Like any NHL year, there’s always a player or two who has remarkable year that no one saw coming. While watching the guys you know will play at the top of the sport do so is always exciting, the guys who sneak up on us are a special thrill. There just some players who you watch play and know they have what it takes to be at the top of the game and all you can do is wait for them to put it together. These are some of the players who have done so this year.

Goalies have to have the hardest job in all of sports. When they do their job right no one notices. Whey they do it wrong, every one notices. A quarterback can blame a bad pass on getting hit or hurried because the line didn’t hold up, or someone didn’t run the right route. Pitchers can always say they were given bad signs by someone. Going to a new team in the same conference would always be tough on a goalie. Leaving aside all the off ice adjustments, the on ice ones of coaching differences, an entirely new team to play behind, and then 14 sets of skaters to learn the shooting tendencies of. Doing all of that and having an average year for yourself would be an accomplishment. Doing all of that and putting up sv% and gaa numbers that would win you a Vezina most years is even more remarkable. To do that while playing for a team who’s existence is greatly in question makes Mike Smith an extraordinary player this year. Not only has he more than doubled his single season win total, the 161st pick of the 2001 draft has improved his sv% from .899 last year to .925 this season. Smith is netting two million a season this year and next, its unlikely he’ll have trouble getting a raise if his next season is anything like this.

Despite being drafted in the middle of the labor dispute that produced the lost season, and having Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at the top of his draft class, this player had a few more questions attached to his dossier than most when he first took to NHL ice. As the number five selection in 2004 his draft rights were picked up by the Phoenix Coyotes. He had other plans. After a year in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers,  and three years at Minnesota, Blake Wheeler was a free agent. He made the choice to go where in the Sinden era very few NHL free agents went and joined the Boston Bruins. As a rookie he had a very respectable year putting up 21 goals. Then he flatlined. Injuries to the team, lack of surrounding talent, and unmotivated players around him mean that would be his best year in Boston. In the middle of the season last year he and former 2003 first round pick Mark Stuart were shuffled out of town for not a great deal more than glass beads and trinkets. The Bruins went on to win the Cup, the Thrashers failed to make the playoffs. During the off season the team was sold and Wheeler and company had to move north of the border to a small city where expectations were through the roof. He’s delivered. He leads the team in points. Has eclipsed his best single season before with almost 20 games left to play and he sits just outside the top 30 scorers in the NHL.

This time last year out of work general managers, eager assistant general managers and various talking heads were all waiting for the ax to fall in Ottawa. The Senators were having a wretched season, the prospects they were cycling through the lineup didn’t seem to help and neither Alfredsson nor Spezza seemed able to stop the bleeding. This year one of the big reasons no ones looking for a front office vacancy in the Canadian capital is their third year blueliner. Erk Karlsson produced a lot of points in his second season, but was continually exposed defensively. While the team owner was the first to compare him to Bobby Orr as perhaps the best defenseman of all time, it is unlikely he’ll be the last. No one regardless of what they think of Karlssons defensive zone prowess can doubt he’s among the two or three top reasons the Senators have been in playoff position from the word go and have even challenged for the division lead. Between his slick skating, sharp shooting and precision passing, it’s no wonder teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza are smiling so much more this year than last.

The Eastern Conference is clearly the stronger of the two this season, and with five teams that have a legitimate shot at the Conference Finals if they stay healthy, one hellacious dog fight is brewing.

1: New York Rangers vs  #8 Washington Capitals

Two weeks ago if you had to project this matchup you’d have called it a stomping by the Rangers and moved on. Today, with the Rangers on a two game losing streak, you have one cause for concern. The Washington Capitals under one of the winningest coaches in OHL history are starting to play both resiliently and happily. Just as a rule of thumb, when Alex Ovechkin has a grin on his face half the night, the opponents are in trouble. It’s unlikely this would be a four game series, and it likely takes six, defense being the biggest difference. The Rangers have a more talented blueline with Girardi leading the way, backed by Del Zotto, McDonagh, and the still recovering Staal they have a level of defensive talent few teams will match. Rangers in 6.

