This is a feature that will run about every two weeks (during the regular season)with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.
The off season’s changes restack the decks for teams and make forecasting each season equal parts intriguing and infuriating. With the NHL draft and the bulk of NHL free agent signings done, we have a passable idea who 15 or more of the names penciled into the opening night lineup of each team will be.
Players:
  • … that Daniel Alfredsson would leave the Senators, and not go to one of the top contenders at the deadline but to the once again division rival Detroit Red Wings in free agency, even knowing Bobby Ryan was being traded to the Sens.
  • … that of Simon Gagne, Nathan Horton, and Rick Dipietro, right winger Nathan Horton would be the one set to begin their season late due to major injury.
  • … over two weeks into free agency Thomas Hickey and Dustin Penner would be signed to NHL deals and Mikhail Grabovski would not.
  • Matt Duchene who has won nothing, would sign a contract for more than Dustin Brown who has his name on the Cup.
  • … Tuukka Rask who coughed up a lead in the dying minutes of a Stanley Cup Final game seven would sign a contract making him the highest paid goalie in the NHL.
  • … Seth Jones would actually get passed on by three different general managers at the NHL entry draft.
  • Tyler Seguin‘s twitter problems and eviction from the Boston Bruins locker room to the Dallas Star’s would be eclipsed so quickly by the exit of Ilya Kovalchuk.
  • … Sam Gagner would be headed towards arbitration with the Edmonton Oilers who has only been their best center the last four seasons.

Teams:

  • … on July 22nd the Columbus Blue Jackets would have the 8th highest cap hit of an NHL team.
  • … after years of saying that Jonathan Bernier was a big part of their team for years and years the Los Angeles Kings would trade him for an unproven Ben Scrivens, and a fringe NHL’er in Matt Frattin.
  • … the Toronto Maple Leafs would be retaining portions of two salaries, and have bought out two new players in addition to the ones they entered the year having b
  • ought out recently and the general manager who did all four of those things would still have a job.
  • … the Colorado Avalanche’s off season accomplishments would include, passing on a consensus franchise defenseman at the draft, waiving the defenseman who lead their team in TOI last season, and only ‘improving’ their defense with the importation of Cory Sarich.
  • … The Winnipeg Jets, a Canadian team, who have the most cap space would also have the most players elect arbitration.
  • … that with the additions of Andrew Ference and Denis Grebeshkov and the addition by subtraction of others the Edmonton Oilers would have the NHL’s most improved blueline.

We all knew when the NHL realigned that there would be sacrifices made. We all knew things would change. Most of us just didn’t expect division rivalries to be bulldozed in the name of getting every team into every arena.

The first change you’ll notice is that in the sixteen team eastern conference divisional games have dropped from six fierce games per season to a weak kneed four. Against the opposite division there will be just three games. And a two games against each team in the west. One home, one away. The Flyers and Bruins who have enjoyed a rivalry for decades will barely play enough to wake up the blood lust. The chance to see Ovechkin and Malkin dueling on the ice will only happen four times. Nathan Horton will square off against his former teams in Florida and Boston just three times each.

The goal behind this is to drive more visitors to more arenas with fan bases that are still growing. The hope is that when people in New York or Buffalo, and Winnipeg or Chicago have vacation time an some spare money and can’t get tickets for a home game they’ll fly off to one of the cities with a less engaged fan base and buy tickets, support their team, buy drinks, merchandise and keep the arena loud and full.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck for hardcore fans of the major rivalries. The Rangers and Islanders only square off four times, and that rivalry is one that’s been getting hotter over the last two years. Worse, the realignment may backfire and concentrate the All Star voting and major awards votes even further into well known names in well known places. With rookies like Jones, Domi, and Barkov getting less trips to the big cities than their counterparts in previous years, they will get measurably less exposure. This makes their teams less captivating, and if you don’t have any other stars to pull people in, and those youngsters don’t get the exposure across the continent to draw in revenue from outside the market, I don’t see the gain.

