The NHL is such a fascinating thing to observe, every year new stories emerge, new people, different teams to claim the spotlight. Here are the most fascinating players of the year so far.
4: Evgeni Malkin.
For years I’ve been of the opinion that Malkin was every bit as talented at Crosby. In the past though the focus of the media (particularly that in the great white north) has been focused on Sidney Crosby With him out of the spotlight, Malkin has taken the stage all by himself. Despite the uncertainty of a knee issue early in the season he’s shot and passed his way to the top of the scoring race, and in the books of the small minded who believe points are the only important contribution, the top of the Hart Trophy race as well.
3: Jonathan Quick
In the top five in starts, third in save percentage and playing behind the 30th ranked offense Quick has been the most clutch goaltender in the NHL. Unlike any of the goalies with better save percentage or more wins, Quick has been unequivocally the best and most impacting player on his team. The team in front of him has scored 2.09 goals per game. Jonathan Quick has allowed 1.92 goals per game.
2: Ray Whitney
Most thirty nine year old hockey players don’t spend most of the season leading not merely their team, but a five team division in points. Ray Whitney is not most thirty-nine year old athletes. Listed at five foot ten and one hundred and eighty pounds he’s certainly not doing it with a punishing physicality. On an team ranked 18th in offense he’s hardly coasting along on the success of those around him either. Unlike some of guys further up the points chart he’s not playing a huge number of minutes, his 18:34 of ice time a night wouldn’t even be top four forward time on some teams. Impact doesn’t always take time or size, just skill and will.
1: Ilya Kovalchuk
Three years ago with a career languishing in Atlanta while the owners squabbled and sued and ignored their investment, Ilya Kovalchuk was a offensive juggernaut. With almost no help to speak of he finished among the elite scorers year after year. Today he is arguably the best player in the league. Not only is he in the upper echelon of scoring, he’s playing huge minutes and doing so in all roles. To put it in perspective, Kovalchuk has more short handed points than all of the players ahead of him in total scoring combined. Hands down Kovalchuk has been the most important skater to his team this season. The fact that he’s been able to transform from a one dimensional scorer like Stamkos or Kessel mid career into a Toews type three zone wizard is phenomenal.
Some teams you just can’t tell how the moves will work out. In some cases it is because the player is inexperienced, or going from a really good team to a bottom feeder and the adjust might period might be rocky. In some cases it is a question of the player fitting the system. In still others the chemistry of players left behind can be damaged.
The Vancouver Canucks took a big, big gamble on deadline day. Not only did they give up skill and experience. Zach Kassians physicality is a huge element to add to the team. Marc Andre Grangnani is also a skilled defenseman I’m pretty high on. But Cody Hodgson is not just skilled, he’s canny. He’s displayed the ability to be a game changer. Alexander Sultzer is a more defensive minded defenseman than Gragnani as well. The relative skill difference doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the age and attitude differences. Sultzer is 27 and broke into the NHL in 2008-9, Kassian just turned 21, and Gragnani is 24. While Sultzer didn’t play a huge role for the Canucks, I’m curious as to how the Sedins, Salo, Bieksa and the other older players are going to deal with being told, implicitly or explicitly, that they need to take their emotional cues from guys that young who have never even seen a conference final in Gragnani’s case or a single NHL playoff game in Kassian’s.
Even more you have to wonder if, should the team make it that far, if Kassian will have enough skill to be impacting on the ice or if he’ll just be setting things up for other players to take lumps for him. We saw last year in their series against the Bruins and in the earlier rounds that the bulk of this roster is not able to play ferociously and focused at the same time. I’m not sure Bitz and Kassian can impart that trick to the rest of the roster and shaking up a teams identity is rarely a good thing unless it is changed entirely from the top down.
The Winnipeg Jets didn’t do much. This is probably for the best given some of the prices we saw and that were reported. They did pick up defensemen Grant Clitsome (@GClitsome) off waivers and then shipped out Johnny Oduya to Chicago for two draft picks. They are still a bubble team and entered Monday’s play in 8th place, but given how desperate Claude Noel was for offensive help, its curious that there wasn’t even a token trade. A team that’s been as erratic as this one has could have used the vote of confidence implied by bringing in a little help, as it is they essentially stood still. This might rally the dressing room or deflate it.
The Boston Bruins gambled and gambled big. Their biggest question marks are offensive production and forward depth. Adding Greg Zanon, Brian Rolston and Mike Mottau does little to address that. With Rich Peverley out with a knee injury, Nathan Horton not even skating yet with his second concussion in a year, and now Boychuk out they added no one who has displayed an offensive gift of late. Mike Mattau hasn’t scored a regular season NHL goal since March 13th 2010. Since breaking into the NHL Greg Zanon has never had more than four goals in his seven seasons of NHL play. Brian Rolston is not the player some Bruins fans remember, not only has his shooting percentage dropped every year since 2004, he only hasn’t broken 40 points since the 07-08.
