With perhaps the most complete team in the NHL, and a team anyone who knows anything about the NHL, penciled inked into the top five teams in the league back in September, one must wonder how we all got it so, so wrong.

Is it Marty? Is Sean Avery’s favorite goalie melting down faster than Mel Gibson? While it’s true that his .901 SV% is not just the lowest of any full season in his career, but is well below his .914 average, and his 2.74 GAA is .40 higher than his career average, he’s not the only goalie who has flown high who is now looking up at the pack. Hiller, Khababulin, Kiprusoff and Anderson all have a worse GAA than Broduer. His SV% is exactly what Jeff Deslauriers finished last season with. True, we’re a mere seventeen games into Broduers season, and we don’t really expect the guy at the top of the goalie stats to stay there, so maybe, MB30 will climb back into familiar territory.

Is it Ilya Kovalchuk? The $100,000,000.00 man is also, hands down having the worst season of his career. In twenty five games this year, he’s got a line of 5-6-11 -15, after his arrival in New Jersey last year he played twenty seven games and had a line of 10-17-27 +9. In his career he’s averaged 3.65 shots on goal per game. This season, the Tver Russia native is down to 2.96 shots per game.

What about Langenbrunner? The 35 year old team Captain is on pace for just 11 goals, not surprisingly this would be the least goals he’s scored since the lockout. In fact to find a goal total lower than that you have to go back all the way to 2003-4 season where he scored just to in 53 games.  He’s also got the worst plus minus of his career a -12, of the teams forwards only Kovalchuck is worse. This is a shocking development in a guy who last year was a plus six, and the year before was a +25 to go along with a career +60.

What about the defense you say? Well, that’s just ugly. As if Broduer’s slippage wasn’t enough, bearing in mind that he’s played just half their games, and has more shutouts and a better GAA than either man to substitute for him, it isn’t terribly surprising to learn that the Devils have allowed a sixth worst 2.96 GAA on the season.  Even allowing for the turnover, and better goalie play in Boston this year as a team they went from 2.27 GAA defense to 2.96 seemingly overnight.

At least the offense is pitching in right? Um, if by pitching in you mean contributing to their chances of taking the first overall pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft, you’d be right. As of today, they have a 1.78 GF/G average, lower than 29th place by about a third of a goal per game.

Has anyone been injured? At this point it is probably just as sensible to ask who hasn’t been injured. Of the 29 skaters to suit up for the Devils this season, in just 27 games, only seven have played all 27 games. Among those to miss time are defensive defenseman Anton Volchenkov, Langenbrunner, Parise, Fraser, Rolston. When you consider that Volchnkov was brought into be their defensive workhorse and is tied for the team lead +/- with a +2, you have to wonder how much less bad the team would be had he been on the ice all season. Not to be overlooked is that the Devils have played nine rookies to date this season.

If all those things are so bad sure it’s gotta be the coach! Ah, well maybe not. True John MacLean‘s a first year coach who’s only previous head coaching experience was as head coach of the New Jersey Devils AHL affiliate. It’s interesting to note that the then Lowell and now Albany Devils had both their longest losing streak, and their best points total in his season as head coach. One factor working against the coach is how different his style is from both the previous coach of the Devils, and that of the coaches of the off season and trade deadline acquisitions not to mention rookies making the double adjustment of new team and minor or amateur ranks to the NHL.

With all these factors playing a part of the huge equation that is the success, or lack their of, of a NHL team, there is one huge integer, or possibly exponent that I’ve not seen covered anywhere.  Buried under all these injuries, and worst seasons ever, and first seasons ever is the fact that there has been a lot of turnover not just on the roster, but in team philosophy.  Since the year started about half the roster has turned over, much of it on defense. On top of that there has been a redefining of roles among the forwards and team as a whole.

Prior to this season, when all else failed, when the opposition beat five skates dead to rights and came to the crease with blood in their eye, Martin Broduer could be counted on to stonewall them at a ridiculous rate. Before this spring Zach Parise as the guy who scored goals when you needed them. Langenbrunner was the leader. Zajac was the well rounded forward who did what was asked in all three zones. With the acquisition of Kovalchuk before the trade deadline, you get a guy who was team captain for years, has had a better goal scoring career than any of his new teammates, and who knew his job was to get open and bury the puck. That’s it, two jobs, no backchecking, no looking off the defense with a pass to someone else who owned a legitimate scoring shot, no plays drawn up on the board that didn’t feature use as the primary weapon in the powerplay.

