Leopold will likely get second-pair minutes, while potentially paving the way for the Pens to deal Kris Letang, a restricted free agent this summer, or Mark Eaton, an upcoming UFA. Leopold gives Pittsburgh an upgrade on Martin Skoula and provides more offensive punch than Jay McKee, both of whom may be relegated to the press box barring another trade. Assuming that the Pens move another D-man, I will reserve judgment on this deal, but I think the Panthers got a good return on a relatively marginal player, and some hope that the Bouwmeester era will come to some lasting good.

Atlanta trades AHL D Nathan Oystrick and a conditional 2011 draft pick to Anaheim for RW Evgeny Artyukhin: While I won;’t be making a habit out of commenting on trades between AHL depth guys, this does strike me as a little odd. While Oystrick has spent his entire season with Atlanta’s AHL affiliate in Chicago(41GP-7G-16A-23Pts-+6-74PIM), he was Atlanta’s #5 defenseman last year, but found himself out of a job this year with Atlanta’s additions of Pavel Kubina and Mark Popovic. Given a shot with Anaheim, Oystrick may be able to fill a similar role, as Puck Prospectus’ Vukota system had him pegged for 2.7 GVT (above zero is a contribution) this year in limited duty. So what do the Thrashers plan to do with Artyukhin? He’s off his usual pace of 3 PIM per game this year and provides something (willingness to use his size) that the Thrashers seemingly are already getting in spades with the likes of Eric Boulton, Chris Thorburn and Christoph Schubert getting regular ice time. Artyukhin has been scarcely above replacement level with the Ducks so far, even playing 4th line minutes against other 4th liners. I wonder what the conditional pick rides on.

NY Islanders trade D Andy Sutton to Ottawa for 2010 2nd round pick previously belonging to San Jose: We already have an overwhelming trend with these late trades. Top four defensemen in exchange for 2nd rounders. It is de rigueur for all so-called contenders. Sutton was a classic late bloomer, a huge man who took his time learning how to use his big body. Never drafted, Sutton was signed by the Sharks as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan Tech after a senior season that saw him raise his scoring high from 9 to 40 points. Four years later, he was a regular NHL blueliner, although one prone to miss 15-55 games a year due to some injury or other. He has been healthy so far this year and somewhat useful for the Isle, playing 2.7 goals above threshold (3rd among Islander d-men) with more than 60% of his value coming from his defensive play. He’ll be the 6th defenseman for Ottawa, and post-trade rumours say that this may be a pre-cursor to the Sens dealing Anton Volchenkov by 3pm Wednesday. Both Sutton and Volchenkov will be UFAs this summer.

Toronto trades RW Alexei the Poni to Pittsburgh in exchange for D Martin Skoula and AHL LW Luca Caputi: Ponikarovsky is an impending UFA and his departure from Toronto has been speculated upon for most of this season. In spite of his shortcomings as a player (he looks like he should be better, but inconsistency has prevented him from ever being more than a 2nd line winger), he represents great value as a late 3rd-round pick out of the Ukraine back in 1998. His 61 points last year are his career high (he has averaged just over 0.5 points-per-game over his NHL career) and he may yet approach that number again with 20 games playing alongside Evgeni Malkin (his new presumed Centre) in Pittsburgh. In fact, Ponikarovsky may now be Pittsburgh’s best winger. Ponikarovsky shows a willingness to throw his body around near the opponent’s goal-crease (in front and behind the net) and this should allow Malkin more space to create. Poni was Toronto’s second most productive forward this year according to GVT, at 8.1, with far-and-away the best relative plus minus (14.3). If Malkin sparks, and the Pens can get back to Conference Finals, this deal will have paid off for Pittsburgh.

From the Leafs’ end, this is about Luca Caputi. Skoula was a make-weight, allowing Pittsburgh to afford Poni’s salary over the remainder of the season. TSN’s Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) tweeted that the Leafs will try to flip Skoula off tomorrow. If that doesn’t work (or if Burke doesn’t unload a Finger or an Exelby), there’s always the AHL. Luca Caputi is the third top prospect acquired via trade by Burke this year, joining earlier trades for Philippe Paradis and Keith Aulie. All three feature in The Hockey News’ recent Future Watch issue. In a roundabout way, these three mitigate the gamble taken by Burke when he dealt away this year’s lottery pick (plus a 2nd rounder) and next year’s first rounder in exchange for Phil Kessel in September. Further judgment on the Maple Leafs will have to be reserved until the deadline passes and we will be able to see what Brian Burke has come away with. The price (the aforementioned draft picks and the waste of a season) has already been paid.