2: Boston Bruins vs #7 Ottawa Senators

This has always been the most respectful rivalry in the Northeast  Division. Most fans of both teams will at least admit the others are human, and the other team isn’t composed entirely of goons and divers. That’s so boring. Fortunately with accidental kneeing my Adam McQuaid early in the year, the Senator climb up the standings, and Chris Neil being Chris Neil, the teams are getting a little tetchy at each other. Ben Bishop being brought in becomes the X factor having won his first two games as a member of the Senators, and playing a very different game from the injured Anderson or journeyman Auld. He could prove an equalizer, or not. On the year the Senators one win was a 1-0 affair, the other four game Boston won and outscored them 19-11.  Boston in 5

3: Florida Panthers vs #6 New Jersey Devils

The Panthers may get home ice, but the Devils are the better team. As long as Broduer plays well and Kovalchuk is healthy they have a good shot at beating anyone. The Panthers are hoping to get and stay healthy soon, their list of injuries has been as long as their summer free agent shopping spree. Broduer’s GAA has dropped each of the last three months, his Sv% has risen, right now he far more resembles the game changer of five years ago than anytime in the past three seasons. Also among the rejuvenated is Brian Campbell of the Panthers, the slick skating, smooth passing defenseman has eclipsed his points total for his last two seasons with the BlackHawks rather easily. The season series was split two to two with each winning and losing a one and a two goal game. Devils in 7

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #5 Philadelphia Flyers

The Keystone State would get to see one of the best first round matchups of the year. Of all the potential parings this is the most likely to happen. Even with home ice advantage the Penguins would enjoy only a slim advantage as the Flyers have had an exceptional road year. Injuries and who is not on the ice are the story of this series. With nearly a full roster in the shop between the teams, it could make for some very ugly hockey. The defense of the Flyers was suspect with Meszaros and Timonen, without them it could be ugly. Both goalies have warmed up of late. While Malkin is more than a handful, he’s been off the ridiculous pace he set for so many weeks. Penguins in 6

In a bold and telling move this morning four teams in the National Hockey League did two things together. The first was a conference call that parts of the transcript will be shown in excerpts below, and the second was issue non contact jersey’s to all their remaining players. In a joint conference call in which they did not answer any questions the General Managers of the Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, and Boston Bruins announced an innovation that may allow one or more of the depleted squads to ice their full NHL roster by October.

Chuck Fletcher got the ball rolling with the opening remarks in which he said:

“Coming off of last nights game in which we lost seven to one to the Colorado Avalanche we realized it was time to make a change. We’re not sure it will be permanent, but when the trainers tell you they need time off for carpal tunnel surgery from applying tape and bandages it’s something you have to look at very closely. Worse, one of our interns reported that Bodog has switched from having an over under on our wins for the rest of the season to an over under on the number of players who will be injured, the number is 9.”

Peter Chiarelli continued the call:

“With the significant injuries we have not just here in Boston but in our AHL affiliate, we knew the time for action had arrived. After sitting down with Cam, and finding someone who could find someone who knew where in Buffalo the Jabobs were, we as a leadership group decided we needed to be at the forefront of addressing this issue. In light of the acquisition of Brian Rolston at the deadline, and the pending acquisition of Marty Turco we’d also like to announce two additional innovations. The first is that no one may shoot anything other than wrist shots and backhanders during practice. The second is that we will be issuing nutritional injections to players daily before practice. In partnership with Centrum Silver we think this is a very smart way to aid our athletes in staying at their peak. “

Ken Holland contributed:

Ordinarily we keep this stuff in house, but even ESPN has noticed the injuries this year. Before I go any further I’d like to take the opportunity to quash the rumor that Jimmy Howard is being held out in the hopes of preventing any further injuries between now and the playoffs. This is not true, both myself and Jim Dellevano take great exception too this, Mr Howard is a hockey player and we have enough trouble keeping him off the ice when he’s got a game scheduled off. But to illustrate how bad the injury situation is, in practice yesterday Mr. Ilitch was taking line rushes on the second line, in battle drills he caught Brad Stuart with a good hit that knocked the wind out of our defenseman. This just illustrates the unneeded danger of full contact practices. Last night was the first time I’ve taken a phone call from Chuck and not been laughing at him before it was over. As an organization the Detroit Red Wings brought to you by Amway we think it’s time to push the league in this bold new direction.

Paul Holmgren finished off the call:

“While rumors are being thrashed, I’ve been assured by both Bryzgalov and his agent that he did not in fact loan his map of the woods to Tim Thomas, please don’t blame him. When two original six GM’s call you up to bounce an idea off you, you know it’s either something absurd like banning fighting or something important. Amazingly considering who else was on the call, it was important. I’d like to congratulate the 28 other general managers in the league for not trading one of their contracts and prospects for a single player during deadline madness. On the injury front I’ve gotta say I miss the days when injuries were the result of head shots, spearing or someone who only throws two hits a year driving someone into the board from behind. In those days we had someone to blame and send guys like Sestito after. Now with these idiot high sticks taking out our captain, and god knows how many groin strains and concussions from running into teammates its just a pile of bullshit. No one to blame, no one is taking responsibility.”