As respected as Zajac, Parise, and Langenbrunner were, none of them has ever been a superstar. If they had been the face of the Atlanta Thrashers in Kovalchuks place, the team would have been packed off to Winnepeg, Quebec City, Ontario or parts unknown years ago (assuming the ownership group could agree on the color of money) and they’d probably have been scapegoated. MB30 has been the face of the New Jersey Devils, even he is overshadowed by Kovalchuk. Number 17 even has his own feud going with Elisha Cuthbert’s most pesky ex. When you look at the top performers in the NHL, every single one of them, regardless of their position knows the style of play expected of them, and where they are supposed to be on the ice and what they are supposed to be doing there. Draw up any play, in any situation you like, abduct Mike Babcock and staff from behind the Red Wings bench, and I’ll bet you Oprah-bucks that Lidstrom, Rafalski, Datsuyk, all know which X is them without anyone saying a word. Hop on I-94, rinse and repeat with Toews, and Keith and get the same result.

While it’s certainly not the only problem, I think giving the team time to settle into place after the roster and religious upheaval of the last season or so is only reasonable. Take a look at last seasons Montreal Canadiens, everyone laughed themselves sick at the assembly of Smurfs and the no-name defense lolling passively along behind them. Now (years too late for some) the entire NHL knows their names.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League

Teams:

  • If I told you in September that if the season ended at the quarter poll, that the Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Dallas Stars would all be in the playoffs….
  • If I told you in September that the bottom five New York Islanders would have an extended losing streak, fire their head coach with wide internal criticism, and then get worse…
  • If I told you in September that the Bruins would be without their top center, and one of their top goal scorers of the past three years and still be in 11th in goals for…
  • If I told you in September that the New Jersey Devils, would have less points than the Edmonton Oilers…
  • If I told you in September the New Jersey Devils, Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres, and Colorado Avalanche would all be on the outside looking into the playoff race…

…would you have asked me where you could get some of the fun drugs too?

Players:

  • If I told you in September that Ilya Kovalchuk would have less goals than Milan Lucic at any point this season…
  • If I told you in September Patrick Sharp would lead not just his team, but the entire Western Conference in goals, and be fourth in goals…
  • If I told you in September Steve Montador , and Rostislav Kleska (career -43) would be second and first in +/- for the league…
  • If I told you in September that between them Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundquist, Roberto Loungo, Jaroslav Halak, and Thomas Vokoun would not own a single top five goalie stat between them…
  • If I told you in September Jeff Skinner, this years seventh overall draft pick would lead all rookies in scoring…
  • If I told you in September that Peter Schaefer would play more games in the NHL this year than Bill Guerin, Miroslav Satan, and Evgani Nabokov…

…would you ask me how many times I was dropped on my head as a child?

A couple times in the last two or three weeks I’ve heard people say that teams take on the personality of their head coach. Specifically they were saying this in an effort to criticize Claude Julien. I just don’t think I can agree. The coach is on a day to day basis the most influential member of club management, but that’s about where it ends.

The general manager on the other hand not only selects the coaches, and the players, but selects the scouts, the assistant general managers, and trainers. They also set the priorities of personality, and physical attributes they value. It is also the GM who (in most organizations) has the final call on trades, draft choices, and what players are assigned to and recalled from a minor league affiliate. On top of that, they have the final say what free agents are pursued or resigned.

Bearing those things in mind, let’s look at two general managers that have been appointed recently, and the types of players they have brought in, made captain, and attempted to move.

First Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs:

  • Dion Phanuef, aggressive, hard skating defenseman who has drafted high and has a reputation for playing on or over the edge. Has not had his defensive game flattered much in the last couple seasons. Also has a reputation for not having his head in the game for long stretches of time. He was brought into the Maple Leafs via a trade with the Calgary Flames. After twenty six games of tepid play last season, he was named captain in the off season, a position that had been vacant since the departure in 2008 of Leafs icon Mats Sundin.
  • Phil Kessel, was acquired from the Boston Bruins in exchange for two first round draft picks  and a second round pick (Tyler Seguin 1st 2010, Jared Knight 2nd 2010, and upcoming 1st 2011). Kessel was and remains widely praised for exceptional speed, and a shot release that puts him in the top ten or fifteen players in the league in both. He’s also got a well documented history of failure to perform against top teams, isn’t gifted with an impressive work ethic, and probably accumulates almost as many hits her year as Tim Thomas. He’s not shown a willingness to play through pain for the good of the team.
  • Mike Komisarek, picked up after he earned himself a one way ticket to anywhere but the Bell Centre. He’s a defensive defenseman, who plays with an edge, engaged in a very one-sided feud with Bruins winger Milan Lucic where he lost a couple fights, including one where he spent months on the shelf as a result of an injury sustained during the fight. He gouged the eye of the much smaller Matt Hunwick and hasn’t covered himself in glory as a Leaf.

Now a look at some of the key free players Peter Chiarelli has brought to the Boston Bruins.

  • Zdeno Chara. Has responded well to both coaches he’s played for a Bruin, his former Islanders General Manager’s lone complaint of him is that he wanted to much money. He came into a town with a history of elite defensemen and earned himself a Norris trophy. Has, been a fixture of the team, played the 2009-10 season with a dislocated finger. Soft spoken off the ice and willing to give time to fans.
  • Marc Savard. Came in a point per game player with a reputation for soft play, and defensive nonexistence. In the time he’s been in Boston, his points total has dipped slightly, but he has also been a large contributor to the penalty kill, and has led the team in scoring three of the four plus seasons here. By nearly any conceivable measure, he signed a contract extension well under his fair market value to remain a member of the Boston Bruins.
  • Mark Recchi. As the NHL’s elder statesman by more than two years, on the surface it’s an interesting question as to why he’s on the roster at all. That is until you remember he’s one of the handful of players to hit over 1000 games, 1000 points, and 1000 penalty minutes. Also, certain minor stars of the NHL like Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos credit him with helping them hugely. Add that to the Bruins pretty young roster, and the upcoming talents and he’s a very, subtle element in the developmental progression of several players.

When you look at the rosters of both teams, see interviews with the core players, and look at who’s wearing the letters on the front of their jerseys you’ll notice that for the most part the Bruin’s players are soft spoken, introverted, and even if they play a very physical game, lean towards the cerebral thinking mans player. If you look at the Maple Leafs roster, you get one dimensional, high risk high reward style players who are more emotionally driven. I don’t think you could watch five minutes of footage of both GM’s and come away with any impression other than that these are the men who have crafted their teams.

Call it a NFL strike, call it a lockout, call it a stoppage the NHL should call it a golden opportunity. Matt Jordan (@InfamousMJ) and I were discussing how the National Hockey League should respond to a non season by American sports rating juggernaut. The short and simple answer is aggressively. There are three key things they need to do. It’s arguable that they should do them regardless of what happens to the NFL, but inexcusable to do nothing in the even of a work stoppage.

Step one, secure a better national television deal.  Easier said than done, but with the popularity of the Winter Olympics, a lack of the NFL, and the success of the Winter Classic, easier now than five years ago, and probably easier than at any time since Gretzky was on the ice.  The deal should specifically include former NHL players as announcers and analysts. They should be low on bias, high on knowledge and above all engaging. We all know how deep the homerism runs in many of the regular announce guys, and while hearing the virtues of a certain number 87 or 8 or 91 extolled on a nightly basis work great when you are calling for the home squad in a regionally available game, doing the same when two other teams are on the ice is just inexcusable.

