It November 27th, one day before Thanksgiving in the United States of America and that’s about the time 80% or more of the playoff picture shakes out. Which teams will stay in the picture? Which are locks? Who’s most vulnerable to an injury or two that takes them out of the playoff picture?

Let’s take a look at the western conference first:

The interesting thing about the west is the amount of separation between the top seven or eight and everyone else. The Chicago Blackhawks have played one less game than the Vancouver Canucks and have nine more points. That’s their spread from sitting on the couch in April.

Western lock:

Saint Louis Blues, they’ve played just 23 games and have 8 points of separation on being on the outside looking in. Top to bottom they have the best defense in the NHL. They have the best team goal differential, and are one of just three teams to allow 50 or less goals today.

Most vulnerable:

The Colorado Avalanche, with the Varlemov situation on one hand, and the uncharacteristic play of most of the rest of the roster on the other, this is a team where one injury could result in a tailspin into mediocrity.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

Nashville Predators, with Pekka Rinne on the mend they will soon have a number one goalie to help out on the backend. That should in turn allow them to get a bit more offense out of their team.

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

The East:

There are more teams in the east, and more teams rebuilding, or very dependent on top line or top pairing talent.  The east is shamefully dominated by the Atlantic division with five of the eight playoff spots belonging to one of the teams in that division.

 

Eastern lock:

Boston Bruins, hands down the best team in the east, even if they haven’t played a full sixty minute game all season. They’re too deep and too good for even two or big injuries to drag them outside the playoff structure.

Most vulnerable:

New York Rangers, they don’t seem to know who they are. This isn’t surprising given the radical difference in coaching styles between the last coach and the current one.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

While the Carolina Hurricanes should be better, they’ve also not had good health in their key forwards. The team people should worry about is the Ottawa Senators. Craig Anderson can’t stay this bad this long, and the team will eventually start finding ways to win consistently.

 

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com

An NHL coaching job is nothing if not a reminder that all things are temporary. The Philadelphia Flyers made a coaching change, and improved. The Florida Panthers who are a lesser talent made a coaching change and they too improved.  There are teams struggling now, some because of talent, others because of execution.  And while trades, demotions and benchings have and will happen, the person who pays most for poor performance of a team is the head coach.

Todd Richards:

With the NHL’s reigning Vezina trophy winner, and blue chip picks in Jack Johnson, Tim Erixon, Ryan Murray, and Marion Gaborik studding the roster ably complimented by James Wisniewski, RJ Umberger, Nikita Nikitin, Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno a team shouldn’t struggle. They won’t be a world beater, but being tied for last in a mediocre division isn’t where they should be. Yes, once he’s healthy getting Nathan Horton into the lineup should help, but entering action on the 25th the team is 9 points out of the last wildcard spot in the east and only eight points off the league basement.

Jack Capuano:
Capuano may end up being a victim of his own success. Last year the team proved they were capable of playing their way into the post season. They went toe-to-toe with the Pittsburgh Penguins and gave an excellent showing. By comparison, this years on ice product is putrid. In overtime or regulation they’ve lost two thirds of their games. John Tavares, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo are doing their part but it seems Capuano is either misusing or not motivating the other warm bodies on the roster. While it can be argued that Garth Snow failed him by not securing better goaltending, general manager’s are a lot less disposable than coaches.

The rumors surrounding Evander Kane have been higher hip waders for two plus years. There’s his supposed off ice issues. There’s the rift that is said to exist between he and management and or coaches. There’s the fact that fans in 29 cities not named Winnipeg that are home to NHL franchises would love to have him. There is also the fact that the Jets are more likely to be tanking in February than looking to add depth for a playoff run.

The latest round of hot air and hearty keystrokes has Kane, the 30 goal scoring 22 year old who is 3rd in his draft class in goals and points headed to Montreal. On the exhaustive list of players the Jets would supposedly get in return for him are Max Pacioretty. Such a trade would free up an additional three quarters of a million in cap space the Jets don’t particularly need. What else it would do for the Jets is unknown.

The question is what is Evander Kane worth? If you use the Phil Kessel benchmark of two first and a second round pick, you may be at least in the right ball park. Kane has not scored as many goals in one season as Kessel has, but he’s also never had as much offense around him. On the plus side for Kane is much more physicality, no history of cancer and an ability to shrug off media attention.