Update: Skoula dealt to New Jersey for a 2010 5th round pick: That makes the full deal Ponikarovsky for Caputi and a 5th rounder. How does Caputi compare to a 2nd rounder? Not bad at all. He is scoring in the AHL at roughly the same pace (approx. 0.7 points-per-game) as Ponikarovsky did at the turn of the century. He may be as little bit smaller than Poni, but has a reputation as a guy who sets up shop behind the net, making him look like a player who will be able to do the same things, maybe starting next season.

Montreal trades RW Matt D’Agostini to St. Louis for AHL RW Aaron Palushaj: I’m not sure why St.Louis wanted D’Agostini (the worst Canadien this year according to GVT at -2.3 and ahead of only Paul Mara in relative +/- at -13.9). I can guess that Montreal management did not see him as a valuable member of their push to make this year’s playoffs, and based on the aforementioned metrics, they could expect to receive significantly better production from a number of their minor leaguers. If not Palushaj himself, maybe Ryan White can make himself useful as the 5th RW. Or Georges Laraque might get to finish the year with the big club.

Boston trades D Derek Morris to Phoenix for a 2011 4th round pick: Didn’t Chiarelli get the memo? Top-four defencemen are worth current 2nd rounders this year. It’s easy to see why Phoenix would want Morris, as he gives them a very solid veteran top-four blueline core of Keith Yandle, Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucion and now Morris. So is Boston giving up on this season? Rumours abound that Tim Thomas may be dealt. I can’t understand why Chiarelli accepted so little for Morris. Lesser d-men like Andy Sutton and Jordan Leopold brought back 2010 2nd rounders, so why only a 4th rounder for Morris? And why only a 2011 4th-rounder? Morris has been Boston’s 2nd best defensemen this year, behind only Zdeno Chara. His output this year (0.43 points-per-game) matches exactly his career scoring output. He’s 30 and has played over 850 NHL regular season games, and only 14 postseason games. Morris is no stranger to Phoenix and that mostly explains his lack of playoff experience. Until this year, the Coyotes have been a fairly rancid franchise, on and off the ice. So Morris looks good to add to his personal playoff resume, while Boston gets next to nothing. Strange times.

Florida trades D Dennis Seidenberg and prospect D Matthew Bartkowski to Boston in exchange for AHL RW Criag Weller, RW Bryon Bitz and (surprise!) a 2010 2nd round pick previously belonging to Tampa Bay: Let’s start with Florida’s haul. Weller is just a guy, a 3rd-line AHL grinder at best. He’s already 28 and underwhelmed in the 95 NHL games with Phoenix and Minnesota. Bitz has struggled this year after a promising debut last year. A number of injuries may be to blame, but at 25, he may be to the NHL what Weller is in the AHL. Florida clears more space, now having traded both late off-season signings for futures with both Seidenberg and Moore now gone. Keaton Ellerby will be the beneficiary of the trade, and reports have surfaced that he’s already been called up to the Panthers. The remainder of this season will be about Florida testing its youngsters and jockeying for draft position in June.
The Bruins get Bartkowski, a marginal blueline prospect currently in his second season with Ohio State. He’s a few years away from AHL action. Seidenberg essentially replaces Morris’ role on the team. While Morris has been having the better season thus far, Seidenberg may be the better bet moving forward. He’s two years younger, and indications are that the Bruins would prefer to re-sign hm over Morris. Seidenberg has more playoff experience from last year’s Cinderalla-run by Carolina alone than Morris has in his career. How much did Seidenberg’s play in that series prompt this trade? Considering his availability on the free agent market last summer, probably not much. While this does not excuse the poor return for Morris, this looks like a good pickup by Boston at an eminently reasonable price. They still have a load of high draft picks over the next two years and are not likely to miss any of the pieces sent to Florida.

Carolina trades D Aaron Ward to Anaheim for AHL G Justin Pogge and a conditional 4th round pick: A very small part of the Hurricane bake sale, Ward has been marginalized (and marginal) most of the year with Carolina. Not much on the return, though. Pogge, once seen as the goalie of the future in Toronto (to the extent that they traded away Tuukka Rask) has since proven to be less than “all that” and failed to hold off Vesa Toskala in two NHL franchises. That says something. His new challenge will be for a place in the pecking order behind Cam Ward, fighting Justin Peters and 1st-year pro Mike Murphy. Further proof that it isn’t only the mighty who can fall from grace.

Carolina bake sale continues with RW Scott Walker moving to Washington for a 7th round pick: For a study on the expected value of late picks, check out Richard Pollock’s article from Puck Prospectus. It probably won’t amount to much. Much like Scott Walker will be able to provide the Caps. In limited playing time this year (a December shoulder injury cost him 21 games), he has been below replacement level and his contract will come off the books this summer. Walker may allow for the odd night off for Knuble, Fehr or Bradley, but his biggest contribution to his new team will most likely come off the ice.