Step two, attack the NFL time slots. People who are football fans arrange their entire week around the game, tailgating, the game, pregame shows, post game shows and yet more games and coverage. Stacking Sunday with three high profile, high energy, and may play into traditional geographic rivalries of the NFL would be a huge boon. The first three weeks of the stoppage would be critical. Having a 1pm Boston Bruins – New York Rangers game, followed by a4pm Chicago Blackhawks – Detroit Red Wings tilt, and a 7pm Dallas Stars – Colorado Avalanche could draw huge ratings from traditional hockey fans and traditional sports fans alike. Following it the next week with a Stanley Cup Final rematch, and then the Capitals – Penguins,  and Sabres – Kings or something similar that drew on big name talents, and big markets. Monday night could be even more critical than the Sunday games though. Having a top flight on announce and studio team, a long enough time slot for pregame, and post game show and a good half hour of general NHL chatter to point to other interesting games on the weeks schedule. Ideally all of the Monday Night Hockey games would be playoff rematches or competitive rivalries from within divisions.  Realistically, their should be just one game Monday that everyone can talk about the next day.

Step three, don’t apologize. The shameless courting of soccer moms as the saving demographic for hockey is so nonsensical I won’t waste any more wordage on it. Mixed Martial Arts has blown up faster than Charles Barkley did after he hung up his sneakers.  Movie franchises like Saw, and the never ending series of vampire movies, books and television shows such as Underworld, True Blood and Twilight show that the American populace as a whole has no real aversion to blood or violence in its entertainment.  So when Shawn Thornton and Derek Boogard square off, the camera crews should not have been directed to pan the audience or get a nice shot of the ice girls, or the announce crew.

With even decent execution of these three things, the NHL could slide up the American sports ladder, and maybe, just maybe not only avoid contraction, but be able to expand in both America and Canada. If things were executed well, it’s not outside probability for the teams struggling in Tampa and Sunrise Flordia, and in Phoenix Arizona, or Columbus Ohio to grab enough new fans to take root and grow the sport hugely. Its conceivable that with a work stoppage, proper exploitation of it by the NHL and NHLPA that in ten or twelve years we could have a forty team NHL. New teams could be set down in places like Indianapolis, Houston, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Las Vegas, Seattle, and who knows, maybe the Toronto and Montreal areas could support second teams.  On top of the potential work stoppage by the NFL, the NBA collective bargaining agreement was made for six years back in 2005.

The Boston Bruins seemed set to close out the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tim Thomas was doing his best to convince the world he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Greg Campbell and Nathan Horton had given the team a 2-1 lead. The team had returned the physical play of the home team at every turn.

Then the tide was turned. The teams top penalty killer, best three zone forward and emotional epicenter was sent to the box with two and half minutes left. The Leafs leaped forward peppering Thomas with shot after shot and eventually pulling Giguere to skate six on four. Moments later Kris Versteeg, once traded by the Bruins to Chicago for Brandon Bochenski, sticks in a sweet feed to tie it up. Not content with the previous substandard call, the officials proved they could scrape the bottom of the barrel a little more and allow a Toronto player to draw a call in overtime by stuffing Boychucks stick into his shirt.  We go to overtime.

The first goal against Thomas was indisputable, even in a league with the “intent to blow” rule. The Phil Kessel goal has been ruled both ways any number of times. The puck was not in sight, no angle showed the puck anywhere before the officials raise their hands.

Sadly, as bad as the officiating was, and it would need to improve greatly just to be putrid, I can’t blame them entirely for the loss. For the first time this season the Bruins hung Tim Thomas out to dry. In all three periods of regulation, and in overtime the Bruins were outshot. The Leafs had 26 hits and 21 blocked shots to the Bruins 22 and 17. Despite Bergeron going 60% in twenty five faceoffs, the Bruins barely held even with the Leafs in that stat. Complacence, overconfidence, or just lack if commitment, those things will fuel a loss regardless of the individual play of even as skilled and important a player as Tim Thomas.

The Bruins are crossing out the games on the vengeance list and putting a “K” next to each one this week. First a 3-0 Shanking of the Flyers on their home turf, then an 8-1 blitzkrieg of the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Mark Stuart finished the night without a point, but with the highest */- on the defense with a +3.