Tampa Bay Lightning had an interesting two or three weeks heading up to the deadline. Steve Downie was packed off, as was Dominic Moore, Aulie, Lee, a second round pick and a 1st round pick were the major fruits of the trades. Neither Aulie nor Lee have managed to be impacting players to date in their careers. The two picks are from teams who will almost certainly be in the playoffs meaning they first can’t be any higher than 17th and the 2nd will at best be 47th. Given the deficiencies of the defense and goaltending this season that seems an odd way to address them even if you lay the blame at the feet of injuries to key players and father time catching up with Roloson.
The Minnesota Wild rolled the dice by trying to add by substitution. Bringing in Steve Kampfer for Greg Zanon is a clear attempt to get younger and better offensively. Erik Christensen coming over from the New York Rangers earlier in the year was also a clear attempt to add offense. Gilbert for Shultz was again a swap up in offense. The problem with all of these trades is that the total goal difference is probably on the order of 7-8 goals a year. That is unlikely to be what separates a tenth place finish from a sixth or third place finish. If they had ten more goals to date this season it would move them from 29th in goals for to 27th, hardly inspiring. These may prove to be helpful moves, but you have to wonder how long even “The State of Hockey” will put up with a mediocre team that can’t score and doesn’t often stand up for itself.
As if deadline day weren’t enough excitement to drain the hockey world of all emotion for everything until the playoffs start, it appears there are changes in order for the way the greatest game on the planet is played. The sharp eyes as the The Black and Blue Blog (@BlackBlueBlog) of the USHL’s Lincoln Stars spotted and retweeted the spoiler:
But I doubt hockey fans will be fooled. Clearly this is all part of a Bettman attempt to sell hockey to soccer moms and basketball fans. Better still three stoppages in play will allow for more sponsorship of intermission shows, still more Geico commercials, and maybe even more interviews with players with a network towel around their neck uttering cliche after cliche.
We’ll know when and how much teams won about June 15, and again a few days later on draft day. The biggest impacts from here on should be apparent almost from the word go.
The Nashville Predators have to be considered the biggest winners of the trading season. They added Hal Gill for leadership, defense first mentality, and Cup winning experience. They added Paul Gaustad who at 6 foot 5 and 212lbs becomes the largest forward in their top nine. Better still, they kept the BlackHawks (among others) from adding Gill’s experience or Gaustad’s size, the only real wild card is the addition of Andrei Kostitsyn. I have to give that at least a neutral for the rest of the season because he will get to play with Gill and his brother again, both of whom can help with the adjustment and give him someone he’s got some comfort with.
The Colorado Avalanche made a quiet move. It might get overlooked, and it won’t help them a great deal this year, but picking up Jamie McGinn is a good move because he’s a gamer. He doesn’t just lace up the skates and get on the ice, he goes out there and takes the ice. A lot of hits, a player who ends most years with more takeaways than giveaways. This doesn’t remake the whole character of team that needs serious reshaping but it is a start.
The Buffalo Sabres got the first round pick they wanted for Gaustad, and picked up some young skill in Cody Hodgson. Best of all in picking up a former Canuck they get someone who will put no stock in what Brad Marchand said about Buffalo being the worst place in the NHL.
The Washington Capitals lose. While the team isn’t going anywhere this season, the chance to jettison pieces that won’t be retained for assets either picks, prospects or players that may help in the future.
The St Louis Blues are also losers from inertia. Outside of their goaltending this team is aggressively average. They are 23rd in goals for, 27th on the powerplay, and 14th on the penalty kill. There is a lot of validity to the argument that having Andy McDonald back in the lineup is the best trade they could make, but other teams like Nashville and Detroit got deeper and Vancouver got got tougher.
New York Islanders traded Brian Rolston and Mike Mottau for Yannick Riendeau and Marc Cantin of the Boston Bruins organization. Rolston is 39 with a shot that has concussed two different goalies. Mottau is a defenseman who won the Hobey Backer in 2000.Both have Massachusetts ties as Mottau is a Quincy native, and Rolston wore the spoked B for a couple years.
No Rick Nash trade as I suspected.
Most interesting trade of the day is Toronto Maple Leafs swiping Carter Ashton from the Tampa Bay Lightning for defenseman Keith Aulie. Aulie was part of the Phanuef deal and well regarded until the Toronto organization soured very quickly on him Carter Ashton was a or possibly the top offensive prospect of the Tampa Bay Lightning playing in the AHL.
The Chicago BlackHawks upgraded their defense by shipping out John Scott for a New York Rangers 5th round pick. They brought in Johnny Oduya from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a 2nd and 3rd round pick .
The Minnesota Wild have shipped off Greg Zanon to Boston for Steve Kampfer (@SteveKampfer47) a younger defenseman with a good shot and good stride. Zanon is a UFA July 1, Kampfer has one more year left on his deal.