The Winnipeg Jets are in a tough position when it comes to their restricted free agents. On one hand they just were not a playoff team in the Eastern Conference even with everyone of them in uniform. On the other hand some of them were pretty productive last season, one even having a career year. On the third hand with the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets promoted to the Eastern Conference the west is likely to be a lot easier sailing than they had it last season. And on the gripping hand, with the cap coming down and uncertainty about how well the market will support the team in this its third season in town with the team finishing out side the playoffs each of the previous two years spending a lot might not be wise. Of the 21 players to elect salary arbitration this summer, a quarter of them were Jets, and two have now reached a deal prior to their hearing.

Of the remaining three, we have Blake Wheeler who has been second and then first on the team in scoring over the last two seasons. Bryan Little an average center, Zach Bogosian a solid defenseman. All three were first round picks. Bogosian and Little are home grown products for the transplanted Atlanta Thrashers. Blake Wheeler declined to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes and upon completing his college career at the University of Minnesota was signed as a free agent and sent to the then Thrashers with Mark Stuart as part of the deal that sent Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik to Boston. Last year after a brief stop in Europe during the lockout Wheeler turned in his best career numbers with a .854 ppg. His career number is notably at .623 which includes his time with the much more defensive minded Bruins where he received less ice time. In the two years he and the team have been in Winnipeg his ppg is .820, over the same period of time Matt Duchene was a .676 per game, barely higher than Wheeler’s career number and far lower than the comparative time. Duchene’s new deal was five years at six million.

For Bogosian, the numbers that matter are pretty plain to see. He’s averaged over 23 minutes a night for the last three seasons. On any team in the league that’s a top two or three defenseman slot. Over the last three seasons he’s been able to finish in the offensive zone at least as often as he finished there. Essentially he both gets the puck out of his zone, and keeps it move forward. Better still, there’s been a solid progression. In the 2010-11 season he started and finished in the offensive zone the same percentage of the time, during the 2011-12 campaign he was a best among all regulars with the second highest increase in offensive zone finishes over starts.  The 2012-13 adventure saw him double the previous years gains, and again finish behind only Ron Hainsey.

A quick look at his On Ice Save Percentage might lead you to believe he’s a defensive liability, but keep in mind he plays as much as three minutes of shorthanded ice time a night, and the teams goaltending isn’t spectacular. Some of the players who play a similar amount of time shorthanded are Bryan Allen formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes and now of the Anahiem Ducks, Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers, Johnny Boychuk of the Boston Bruins, the Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber, and Vancouver Canuck Kevin Bieksa. When look at last season’s points totals, Bogosion kept company with Matt Niskanen Lubomir Vishnovski, and Dan Girardi while playing less games than any of them.

Over the past three seasons, Bryan Little has finished above fifty percent in faceoffs just once. That pleasant occurrence was this past season. Among NHL Centers he finished tied for the bottom of the top 30 with Vincent Lecavalier, and Mike Richards. Not elite company offensively, but not the bottom of the barrel by any stretch of the imagination. In terms of Time On Ice Little did play a huge number of minutes, finishing 10th among NHL centers playing well more than better known names like Sedin, Toews, Thornton, and Krejci. His powerplay time puts him in the top half of the NHL’s centers, but the teams powerplay finished an embarrassing 30th. For the “fancy stats” he does finish in the offensive zone more than he starts there by a very solid margin of almost 9%, he takes very few penalties and draws them better than most of his Winnipeg Jets forward teammates.

 Salary wise nailing down where any of these guys lands is difficult. Little plays top end minutes and can get the puck to where it is supposed to be, Bogosian’s stats are murky to interpret, and Wheeler has clearly found his game in Winnipeg. At 25 years old heading into the season Little has accumulated six seasons and 404 regular season games of experience. He’s about he same age David Krejci was when his current deal was signed, Duchene at 22 signed a deal that will kick in when he’s 23 for $6m per, Tyler Bozak who is two years older and a bit less productive inked for $4.2 a year under the current CBA. A fair range for Little is $4.5-5.6 average annual value depending on length of deal, signing bonuses, and things like no trade or no movement clauses.