This is certainly an unexpected move on the part of these NHL clubs. One can only wonder if this was done jointly to lower the chances any one of them would get reamed by the likes of Mike Milbury and Don Cherry for further wimpification of the game.

The eastern conference Team Training Room looked pretty formidable, it’s almost possible to fill the west exclusively with players from the Minnesota Wild, anyone amazed at how bad they are should look at how much salary and skill is on the shelf and then wonder how they are still doing anything at all.

Forward Lines (LW, C, RW)

  • Mike Cammalleri (Calgary Flames) – Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks) – Steve Downie (Colorado Avalanche)
  • Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers) – Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild) – Lee Stempniak – Calgary Flames
  • Brendan Morrow – (Dallas Stars) -Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings) – Martin Havlat (San Jose Sharks)
  • Alex Steen (St Louis Blues) – Kyle Chichura (Phoenix Coyotes) – Viktor Stalberg (Chicago BlackHawks)
  • Extra Forward: Blake Comeau (Calgary Flames)

Defense pairings:

  • Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators) – Rostislav Klesla (Phoenix Coyotes)
  • Justin Falk (Minnesota Wild) – Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit Red Wings)
  • Keith Ballard (Vancouver Canucks) – Clayton Stoner (Minnesota Wild)
  • Extra Defenseman: Theo Peckham (Edmonton Oilers)

Goaltenders:

  • Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota Wild)
  • Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings)

 

With some possible question among the defensive unit I don’t think there’s any question that given two weeks to practice I’d take this team over any team in the Western Conference in a seven game series.  For a few more thoughts on injuries look here.

 

(For the sake of consistency all players taken from the TSN.ca injury report. Also note anyone listed who has played 10+ games is eligible for this list regardless of the reason they will or have missed time. )


Despite what people say, injuries do affect your team, some more than others. Some of them affect your team out of all proportion to the score sheet impact of that player. Here’s a team composed of some of the players out of action right now.

Eastern Conference Injured All Stars

Forward Lines (LW, C, RW):

  • Kris Versteeg (Florida Panthers) – Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals) – Tuomo Ruutu (Carolina Hurricanes)
  • Alexi Ponikarovski (New Jersey Devils) – Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay Lightning) – Nathan Horton (Boston Bruins)
  • Rich Peverley (Boston Bruins) – Jochen Hecht (Buffalo Sabres) – Scottie Upshall (Florida Panthers)
  • James van Riemsdyk (Philadelphia Flyers) – Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers) –  Michael Grabner (New York Islanders)
  • Extra Forward: Tyler Kennedy (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Defense:

  • Chris Pronger (Philadelphia Flyers) – Kimmo Timonen (Philadelphia Flyers)
  • Kris Letang (Pittsburgh Penguins) – Andrew Ference (Boston Bruins)
  • Dimitry Kulikov (Florida Panthers)  – Andrej Meszaros (Philadelphia Flyers)
  • Extra Defenseman: Zach Bogosian (Winnipeg Jet)

Goaltenders:

  • Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins)
  • Tomas Vokun (Washington Capitals)

Coming up this afternoon a look at the Western Conference Team Training Room

This team is kinda scary. Especially when you consider the cutoff for games. There is a book on both goalies, but with a defense like that it probably doesn’t matter. Between Pronger and Ference you might get broken orbital bone for getting to close to the net, or shooting to hard. With Letang and Kulikov, good luck keeping up with them and and trying to prevent them from scoring. Add in a roster where a good half the forwards like to throw the body, and all have some scoring ability… and this team could easily crush the Olympic team of any nation put against it.

 

 

(For the sake of consistency all players taken from the TSN.ca injury report. Also note anyone listed who has played 10+ games is eligible for this list regardless of the reason they will or have missed time. )

Jeff Carter and the LA Kings

Carter finally got his first two goals as a member of Orange County’s best dressed gang. To the surprise of no one Mike Richards figured in on both goals. Equally surprising was that the goals came against a division rival who like the Kings are in the thick of the race for the second season. One of the best reasons for the trade deadline to stay when it is remains integrating players into the lineup in a way that lets them be effective. In the case of cross continent trades time zone adjustment also plays a role. Carter getting his groove back is a great thing for his and Kings fans, and not so good for their opponents.