Toronto trades AHL G Joey MacDonald to Anaheim for a 2010 7th round draft pick and LW/RW Lee Stempniak to Phoenix for AHL D Matt Jones, and 4th and 7th round draft picks in 2010. D Martin Skoula, acquired last night is forwarded to New Jersey for a 5th rounder, while a 2010 6th rounder is shipped back to Pittsburgh (handshake agreement kind of thing) in exchange for NCAA D Chris Peluso: The Leafs clear up a few more loose ends with this trio of trades. Stempniak has been a clear failure of the short-lived Cliff Fletcher comeback tour prior to Brian Burke’s hiring. While he showed occasional bursts of tremendous energy, he has more often been just a guy. The return for him is commensurate with his value as a 20-game rental. Joey MacDonald was the Leafs’ 3rd string goalie playing mostly in the AHL. As the Ducks don’t have their own AHL franchise (the only team thus handicapped), he may be able to remain with the Marlies while Curtis McElhinney backs up Jonas Hiller. As presumed, Skoula was acquired simply to be moved on. In an interview with Bob McCown today, Burke admitted that he had a provisional agreement with Penguins GM that if he would be able to peddle Skoula for a draft pick, Burke would send a pick one round lower to Pittsburgh in exchange for Peluso, an unsigned player the Pens have since given up on. The Leafs will scout him over the remainder of the summer and decide if they want to sign him in the next few months. Now the Leafs have plenty of draft picks for this summer’s draft, but nothing in the first two rounds.

In Skoula, the Devils get a guy who can slot in their third pair until Paul Martin returns from his broken arm and try to state his claim for continued action afterwards.

Buffalo sends F Clarke MacArthur to Atlanta for 2010 3rd and 4th round picks: MacArthur has been performing just barely above the minimal replacement level this year with Buffalo (1.1 GVT, team-low -14.7 relative +/-) and he will be a restricted free agent on July 1. I think one of those picks should have been enough, so kudos to Darcy Regier on getting the pair. MacArthur looks like a 4th line winger who doesn’t provide enough offense to be in the top-6, nor is he big enough for 3rd-line duties. Buffalo also had to get rid of him to make room for their big dead-line day acquisition.

Buffalo receives LW Raffi Torres from Columbus in exchange for D Nathan Paetsch and a 2010 2nd round draft choice: There was word floating around that the Jackets were seeking a first round pick for Torres which seemed a bit big. Paetsch (unless I missed a big injury) was an extra blue-liner on Buffalo, appearing in only 11 games so far this season. Torres is a rich man’s MacArthur. Big enough to play on the 3rd line, and provides enough offense to play on the second line. Torres contributed 5.2 GVT with Columbus, put up while often playing with lesser linemates, as shown by his below average “Quality Teammates” metric at Behind the Net. While Torres will be a UFA after the season, at the price paid by Buffalo, I expect them to make a run at re-signing him.

Carolina trades D Joe Corvo to Washington and receives in return D Brain Pothier, LW Oskar Osala and a 2nd round pick in 2011: This may have been the biggest deal of the day for Carolina as they were unable to deal Ray Whitney. Corvo, while he missed some time with injury has made a career as a solid #3 defenseman, able to man the point on the power play (12 PPG since the start of last season) and take care of his own end as well. His two long playoff runs in the last three seasons portend well for Washington’s hopes this spring.

In Pothier, the Caps gave up a body who, like Corvo, has an expiring contract. Pothier plays a solid two-way game, but has an injury-ravaged history and they weren’t counting on him for too much going forward. Osala is young enough, big enough and talented enough to turn into a Torres-type of player down the road. Maybe even next season. And you know how I feel about 2nd-round picks.

There were other trades. The Hurricanes bake sale also point the door for Stephane Yelle (along with a prospect to Colorado for another prospect and a 6th rounder), Andrew Alberts (to Vancouver for a 3rd rounder), Florida picking up some beef in D Mathieu Roy from Columbus for collegian Matt Rust, Tampa dealing veterany-goodness in Jeff Halpern to the playoff-bound Kings in exchange for a 3rd round pick and a 4th-line prospect (Teddy Purcell). The Rangers got blue-line depth in Anders Eriksson from Phoenix in exchange for an ECHL goalie. Finally, Washington solidified its team for a long playoff run by acquiring solid role players in the return of Milan Jurcina from Columbus (they must have missed him) and Eric Belanger (having a solid season with 35 points and a 7.1 GVT) from Minnesota for a 2nd round pick. The Caps are happy to trade a shorter draft for a longer playoff run. Let the stretch begin!

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.

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

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

1)      Cujo’s Pads

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

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

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

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

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

2)      Playing the Role

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

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

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

3)      Notes on the CHL All-Star Game

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

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

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

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

– Ryan Wagman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– by Ryan Wagman

Team Profile – Washington Capitals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Ryan Wagman