Ah yes, that all important quest for lottery. Some teams strive for Lord Stanley, this season many teams are doing their best to get Nail Yakupov.

Today the Montreal Canadiens threw their hat into the ring. Just three points out of a lottery position, they sent the serviceable Spacek to Carolina, a UFA to be, for the declining but younger and more highly paid Tomas Kaberle. Presumably the justification or at least excuse for this is to improve the powerplay. Unfortunately, there’s not much logic to that. The Boston Bruins powerplay last year went into reverse when Kaberle landed in the Hub. The Carolina Hurricanes powerplay is better than the Canadiens this year yet both are in the bottom five league wide. Kaberle’s numbers have also been in decline for the past several seasons, and with 3:58 second of PPTOI with the Canes, it’s hard to figure out how the Habs think this is an improvement.

The Carolina Hurricanes are limping along in 28th place in the NHL. While Spacek probably can’t hurt their lottery hopes, with his injury issues it does give them further opportunity to shuttle players back and forth between the NHL and AHL. If they are unlucky one of the youngsters could be good enough to boot them from a lottery position.

The Blue Jackets have worked hard for the last month but are still at the bottom of the NHL’s standings. If they manage to win Saturday against the Boston Bruins they might slip from the best odds for the man called the greatest Russian prospect since Ovechkin.

The Anaheim Ducks are doing their part to stay in the mix for Yakupov. With scoring depth among their many issues have decided to allow Devante Smith-Pelly to play in the World Junior Tournament. As he’s recently found his scoring touch, it’s clear that the five to seven games he’ll miss as part of the tournament are important. With two key divisional matchups against the San Jose Sharks during the tournament, the Ducks are nearly assured of being passed by the Blue Jackets.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the surprise to jump beneath the hammer. With Marcel Goc doing a creditable job as their number one goaltender they are in danger of slipping from the lottery despite a goal differential 29 worse than the division leading cross state theoretical rivals the Florida Panthers. As a franchise that has finished in the bottom five multiple times since the lockout, clearly what they need to do is draft more offense.

The sixth iteration of the New York Islanders five year plan might just be completed by this Russian. With nearly 30 years elapsed since the last time the Islanders won a Cup, they are in prime position for a stealth trip to the top of the lottery odds.  The loafing about in 27th is the perfect pose. All they need to do is trade a few of their veterans between January and the deadline and they can plunge those last three spots into 30th. If Pierre Gauther can’t take any of their contracts off their hands maybe they can bring up Anders Nilsson to get some more NHL seasoning.

Through 18 games the once sensational Eric Staal is still trying to get the engine to turn over. He’s a league worst -17, and his 4-4-8 line has people scratching their heads all over the hockey world.

Goalies:

  • Jacob Markstrom is back in the AHL playing for an offensively disabled team, while Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen  but don’t be surprised to see him back in Sunrise if the Panthers get an offer they can’t refuse for one of the two senior goalies.
  • Jhonas Enroth has the reigns in Buffalo after an unfortunate collision between the nominal number one goalie and an opposing forward. With a stellar .942 sv% and impressive 1.76 gaa, you have to wonder how many games he’ll get this season. If he’s in the #1 role long enough and still playing near this level it becomes a tough call to turn the job back over to a starter who hasn’t performed as well.
  • Thomas Greiss is 3-3-o in starts for the Sharks this season. Like Markstrom, he’s behind not one but two older goalies on the depth chart, and like Enroth he’s outplaying his teammates. his .919 sv% and 2.15 GAA are notable improvements over Niemi’s .903 and 2.74.
  • Ben Scrivens is the latest goalie of the future in Toronto. He’s been better than Gustavasson, with a .904 and 2.92 through five starts and six appearances.

Defensemen

  • Marc-Andre Gragnani leads all rookie defensemen in points, and sits at a +5 on the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Up on his second recall to the LA Kings this season is Slava Voynov, he’s playing over twenty minutes a game, has three points in his first five games, averaging just over 3 minutes a game in PPTOI means he’s likely to see a good number of points.
  • Jared Cohen is on pace for 208 hits and could hit triple digit blocked shots for the Senators, if he can find a few goals along the way the towering 2009 first round pick will make a name for himself.
  • The New Jersey Devil’s Adam Larsson is very quietly having himself a nice freshmen season. While the team has struggled he’s played a solid game with over 23 minutes of ice time each night, he’s second in hits for rookie blueliners, and sixth in scoring.