Blake Wheeler is harder to nail down. Yes last year was a career year and he did indeed finish ninth overall in scoring for right wings on a team that was 16th in scoring for the year. A lot of the guys he finished ahead of are or should be household names, Jordan Eberle, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, and Bobby Ryan. Two seasons ago he finished 15th among right wings, meaning he might have the staying power to finish in the top 15-20 right wings in scoring for the next several years. Comparable contracts of players in that range are Jason Pominville, Bobby Ryan, Nathan Horton and Jakub Voracek. Again we’re looking at a range of $4.5-5.6 AAV.

Bogosion is probably the guy who will have the most brutal arbitration session if it comes to that. Hammering out the stats you can make a case in a certain light that he’s an elite defenseman, you can equally make the case he’s a liability, the truth per usual, likes somewhere between those two. Defensemen who bring a similar toolkit to the rink include Johhny Boychuk, Kevin Bieksa, and Brent Seabrook. When you weigh in all the stats and the eyeball test you come to a range of anything from $4.4m as a low ball figure to a $5.8 as a long term deal if you expect him to keep progressing.

The long term deals under the still drying CBA are rolling in. Some of them make great sense, some make no sense. But given how hard line some of the owners were on not signing anyone longer than five years just a few short months ago, the deals are a bit eye opening when taken en-mass.

Matt Duchene is among the newest names to ink a lengthy deal. His five year deal starting July 1, 2015 will be his third contact and see him an unrestricted free agent at age 28.  The second forward taken in 2009, and the third pick overall he is second in scoring only to John Tavares in his draft class. The soft spoken forward out of the Brampton Battalion and Haliburton Ontario has had an up and down career.

A six million dollar contract is certainly not outside the zone of similar players, but it is a bit high and perhaps risky. The two forwards nearest him in scoring from that 2009 draft will both make less when this contract kicks in. Evander Kane in five less games has only two less goals than Duchene, and plays a much more physical game on a team less rich with high draft picks at forward. John Tavares handily leads Duchene in goals, assists, points and has been notably healthier, missing just 3 games since both debuted in the 2009-10 season. In the playoffs Duchene mustered just three assist in what is his only playoff appearance to date. With a lack of consistency, a scary series of injuries that include games lost to knee, ankle, and groin issues, and an inability to separate himself from the pack, a five year six million a year contract before Duchene even enters the final year of his second deal seems poorly thought out by the front office.

Dustin Brown is one of the better know players in the Western Conference, and perhaps the NHL as a whole. Well known both for playing physically and an ability to draw penalties that has earned him a derisive soubriquet “Fall Down Brown” from fan bases other than that of the Los Angeles Kings. While not an explosive scorer, and playing on a defensive minded team Brown taken 13th in the 2003 draft is tenth in scoring, and second in games played eclipsing the next several skaters by more than forty games.

At twenty-eight years old we know who Dustin Brown is, and what to expect of him in any given season. 22-26 goals, 25-32 assists. Add to that more than 275 hits a season, about two minutes of short handed time on ice per night, and a durable body and the Kings captain’s 8 year signing is a bit less risky. It is unlikely. The new deal will keep him locked up until he’s 37, while some might argue he’s slightly overpaid in the early years of the contract that will about even out over the final two or three years. Overall, a reasonable deal. Offensive production might fade towards the end of his deal, but he does enough on the ice that his offense isn’t his primary contribution.

One of the most difficult positions in hockey, in fact the most difficult position to project is goaltender. They take longer to develop than even defensemen and aside from healthy in their teens and early twenties there is nothing that will indicate if a player will play a long time in the NHL or not. This makes signing a goalie to an eight year contract a risk that is hard to even grant “calculated” status. Recent history has shown us Dwayne Roloson go from All Star quality play one season to saying his NHL goodbyes the next year. Steve Mason broke into the NHL and won the Calder on the strength of a 61 game season with Columbus, and a .916sv%.

Tuukka Rask’s contract makes ties him for top paid NHL goalie with Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne. Rask was drafted the same year as Quick and has played less than half as many regular season games, and a third less playoff games. Quick has also notably won a Cup, and been his team key contributor in that crusade. Rask has also worked a very light workload in his NHL career serving mostly as a backup and being sidelined by break downs to a frame that can only be called “spindly”. For some reason the Boston Bruins front office saw fit to give an enormous contract to a goalie who has a serious groin injury on his resume, has tossed teammates under the bus, and had perhaps the most notable temper tantrum in the last decade of AHL hockey.