Steve Kampfer In Motion

For those wondering why it is a promising young defensemen was shuffled out of Boston, the answer is simple. He lost confidence. I can’t blame him. In fact the blame for that lies squarely on Cam Neely, Peter Chiarelli, and Claude Julien. Last year about this time with Kampfer cycling in and out as injuries took more experienced players out of the line up the Bruins Brass decided to sign a player who hadn’t played a single NHL in over a year. Adding depth isn’t a bad thing, no one could legitimately criticize adding a player familiar with the team and coach. But to add a player with that long a layoff, with a well known knee issue on top of limited mobility and then insert them into the lineup for less than four minutes of play over someone who worked their tail off all season, and who matched up much better in mobility with an opponent? That sends entirely the wrong message. Add in the struggles of Corvo and other defensemen and he got into just ten games before being shipped off?

Good luck in Minnesota Steve!

NHL All Star Events

One of the things that I think was missing from this years All Star Weekend was the the Young Stars game. I can understand not wanting a second game of shinny  on the weekend but given the importance of the NHL Entry draft. How about adding a prospect game. If not another top prospect game, how about putting on a game for the players on NHL Scouting Central’s Watch List? The energy level would be high, and fans would get a predraft introduction to some of the players who could be picked outside the top ten.  Better still, coaches, scouts, general managers could get a look at these players and take them from “off the radar” to “important mid round selection”. Another possibility is a USHL vs CHL  All Star game.

Way back in September and October as I was evaluating teams I had this to say about the Maple Leafs:

Toronto Maple Leafs, some deceptively good low level moves by Burke in the off season and late last year should see this team notably improved if they can get all the misfit toys to march in the same direction. Phaneuf, Kessel, Komisarek, Lupal all need to pull their weight this season for the team to succeed. Will bite at the heels of whoever is third in the division.

Which made the early third of the season very entertaining as Phil “Mr October” Kessel did his normal explosion out of the starting gate and Dion Phanuef held up his end of the bargain on the backend. The team was healthy, motivated and many players were competing for jobs. Then there were the injuries. Then the holes in their game got exposed as other teams got rolling. As November turned to December, the team as a whole began its slow backslide. December first they were one point behind Boston for the division lead, but their leaky goaltending and under skilled defense began to show. The scoring was fine, and has remained so, but through 25 games they allowed 80 goals. As of December 1st only two teams had allowed more goals.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have three fundamental issues no coach can fix.

  1. Bad, fragile goaltenders. Both physically and mentally the goaltending in Toronto is well below championship caliber. James Reimer is up and down, but is in no meaningful way a better goalie than Steve Mason, he is playing on a better team with slightly more capable defense, but that’s about it. Health issues and the name on the back of the jersey seem to be the only difference between Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson the only consistent thing about his play is that whatever mode he’s in lasts about a month.
  2. Youth. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the second youngest team in the NHL. On the current roster there are only three players over the age of thirty. This is particularly bad for defense as it really does take a good 200 games to figure out how to play defense (well) at the NHL level.  Coming into today Franson, Gunnarsson, Gardiner are all under that number.
  3. Weakness at center. If you look at the last four teams to win the Stanley Cup about the only thing they all had in common was strength at the center position. Aside from Grabovski who just doesn’t seem to mesh with Kessel and Lupul, I can’t think of another center who could legitimately be considered at least a strong #2 center. Connolly you can make a case for but with his health issues, I can see coaches shying away from trying to build their offense around him.

Until at least the goaltending and center position are shored up, hitting the playoffs is fighting well out of the teams weight class. It can get there with a hot streak, and playoff experience is good for young players but expecting to climb as high as sixth and avoid Boston or New York in the first round is a stretch with so few games remaining  Against those two team a moral victory could be declared if they play a fifth game. Ron Wilson was not the problem with this team. On the ice there are a couple players who just don’t get it, and some who don’t have NHL talent. Randy Carlyle may or may not prove to be a better coach for this team, but simply ousting Wilson isn’t a solution.

This is the fourth installment of the dive for the first overall pick. Earlier editions can be found at three, two and one.

Ain’t no dive like a Montreal dive

’cause a Montreal dive don’t stop

The Montreal Canadiens were perhaps the most successful divers around the deadline. They kicked the party off weeks early by dropping Mike Cammalleri (@MCammalleri13) for Rene Bourque (@RBourque17). The first has had seasons of 39 and 34 goals as well as being a point per game player in the playoffs over 32 games. Rene Bourque has never topped 27 goals, and his playoff performance is something like one half the quality of his regular season norm over his career. Next out the door was locker room leader, Stanley Cup champion, shutdown defensive defenseman Hal Gill. He too was shipped out in advance of the deadline. Last was a blow to local nightclubs as Andrei Kostitsyn, In both the Gill and Kostitsyn trades the Habs didn’t take back a single NHL player. They did however go with one of their traditional “heritage picks” by grabbing Blake Geoffrion, who wasn’t offensively gifted enough to stay in the Predators lineup.