Forwards

  • Craig Smith is tied for the rookie scoring lead, on a point per minute basis he’s doing quite a bit more than Nugent-Hopkins getting a minute and a half less ice time per game.  Smith is also tied for the Predators scoring lead.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has slowed a bit off the season opening scoring bonanza but has still produced enough to stay at the front of the pack. His plus/minus is two higher than Smiths, and he’s second on the Oilers to that other Ryan forward in scoring.
  • Luke Adam is right behind Nugent-Hopkins and Smith with just one less point. He’s the rookie leader in assists and playing two minutes less per game than Nugent-Hopkins.

Names to watch:

Roman Horak is getting some important minutes on the Calgary Flames, not a lot of them yet, but with both short handed and powerplay time on the clock it’s obvious he’s got the trust of the bench boss. Gabriel Landeskog leads rookie forwards in time on ice, and with 45 hits and 12 blocked shots its obvious he’s not loafing in the neutral zone. Sean Couturier and Matt Read are making solid contributions to a stacked Flyers team. Nate Prosser is eating a lot of minutes for the Wild. Jonathan Blum of the Nashville Predators is on pace for 212 blocked shots, and has shown a scoring touch at lower levels.  Adam Henrique is quickly making himself a household name among Devils fans.

Last year after signing a still debated contract Ilya Kovalchuk got off to a poor start and was the bench mark for rookie performance. This year, I can think of no star more deserving than Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes. No one is sure if the tailspin his career is the result of guilt from potentially ending his own brothers career, or the extended confusion caused by not being able to find the other Erik who used to share the ice with him.

Forwards:

  • The Edmonton Oilers once again had the first overall pick in the draft, and he is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While some questioned his ability to make an immediate impact in the NHL, he  is currently leading tied for the lead in rookie scoring.
  • Ask 100 hockey fans who’s tied with RNH for the rookie scoring lead, and you might get a double handful who come up with Luke Adam center for the Buffalo Sabres. Nugent-Hopkins has the better +/-, Adam wins more faceoffs and has achieved his points in significantly less minutes.
  • Right behind them with one less point is Nashville’s second leading scorer Craig Smith. Given the NHL’s lack of a picture to identify him, one can only assume he is Amish, which makes his career choice amazing, and his success highly admirable. Of the top three scorers he is clearly the most physical, and is currently on pace for 82 hits.

Defensemen:

  • Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils leads all rookies in time on ice with a mind boggling average shift length of 59 seconds. The scoring hasn’t come yet, but with nearly 24 minutes of ice time a night it has to come eventually for last June’s #4 pick and 1st defenseman.
  • Jake Gardiner skated onto the scene in training camp for the Maple Leafs and earned himself a spot on the crowded Toronto blueline. So far the small, slick skating defenseman has five assists on the season, enough for him to lead all rookie defensemen in scoring.
  • The Sabres second entry in the race for rookie recognition is Marc-Andre Gragnani, second in rookie scoring and with the best +/- among all rookie defensemen.

Goaltenders:

  • Sneering at the trend towards ultra-large goaltenders is Buffalo Sabres backup goalie Jhonas Enroth, listed at 5′ 10 he’s still putting up big numbers. Through four games he’s got a 1.29 GAA and .958Sv%.
  • With four starts Jacob Markstrom of the Florida Panthers is already endearing himself to fans and teammates. Slightly larger than Enroth at six and a half feet tall, he leads all rookies in saves and is sporting a2.05 GAA and .944 Sv%
  • Fussen Germany and San Jose Sharks goalie Thomas Greiss is putting up solid numbers for the  perennial regular season favorites. His 1.99 GAA and .928 Sv% are not just solid, but better by a wide margin than starter Antti Niemi’s.

Eric Staal’s numbers heading into today’s action, his line is 3-2-5 -14 through 13 games. The -14 is particularly significant because the next nearest forward is only a -5. Staal is currently averaging 19:58 a game in TOI, Anthony Steward who gets just 7:48 a night also has 3 goals and is a +1.

The NHL entry draft always has a ton of drama surrounding it. Most of it centers on the first selection and teams that may or may not be dealing from the bottom of the deck to improve their lottery odds. In some cases it is a team that trades away its known talent around the deadline for high picks, or a bushel of middle picks they hope to use to move up at the draft. Often the chase for high picks in the draft begins two or three seasons out with projections of a draft class that might or might not be stronger than the ones on either side of it.

This year despite a lackluster twenty five points in his seven games is Nail Yakupov is the consensus number one pick. Comparisons by scouts already have him as the same level of player as Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin.

@ @ @ and he will be only the third Russian to go no 1 (Kovalchuk/Ovechkin) That's pretty good company
@dominictiano
Dominic Tiano
@ @ @ barring injury, yakupov will make it impossible to not go no 1. No chl plyr has his impact this year
@BryanThiel_88
Bryan Thiel

Of the bottom seven teams from last year, only three of those teams are in the same zone now. The Senators, the Jets, the Blue Jackets are all performing poorly thus far. While it is only a few games into the season history tells ups the NHL’s standings at any point in October are less important than any other month. Most would say these three teams are performing at about the projected level.