  1. Yes, the Bruins got a powerplay goal for the second night in a row.
  2. Tonight our 91 joined that other 91 on the ice. Savard was even in 15:45 of TOI, the other 91 was a -2 with 2 PIMs.
  3. Seguin eclipsed Caron’s ice time with his very first shift. Caron was the healthy scratch, and Seguin rode shotgun with Savard.
  4. All Star, Vezina winner, and franchise record holder Tim Thomas held the Lightning to just one goal, and got an assist. 37 shots stopped in tonight’s slightly uneven affair.
  5. The blueline was aggressive tonight, I don’t think I can call the pairings stable, as I think I saw a lot of different pairings. Stuart seemed to spend most of the night with Seidenberg and Boychuck. Chara and Ference were often seen together, and McQuaid was often on the ice with both Ference and Stuart.

Great game for the Bruins tonight, especially after a very strong effort against the Flyers. Next up are division rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs. Beating them again not only helps the Bruins in the standings, but since they own the Leafs first round pick, helps them inch closer to a second straight lottery pick.

The Bruins played last night in Philadelphia, and knowing the airports in that area, after delays they probably could have driven home as fast as flying. Tampa was off. Last game, the Bruins fell 3-1 to the Southeasts most improved team. Tonight, the Bruins look to even the season series.

5Up Questions that will be answered on the ice:

  1. Can the Boston Bruins take advantage of the second worst defense in the NHL and make the powerplay work again?
  2. Will this be the return of Marc Savard? There are whole bunches of reasons not to have his first game back be against either the Flyers or the Leafs, but the Tampa troop isn’t loaded down with head hunters and goons like other squads we could name.
  3. Can Tyler Seguin eclipse Jordan Caron in ice time? Last night Caron played about 2 full minutes more than Seguin who didn’t even cross the ten minute mark.
  4. Last time the Bruins and Lightning met, Mr Rask when from Two U’s Two K’s Two Points to Two U’s Two K’s Two Period Collapse, but not without help. So will Thomas get back to back starts and get the opportunity for a win at home, or does Rask get the chance to makeup for the loss down south?
  5. Can the blueline finally shakedown into some stable pairings?

Two men are standing head and shoulders above the competition this year in the NHL. No, I’m not talking about Zdeno Chara and Tyler Myers who can probably shake hands from opposing bluelines. I’m talking about two players simply dominating their positions and contributing to a revitalization of their team, and division. Both are chasing records, both have had their names on the tips of peoples tongues for the last year or so. I’m talking of course about budding hockey icon Steven Stamkos and the sixth oldest goalie in the NHL this season, Tim Thomas.

With a very hush-hush hip injury, and a broken hand that received better press, it’s safe to say Tim Thomas’s year last season might not have been very pleasant. Add to it the fact that everyone expected him to be the undisputed starter working fifty five to sixty games, and being in the hunt for a Vezina for a second straight year and you might get the idea that in the season he did have unpleasant moments were the highlights. Losing his confidence, his starting role and his dream of winning Gold at the Olympics there wasn’t much that didn’t go wrong for Thomas. Capping it off glued to the bench while his team crashed and burned in the playoffs probably means that despite stomping through the early goings of the season, he still hasn’t gotten the bad taste out of his mouth.

Knowing now how unhealthy Thomas was all last year, its hard to remember the form that took him to the Vezina trophy the season before. Well, hard unless you’ve seen him play this season. In that 2008-2009 season where he not only lead the league in goals against and save percentage, but improved both numbers through two playoff series he had just five shutouts.  In fifty four appearances he had a shutout about every ten games. He finished the regular season with a .933 Sv%, and a 2.10 GAA. He went eleven games in the postseason with .935GAA and 1.85 GAA. All impressive numbers. This seasons through 16 starts, he’s averaging a shutout about every three games. After stonewalling the highest scoring team in the eastern conference, the Philadelphia Flyers, he’s once again in the familiar position of being on top of the league in Sv%, with a .955, and GAA with a tiny 1.46.

If Tim Thomas were to keep at his pace, and play the same number of games as his Vezina season he’d have a staggering 16.875 shutouts. That number would be neat, and put him second on the single season NHL shutout chart.  A mere 13 shutouts would make him the most prolific producer of this stat since well before Jacobs bought the team, in fact you would have to go all the way back to the 1927-28 season to find a Bruins goaltender better when Hal Winkler was Boston’s backstop. If Thomas plays to his 66 game career high, at the current shutout pace he’d land at 20.625 shutouts, or 1.375 shutouts short of the all time NHL record held since1928-29 by George Hainsworth.