Buffalo Sabres also shipped out Paul Gaustad and a 4th round pick to the Nashville Predators for a 1st round pick. Very interesting. looks like the Predators are going for the biggest prize.
Zack Kassian of the Sabres also shipped to Vancouver for Cody Hodgson. (This one may be bigger, conflicting reports.)
Sources TSN, NHL.Com, Sportsnet Canada, and anyone retweeted on twitter.
Trades are often a hard thing to gauge, but some just make more sense than others. Going back over the last few weeks there are some teams who have addressed their needs.
Probably the biggest winners thus far. With all the injuries to the team this season, and all the question marks about this mad science experiment they went out early and addressed the sieve that has been their blueline thanks in large part to the injury to Chris Pronger. Neither Grossman nor Kubina can replace what Pronger does, but they are on the ice and each brings an element to strengthen the team.
Los Angeles Kings
They dealt from a position of strength in moving a defensemen who is talented, but not living up to their (possibly misplaced) expectations and getting a player who enhances what they have and addresses a need. Jeff Carter for all the concerns some have over possible partying is at least a part of the solution.
The train wreck of a season that has happened to the organization the last few weeks have had some benefits. Hal Gill was moved for a couple well regarded prospects and a second round pick. Andrei Kostitsyn was moved out for a 2nd round pick and a 5th rounder. Gill’s movement left room to further evaluate the young players, by moving Kostitsyn they dump a distraction and disappointment for further picks, and if needed for trades later today more cap space.
New Jersey Devils
If the Flyers aren’t the biggest winners n the NHL so far, it has to be the Devils. They got a mobile top 4 defenseman who wants to be there. They got Alex Ponikarovski back on January 21st and all he’s done is pot 11 points in 15 games. Between the two the Devils have managed to pitchfork teams out of the way as they’ve climbed up the standings. On January 20th before acquiring Ponikarovski they were up on 8th place by just 2 points with equal games played, today they are 6 points up on the eight spot with three games in hand on 7 & 8 and two on 9.
The Boston Bruins recalled Andrew Bodnarchuk. This is his second call up of the season, and he is up over Steve Kampfer for the second time in a row. Bodnarchuk has not yet played a game, but if Corvo is injured from the unsuspended Kyle Turris headshot or Boychuk is down from the hit by Neil, things could change.
This is Max Sauve’s (pronounced SOO-vay) first recall. The twenty two year old from Tours France has had an unfortunate string of injuries since he was drafted 47th in 2008. Other members of that draft class for the Bruins include Joe Colrborne who as traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of the Kaberle trade, goalie Michael Hutchinson who is having his best pro year in Providence, and Jamie Arniel who has taken a step back after finishing near the top of the scoring last year.
Sauve has an high end set of hands and has been putting up points of late after finally getting healthy. If he makes it into a game or two he certainly has the shot to break down some of that scoring gap the Bruins have lost with Peverley and Horton out of the lineup. Bodnarchuk is a restricted free agent in the last year of his contract. Sauve has one more full season left on his entry level deal.
Watching the media is frequently dismaying, you can always be sure that the only peoples words who mean exactly what they they say they mean are the media themselves. Everyone else no matter how simple, transparent or obvious what they’ve said is has their words twisted twelve thousand ways. This makes it so much fun to watch people play the media. Some times it is players, general managers and coaches Allan Walsh (@Walsha) has a reputation for using social media and the press in pursuit of his clients benefit.
Dean Lombardi may have just won the media manipulation award for the year. After picking up one part of Party Inc from Philadelphia over the summer the world was treated to a barrage of “dry island” stories. They went on and on. The fact that the other half of Party Inc went to another city was seen or at least spun as indicative of how bad they were in the locker room. Of course these story’s only got attention after the trades, so one has to wonder how much was Philly management directing attention where they wanted it.
This week when Lombardi staged the biggest on ice reunion of the season by adding Jeff Carter to the LA Kings to go along with Mike Richards and the rest I’m sure several thousand rehashes of the dry island stories were two thirds written before the paperwork was dry in the NHL offices. Then an odd thing happened. A well liked, well respected, player who’s averaged 27 goals over the last four seasons, plays physically and is engaged in the community was heavily rumored to be available. This happened quite quickly after they acquired someone to help their 30th rank offense. In the same trade they gave up a former 1st round pick, and a first round selection. Somehow things got focused on this trade potential.
For several hours Dustin Brown (@DustinBrown23) became the most interesting man in the universe. No one was talking about Rick Nash and why the Kings settled for Carter or didn’t get both. No one was talking about dry island. No one was talking about the Kings residing in 10th place with less regulation or overtime wins than anyone but the Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild, Edmonton Oilers, or Columbus Blue Jackets. By some strange coincidence no one managed to get any attention for pointing out Jeff Carter’s having been just slightly healthier than Simon Gagne this year. But hey, its not like the media is easily led or will take whatever easy story falls in their laps.