In a bid to avoid having any sort of quality depth Scott Howson General Manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets set the asking price for Rick Nash at roughly a Dr Evil like figure. Apparently neither Glen Sather or Pierre Gauthier had working phones the last two weeks. He did also add a defenseman who according to fans of his first team was utterly useless, and lose a former first round pick in the fabled 2003 draft. In order to make sure accountability didn’t creep into the team mentality they gave the aging Vaclav Prospal a hefty raise for turning in a -17 and 8.3% shooting accuracy.  They carefully avoided trading for any quality players in the future as well. As compensation for moving Pahlsson, Smithson, and Vermette they picked up two fourth round picks, a 2nd round pick, a fifth round pick, and UFA journeyman goalie Curtis McElhinney. I’m reasonably certain the entire central division and likely the whole league was put on notice by these shrewd moves.

The Edmonton Oilers are smack dab in the middle of the fourth five year plan to rebuild. In mid February they traded guys none of the beat writers could pick out in a broom closet with the Anaheim Ducks. On deadline day they swapped blueliners with the Minnesota Wild. The trade was greeted with a heaping helping of meh with a generous side of wtf by fans and observers. The team is in danger of not having the most balls in the lottery machine for the first time a while if they don’t somehow find a way to get 11 less points than Columbus the rest of the season. Unfortunately for their quest it appears Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be playing a couple more games as he’s patently refused to stay out of a lineup he lacked the muscle to stay in and stay healthy having recovered from two shoulder injuries already.

The tailgating fans in Raleigh have had little to celebrate this season. Sadly the brain trust of the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t even raise their hopes on deadline day. None of that reason to celebrate came in the days leading up to the deadline. Nor did they happen on the deadline itself. While shedding Alexi Ponikarovsky for  a minor league defenseman and a fourth round pick probably seemed like a great way to make sure the Devils didn’t make the playoffs either, it hasn’t worked out that way. As the deadline drew nearer and nearer Jim Rutherford locked up more and more of the players who have helped the team to a tie for 27th place in the NHL. Showing all the savvy that saw him sign Kaberle to a bloated deal he handed out a number of surprising contracts. Showing none of the savvy that saw him trade Kaberle he didn’t trade any of his players for picks while telling them it was for the good of the team and that things might change in the future.

The good news for New York Islanders fans this season is that people now with an All Star appearance behind him know who John Taveres is. The bad news is pretty much everything else. Rick Dipietro is still healthy as a middle ages town in the grip of the black plague, his contract still expires roughly two years past forever. There is no deal for an arena, and on deadline day they biggest asset they picked up is Marc Cantin. None of the unsigned players like Parenteau or Nabokov who they probably want to keep were locked up, and none of the aging stiffs were shuffled off free tattoo gift certificates or second round picks.

Given the quality of the teams its likely that Yakupov or whoever might go first overall if someone has a stroke on their way to the podium will toil in obscurity for several years possibly as the only player keeping the franchise afloat. Eventually he’ll either leave as a free agent or get sold up the river to another franchise desperate for success but with little else to build with.  Hopefully for his sake he’ll be able to justify the hundred thousand year contract someone will try signing him to.

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

Teams:

  • the Saint Louis Blues would enter action on March 1st with a chance to go home first in the NHL.
  • the New York Rangers would have scored the least goals of any of the eight playoff teams in the east and still hold first in the Atlantic and the east…
  • the Colorado Avalanche would be in 9th place in the west and still hold a better road record than the Detroit Red Wings
  • the Phoenix Coyotes would sit atop the Pacific Division with more regulation wins in less games than the rest of the division
  • of the NHL’s top five penalty kills, two; Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings would belong to non playoff teams
  • the Big Bad Boston Bruins would be 24th in total hits
  • only one of the top five teams in blocked shots would be in playoff position, the New York Rangers

Players:

  • Mike Smith would win all 11 games in the month of February without anyone noticing
  • Jaroslav Halak could have a .925sv% a 1.94gaa and still have to fight for ice time.
  • Corey Crawford would make 46 appearances and be without a shutout.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury would lead the NHL in shootout wins
  • in 44 games Kari Lethonen would have given up no short handed goals
  • despite missing a rash of games to injury Dustin Byfugelien would be third in NHL scoring by defensemen
  • Nik Kronwall, Dennis Seidenberg, Francios Beauchemin, Brent Seabrook, would be the only defensemen with triple digits in shots, hits, and blocked shots