The normally shrewd Peter Chiarelli made a curious move here. The Bruins aren’t completely without goaltending. Svedberg has adjusted to the North American game quite well, even bringing a level of aggression that would do Ron Hextall proud with him, Malcolm Subban, Zane Gotherberg, and Adam Morrison are all part of the system. And the team has recently found itself to be rich in NHL quality defenseman with the emergence of Krug, Bartkowsi, and Hamilton, not to mention the acquisition of Morrow and other blueliners in the system. I’m a bit baffled by a contract that is about 20% high and long.

If goaltenders are the hardest to project even after they hit the NHL, defenseman are probably the easiest by their mid twenties. That makes the New York Rangers locking up Ryan McDonagh almost a no brainer. The 12th pick of the 2007 draft by the Montreal Canadiens, McDonagh never played for the Habs as he was traded to the Rangers as part of the Scott Gomez fleecing of the Canadiens.

Since breaking into the NHL in his first year out of college he’s played just about every game, and all three of his first seasons under a harsh and demanding coach. How well he’ll adjust to the new head coaches system is anyone’s guess, but head coaches are more easily replaced than star defensemen. The contact will leave him a UFA at age 30.With a cap hit of less than five million a year for defenseman who was averaged 25 minutes a night for each of the last two regular seasons and 26.5 in the last two post seasons, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that Sather and company got a good deal.

The Boston Bruins development camp was held last week and if it didn’t have a new top of the first round pick to draw people, some of the campers we’ve seen in the past were more than compelling enough on their own. Two notable prospects will be graduating this year. And one youngster in his second year made huge strides.

Malcolm Subban was a surprise pick to some just over a year ago. The goaltender, and older brother of Jordan Subban who was the Vancouver Canucks selection this June was the most recognizable name at camp. Even without the bright Belleville Bull’s color pads he sported last year, the athletic net minder will draw your eye again and again. The book on Subban coming into camp last year was that his glove side needed some polishing.

#81 Malcolm Subban

#81 Malcolm Subban

This year, I don’t think I saw him beat to the glove side even once. When I asked him about the way his save percentage climbed year over year, he credited his teammates contribution and talked about his maturity as a goaltender. Despite facing nearly a full shot more per game this year over the previous season, and taking time to play in the World Juniors the key numbers were unequivocally better. In 2011-12 he had a very respectable .923sv% and GAA of 2.50, in 2012-13 he turned in .934 and 2.14. Even more indicative is the change in his post season numbers. His 2011-12 Memorial Cup playoff stats line was 6gp, 2.93 GAA and .917sv%, while 2012-13’s number improved to 17gp 2.00 GAA, and a .933Sv%. Not surprisingly he won Canadian Hockey League goalie of the week twice, and the best Sv% and best GAA in the Ontario Hockey League.

Year over year the most improved prospect was easy to spot. More than one observer at the week’s workouts and scrimmages had to be pointed at a roster to realize the young defenseman they saw this year, was the same one they saw last year. Matt Benning’s camp was a bit curtailed by injury last summer. His hockey season however boosted his stock, and tagged him as someone more than willing to work to get to the next level.

#86 Matt Benning at Bruins Dev Camp

#86 Matt Benning at Bruins Dev Camp

A sixth round pick out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League who jumped to the USHL this year, and won the league championship under Jim Montgomery with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. In the fall hockey fans can look for Benning in black and red at Northeastern University, making the transition with him will be Fighting Saints teammates Mike Szmatula and  John Stevens.

#86 Matt Benning Defenseman

#86 Matt Benning Defenseman

Anthony Camara came into camp having had the best junior season of his career. He was successful as a physical menace and as a points producer. Thirty-six goals and sixty points through the regular season by itself would have punched his ticket to Providence, and likely to being a late cut in Boston if that’s all he did. That is not however the case. Camara earned his place on an international squad for the first time representing Canada in the WJC. Then he went to the playoffs with the Barrie Colts and racked up nine goals and a point per game in 16 appearances.