The hype and drama that has surrounded this Markham Ontario native is unrivaled by anyone since the lockout ended. Ovechkin, Malkin, and Crosby made huge waves as the NHL’s marketing department tried to wash away the stain of the lockout. No one since has had half as much attention. If Steven Stamkos manages to chase down the elusive 70 goal plateau, he’ll join the rarefied heights that only a handful of NHL players have ever reached. Steven Stamkos is chasing the opposite dream of Thomas. He’s chasing 70. The list of players to reach that level isn’t long; Gretzky (4 times), Lemieux (2 times), Hull (3 times), Kurri, Nichols, Esposito (the first to do it), and the last active player to do so, Teemu Selanne who scored 76 back in the 92-93 season. Selanne’s 76 goal season. 1993 is the year Stamkos turned three.  Some of the names not on the list of the 70 goal club are rather surprising: Iginla, Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Heatley, Nash, St Louis, all of whom are known for putting up league leading goal totals.

Right now Stamkos is on pace for 68.88 goals. This would incidentally top Ovechkins gaudy goal scoring best. With so many of his games in the Southeast division which doesn’t boast a single top ten defenseman, Stamkos has a damn good shot at seventy. When you factor in the supporting cast of Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St Louis, Ryan Malone, Victor Hedman and the occasionally healthy Simon Gagne, that’s a lot of talent (when present) to defend against, and even elite defenses can only be in so many lanes at once.

So, will either record happen? 23 or 70? If they both happen do these become the most sought after jersey’s in youth and beer leagues across North America? Or would it be 35 and 91? Can the NHL build up a useful marketing campaign on either of these chases? Probably not, they’ve been force feeding two men to the entire continent since before the lockout ended. This despite the fact that the jersey sales success of Milan Lucic, the still lingering PJ Stock tshirts, and the instant recognition Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Ryan Miller and others get even in places where hockey is just a rumor. Of the two, I have more hope for Stamkos’s chase, it won’t really require the NHL to change templates, just the name on it.

I think having both of these records broken in once season could be the best thing to happen to the NHL in a very long time. With a whole boatload of weak number two goalies holding down number one slots, and less than five fifty goal scorers in each of the last several season it’s time to revitalize both positions. For “the Bettman Ideal” of 80’s style OK Corral style games more snipers are needed. For teams in small markets, or places where high end talent is hard to retain, having a top  notch goalie is a powerful building block.  When it comes right down to it, both are in the NHL’s best interested if they want to remain the premier hockey league not just in North America, but the world.

Well, the spring fling was no fun, but the fall ball was every thing the Bruins could hope for. The powerplay actually was. There was scoring from more than one line, and hits and blocked shots were served up with more interest than late taxes.

  1. Not only did the Black and Gold score first, they did it on the powerplay.
  2. The lines 19:34 TOI,  1 hit, 4 giveaways -1 for Pronger. 26:51 TOI, 7 Shots on goal, 2 hits, 3 takeaways, 4 blocked shots even for the Slovakian Stud. Round one of four goes to Chara, three more meetings this season, the next battle is joined at 7pm on 12/11 in Boston.
  3. Yes, apparently David Krejci can not only make entirely unselfish passes to set up Lucic for an empty netter, but he can also finish at 53% on the night. Of course had he tapped that puck home instead of dishing to the former Vancouver Giant, he’d have netted his first goal since October 30th.
  4. Bergeron did three important things with one sweep of the stick in the early first period. 1) He got his first goal since November 20th against the Kings, 2) he got the Bruins on the board first 3) He got the powerplay to gasp and twitch long after many had given it up as a lost cause.
  5. Tim Thomas was phenomenal Tim Thomas. Bobrovsky was merely very good.

Good game for some other players as well. Tyler Seguin got his fifth goal of the season, four of those goals have been scored away from the TDGarden. Mark Stuart finished the night a +2, the only player to do so, and Johnny Boychuck dished out a couple of the hits that remind you how scary this team can be when everyone buys in and pitches in. Michael Ryder didn’t make it into the goal scoring column tonight but had a takeaway, lead the forwards in hits, and had an assist and a +1.