Of the team that were in the playoffs or that no mans land between the top eight in each conference and the draft lottery some have had significant talent leave without a compensating inflow of talent. Highest on that list is the lost of Ilya Bryzgalov by the Phoenix Coyotes. The Dallas Stars also hold a prominent place on the list as well with the loss of Brad Richards. With the post-Iginla era cresting the horizon the Flames who missed the playoffs last year might not have to do much hit the lottery.

Already playing the western conferences toughest division, they lost a goalie who has been nominated for the Vezina in 2010 and played 202 of their previous 246 regular season games. The Coyotes have also had a very long running set of negotiations with Kyle Turris over his contract. The combination of the loss of a center on a team without much depth their to a labor dispute, and a world class goalie has the potential to be huge.

The Dallas Stars, one of the NHL teams going through ownership drama, did bring in two time 30 goal man Michael Ryder the talent shipped out is not balanced. With James Neal sent to the Penguins at the deadline, and Richards lost to free agency there is still a big gap between what the team was and where it is now. Michael Ryder turned in a playoff performance that made it possible for him to get an NHL contract this year, and has looked solid thus far how long will it last? Ryder has a well documented history of highly irregular production. If he’s producing regularly at the end of January might he get traded to a team needing to get better for a playoff push? Picking up a second round pick (or potentially more) for the second year of his contract would have to be tempting.

Jarome Iginla is 34 years old.  Jarome Iginla is playing on the team with the second highest average age in the NHL. Jarome Iginla is playing on a team that hands out no movement clauses like Halloween candy. Jarome Iginla is awesome, no really. Awesome. He’s never had a center who could stay within shouting distance of him and has still put up huge numbers. Unfortunately for the man with the longest name in NHL history, he’s also on a team with minimal hope of winning the Stanley Cup before his current contract expires after next season. For him a move to a strong team he could put over the top might become appealing, especially if he leaves on good enough terms to return in two years (see Keith Tkachuk) to the city he’s spent his career in. For the team, getting back prospects or picks and moving closer to this seasons holy grail might be irresistible. Done right it can be as well received as Ray Bourque’s departure from Boston.

While the Edmonton Oilers have a rather Penguins like string of high draft picks already and are off to a start that has them tied for sixth in points it is unlikely they stay there. After tie breakers they are in 9th in the west.  Worse, through four games they have nine goals, five of them credited to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  While there’s no doubt adding Yakupov to the lineup could take a young offensive unit to the heights it hasn’t seen since a certain trade with Los Angeles before most of their roster started playing hockey, the NHL isn’t the same animal it was then.  So if they somehow managed to get the first pick in the draft, again, and decided to build their blueline up instead, Mathew Dumba, Nick Ebert, Ryan Murray, Jacob Trouba are just a few of the high end defensemen who could be picked up with an extra pick or two in the top forty-five picks.

The fun quest all season will be to see who can get publicly hammered with the least attention for it.

One of the few annual stories that is always interesting is the race for the Calder trophy. There’s always a high draft pick or two from the summers draft in the mix. A couple guys from the AHL or Europe who made the jump to the big show, and a few 2nd round or later picks who might just steal the show.

Some of the guys to watch this season:

  • Adam Larsson has two nearly insurmountable handicaps in the Calder race, first he’s a defensemen, and second he doesn’t project to be a big goal scorer. On the other hand he’s averaging more time on ice than Lidstrom, Pronger, Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo, Hedman, Vishnovsky and Seabrook.
  • Devante Smith-Pelly hasn’t quite hit his stride yet, but the coaches in Anaheim must like the six even two eleven winger as he’s picked up his first assist and earned more ice time in each of the Ducks three games. With Jason Blake out for a couple months there will be more ice time available.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is either the second coming of Wayne Gretzky and Jesus or not yet ready for the NHL, it just depends on who you ask. The scrawny Burnaby native has four of the five goals for the Oilers this season without a single assist. Unfortunately he’s got a faceoff percentage that’s equal to his age and less than half his shooting percentage.
  • Luke Adam of the Sabres is currently leading all rookies in scoring with solid 3-3-6 +2 line. The 202lb left shot is like Smith-Pelly probably handicapped by not being either a first round pick or in a market the media pays a huge amount of attention too.
  • Gabriel Landeskog is off to a nice start with two goals and an assist as the the Avalanche start the season with some momentum. The likely-former Kitchener Ranger is good at most of the game and skating beside Matt Duchene, another recent high pick.
  • Craig Smith is another player handicapped by market who is off to a good start. The Predators young gun is a fourth round pick in 2009. A product of the USHL, at 22 he’s the oldest of the rookie skaters to separate himself from the pack thus far.