What’s interesting about Camara is that he’s not one of those elite prospect like Subban or the exiled Tyler Seguin, he was a late third round pick. Only ten percent of the players drafted in 2011 have played a single NHL game. None have been from the third round. When Camara first came to the Bruins Development camp just days after being drafted he was clearly a project. His shot was so-so, he managed to drive himself into one of the stanchions, and his skating was on a level with Glen Murray and Milan Lucic’s first season.

#51 Anthony Camara #76 Rob O'Gara #88 Matt Grzelcyk

#51 Anthony Camara
#76 Rob O’Gara
#88 Matt Grzelcyk

At some point in the last two years, the major components of that changed. Camara entered what will be his last OHL season with a career high of 9 goals. He ended it with 36, and in less games than any of his previous seasons. While his skating isn’t going to be shaming speedsters like Carl Hagelin and Emerson Etem, or ice dancer Jeff Skinner he’s improved to the point where you only notice his skating by the fact that you no longer notice his skating. Camara’s work ethic is quite healthy, writers and fans noticed it, as did Bruins staffers. During a press conference Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy mentioned Camara by name four times in eight minutes. He didn’t seem at all displeased to be doing so.

 

The free agent market is always interesting. Some years the silly contracts fly from all corners of the globe, other years it seems like the prime rib is left on the table while mystery meat is carted off by the ton.

Left Wing:  Vinny Prospal, while one of the elder statesman of this years free agent class, and the NHL as a whole, he still had a highly productive year, especially in comparison to some of the other free agents. Danny Cleary, Brenden Morrow, and Guillame Latendresse probably didn’t have the years they (and their agents) wish they had had, all  of them are at least a little bit younger.

Center: Mikhail Grabovski of all the possible reasons he was bought out by the Maple Leafs none o them seem to suggest competence in the front office. Of all the centers on the market, he’s demonstrated the most upside. You can make cases that Kyle Wellwood, Scott Gomez or Nik Antropov might fit in better on a team but not that an of them are mote talented.

Right Wing: Damien Brunner wins out over Jaromir Jagr on foot speed, and Brad Boyes on consistency. Right wing is clearly the deepest remaining free agent pool, despite having its creame scraped off with the signings of Iginla, Horton, and more.

Defense 1: Ron Hainsey

Defense 2: Ryan Whitney

While the defense is slim pickings this year, an honorable mention goes to Andrew Alberts, and for a team willing to take a risk Michael Sauer.

Goalie: Tim Thomas, yes he took last season off. But looking at the rest of the market you have two guys who were bought out, a guy who hasn’t seen a sv% over .900 in  three years, a guy who was injured when he wasn’t bad for a lottery team and a guy who is even older than Thomas and hasn’t been a number one goaltender for a playoff team in his NHL career.

 

Some teams have continued to have a strong off season, others have spiraled into irrelevence through the attrition of free agency.

Best:

Washington Capitals: Locking up Karl Alzner at a very club friendly price was one of GMGM’s best movies. Last year he was second in time on ice for the team, and in the playoffs he was the second leading blueline scorer.

New York Rangers: Familiar face Carl Hagelin was locked up at a reasonable price, and new comer Justin Falk was signed at a bargain basement rate. With Falk’s arrival and the departure of several pieces the Rangers blueline will be younger next season.

Los Angeles Kings: Jake Muzzin is pretty solid young defenseman, and the Kings locked him up for two years at rate that will have some questioning the quality of Muzzin’s agent.

Montreal Canadiens: Michael McCarron, from the scouting reports I’ve gotten, McCarron is desperately in need of a situation where he isn’t the biggest body on the ice and strength and size won’t get him by, if he lands in either the AHL or NHL this year and doesn’t slide into Juniors he’ll get that.

Boston Bruins: Extending Patrice Bergeron and saving the world 25,000 columns on what the team would do without him ought to be counted as a Nobel Prize level act of humanitarian behavior. The NMC is irrelevant, I’m not sure how many general managers or team presidents would be foolish enough to move a player that well regarded and that talented who wanted to stay in the city.

Phoenix Coyotes: Max Domi has the potential to help transform the Coyotes offense, without being the type of defensive liability some of the players on the UFA market have historically been. If he lands in the NHL great, if he doesn’t he’s only played two years in the OHL and I’m sure the London Knights will welcome him back.

Worst:

Toronto Maple Leafs: Joe Colbourne? Why? This is a guy who hasn’t even excelled in the AHL.

Colorado Avalanche: Where is the defense?

Saint Louis Blues: Not getting Pietrangelo under lock and key or (much less desirably) traded for a stellar return is playing with fire, immediately after dipping your hands in gasoline.

New Jersey Devils: Arguably they can replace 27% of their offense from within and on the hopes that Ryder and Clowe can fill the production lost with Parise and Clarkson. I don’t happen to think they’ve own a productive enough offense, and they’ve left some quality hanging about on the free agent market.

A quiet camp session with a few drills and scrimmages. The players had shuttle runs before getting on the ice. Some of the players seemed sharper today, a few others seemed to be wearing.

Adam Morrison had his best day in the net today, controlling rebounds along with the rest of his game.

Matthew Lindblad shows some smooth movement, made a couple real nice cross ice passes and is well aware of where other players are on the ice.

#85 Mitchell Dempsey #79 Matthew Lindblad #72 Chris Casto

#85 Mitchell Dempsey
#79 Matthew Lindblad
#72 Chris Casto

Zane Gotheberg, as he reminded me this was his fourth development camp, the first happening when he was just 17 , is best described in two words: crisp, consistent. Early in the camp or late, the beginning or middle of a session and its the same story.

#80 Brian Ferlin #83 Seth Griffith #88 Matt Grzlecyk

#80 Brian Ferlin
#83 Seth Griffith
#88 Matt Grzlecyk

Matt Grzelcyk showed more physicality than last year, also scored on a nifty backhand roofer.

Wiley Sherman hustles up ice

Wiley Sherman hustles up ice

Chris Casto reminds me of defensemen like Matt Greene of the Los Angeles Kings and Dennis Seidenberg of the Bruins.

#81 Malcolm Subban in goal #82 Alex Cord #68 Colton Hargrove #90 Casey Bailey

#81 Malcolm Subban in goal
#82 Alex Cord
#66 Colton Hargrove
#90 Casey Bailey (Number obscured)

Wiley Sherman is a raw big body who will probably project to be about 225-230 for regular NHL play.

#50 Linus Arnesson #79 Matthew Lindblad

#50 Linus Arnesson
#79 Matthew Lindblad

Malcom Subban addressed the low points of his game between last year and his visibly in camp, and even more so in the jump in his stats. Interestingly he had three assists in the regular season, and one in seventeen playoff games and you don’t hear much about his puck handling ability.

Linus Arnesson apparently no one told him European defensemen aren’t supposed to play physically, or if they did he probably knocked them down three or four times.

Development camp is fun to watch because you get to see what the coaches and scouts see in players that might never show on the ice. Having been to camp the past several years I like larger groups than this better. With the larger groups there’s a wider spectrum of talent, and you can point to individual standouts much easier. I also find it is easier to concentrate on players. I also think that with the larger groups the players go at it a little hard trying to stand out.

Today was the third day of Bruins development camp and started off with puck handling drills. Griffith, Grzelcyk and Blidh stood out, but the drills weren’t all that easy. Three on one drills were another big part of the morning. Three forwards russing the net against one defender. The goales were all sharp, and the three defensemen who did the best at containing the forwards were O’Gara, Casto and Grzelcyk.

Zane Gothberg in net  Brian Ferlin beside the net.

Zane Gothberg in net
Brian Ferlin beside the net.

Malcolm Subban’s athleticism is pretty impressive, I’m hard pressed to thnk of any goalie who exceeds him by a wide margin. Subbans’s explosiveness is much like Jonathan Quicks, if lacking several years of NHL polish.

Malcolm Subban in net Casey Bailey taking the shot.

Malcolm Subban in net
Casey Bailey taking the shot.

Anthony Camara has shown the same sort of ability to be a complete player that landed him a spot on the Canadian World Junior team this year.

I ran into the parents of one of the campers after the scrimage, nice people, family can tell you a lot about a person.