It will be interesting to see if any goalies can insert themselves into the mix this season. I don’t yet see any on the horizon but the NHL is frequently unpredictable.

Of all the players in the National Hockey League yet to win a Stanley Cup, there are a few that standout as more deserving for one reason or another. Many players will go their entire career and never even get a sniff of the Cup these three players are inching close and closer to that sad eventuality. Daniel Alfredsson, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan have all seen a lot and all to often been a super-concentration of one or more of the following on their team: talent, drive, character.

Shane Doan was drafted in 1995, seventh overall by the Original Winnipeg Jets. A year after he entered the NHL, the team was uprooted from the Canadian plains to the desert southwest. Financial distress has been the norm. Chaos, disorder and despair have been the order of the day on the operational front from head coaches all the way up the chain. Players who were drafted high by the team refusing to sign there. Through it all Doan has been everything to the team. Captain, 30 goal man, rock of the special teams and physical presence are just some of the hats he’s worn all at once over the years. It’s hard to imagine the team still existing without Doan.

Drafted four slots behind him is another captain and franchise icon. Jarome Iginla. Say those two words to any fan of the game and immediately the image of a hard skating, high scoring, hit machine spring to mind. Iginla is perennial member of the 30 goal club who should cash in on his 500th goal early this season it is somewhat scary to contemplate how many more points he would have racked up in his career if he’d ever had a legitimate number one center to play with. Rarely does a winger annually lead their team in points, and yet he has. He’s done it at nearly a point per game pace sans a high end pivot since his first season.

Daniel Alfredsson may just be the most remarkable of these three based on where he came from. Gothenberg Sweden is a long way from the Canadian capital city. Today Gothenberg is roughly half the size of the hockey mad Ontario city where Aldredsson has played more than 1000 games. A sixth round pick hailing from Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League he leads the second highest scorer in his draft class (Patrik Elias) by over two hundred points. While Alfredsson was close to a cup win once, management retention strategies led to one of the best defensive units of the last generation trickling away to other teams including Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara.

The question surrounding all three of these players is: Will the stay? Iginla with a seven million dollar contract for this and one more season is probably the hardest to move in terms of money, but he’s also the youngest and highest scoring of the trio. With his 39th birthday just a couple months away Alfredsson is the eldest, and his team is at the low ebb of a rebuild that could take year that just aren’t on his clock.  Doan has repeatedly stated his desire to remain in Phoenix and has been a part of the community since touching down, but no one as competitive as he is could be satisfied with a career that ended short of the Stanley Cup.

Each of these men controls their own destiny in terms of movement, Iginla and Doan have no movement clauses, and Alfredsson is his teams captain and most respected player. While I can’t see any of the three making a lateral move, I have to wonder if a team favored to win it all came calling if they might all sign off on the move. Iginla playing on the right and Ovechkin on the left would be stunning. Alfredsson taking passes from Joe Thronton is nothing to sneeze at either. And Shane Doan would probably take almost a full shift to endear himself to the crowds in Boston taking the ice to Patrice Bergeron’s right.

By now the tale of Tim Thomas is well known to hockey fans. Overlooked, under appreciated, often undervalued and constitutionally incapable of giving up. Well, the Flint Michigan boy has made good. Real good. That may make this the most interesting season of his career for observers.

After all, what does he have left to prove? He’s picked up not one but two Vezina trophies in three years. He owns a Jennings Trophy. He snatched up the record for post season saves this spring. He played in the Olympics he’s practiced in the Lake Placid Olympic facility where his dream was born. He’s got his name on the Stanley Cup. And the list of honors wouldn’t be complete without noting he got the Conn-Smyth which isn’t just an award for being the best goalie, but th best of all the players in the post season.

With all that accomplished many will wonder how he motivates himself this year. Its pretty simple, despite having topped all the levels of success he dreamed of, there are still a few questions left. There are still a few things he can do. The most obvious is punch a sure ticket into the hall of fame. Sure, Chris Osgood is likely to get in so how hard can it be? That said Tim Thomas has yet to hit 200 career regular season wins. He hasn’t yet had a 40 win season either. By some quirk of fate he does have a chance to hit both marks this season. He could even, at least in theory improve upon last seasons save percentage. Another statistic he could stack up is shutouts. He’s not yet finished a season as the shutout leader.

This season, Tim Thomas is just one of the stories PuckSage.com will be following and updating throughout the hockey year.