If your the Winnipeg Jets, the return for your best young talent needs to be high. The teams needs are pretty noticeably: a center capable of excelling in the one or two slot, a long term solution in goal, and a 22+ minute a night defensive defenseman who can help protect whoever is in net from some of the NHL’s top talent. Getting experienced number one centers is not easy, just look at the number of guys the Calgary Flames have tried to put into that position. Right now the Anaheim Ducks have an embarrassment of riches in net, and one of their younger goalies would be good mix for a Winnipeg team still building. Dan Girardi who is a UFA this off-season fits the mold of a shutdown defender, as does the Boston Bruins Dennis Seidenberg.

Another way for the Winnipeg Jets organization to approach this might be to aim for adding quality second line and second pairing depth via the draft. If they could swing a deal for Kane and five or even four relatively high second round picks they might just be better off long term. In Atlanta as the Thrashers or now Winnipeg as the Jets the franchise has never been known for its depth. Is this the time to go for it? As it looks very much like they will have at least one top ten draft pick of their own in the near future, it might just be.

The shootout is one of the “innovations” in hockey that just doesn’t work. Like the glowing puck it was a nice idea as long as you ignore every fundamental and secondary thing wrong with it. Those faults are legion. It is time to put the shootout in the history books.

Here’s the plan:

  1. The first over time period will be thirty minutes. Tv break after the 19th minute, and 2 minutes and 30 seconds of commercials during a ten minute break between subsequent overtimes.
  2. Second, and additional overtimes will be forty minutes with 90 second breaks for commercials and ice repair at the stoppage nearest the 30 minute mark.
  3. No trapezoid in over time.
  4. If a team lost a player for the duration during the first period, that player can be replaced at coaches discretion by any player who took pregame warmups in the second or later overtimes.
  5. Strict faceoff timing, no one gets thrown out for cheating, drop the puck and be done in 10 seconds or less.
  6. From the second overtime on all faceoffs not following a penalty will be in the zone of the team that took the most minor penalties in the first four periods.
  7. Refs waive off penalties with low potential for injury (hooking, “interference”, unsportsmanlike [verbal abuse of officials and similar], slashing the stick, … ) but strictly call real slashes, tripping, goaltender interference, high sticking and other penalties that could end someones night, season or career.

Why?

The goal of eliminating the shootout is to make sure the game ends on hockey plays. Not phantom calls, no idiotic non calls and no skills competition. The trapezoid is anti-hockey and needs to go as badly as shootout, but I don’t see it happening. The extended periods will push teams to finish the game in regulation, play to win from the puck drop, and minimize over running of time slots. Adding in players who took warmups in place of injured players means there is more opportunity to create mismatches for coaches and hence win the game.

Ideally the whole thing could be put into practice next season for every game. More reasonably, initiating it so that only games within a division saw this format the first year might be the best way to pitch it to the networks.

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

 

Players:

  • that Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury would not only have more starts than Craig Anderson but better stats too.
  • that Tim Thomas would have more games played than Tomas Vokoun, Cam Ward and Anton Kudobin combined.
  • Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild would have more goals and points than Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks or any member of the New York Rangers
  • that Jeff Carter’s mystery foot injury of a couple seasons back might not have been a product of not wanting to play or live in Columbus but be part of some other long term health issue.
  • of the four players tied for the lead league in short handed goals at two, Bryan Little, Brandon Dubinsky, Brad Richardson, and Dwight King only King would be on a team currently in a playoff spot.
  • of the 734 skaters to take the ice since the beginning of the season the only player with more than one overtime goal would be Florida Panthers discard and Vancouver Canucks bargain pickup Mike Santorelli.
  • 22 games into the season none of the 14 game winning goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins would have come from Sidney Crosby, while Chuck Kobasew would own two.
  • Josh Harding could be labeled the front runner for both the Vezina and the starting job on the Canadian Olympic team.

Teams:

  • the Detroit Red Wings would have more overtime losses than any other team in the NHL.
  • through the first quarter of the season the Phoenix Coyotes would be fourth in goals per game at 3.29.
  • the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, and Toronto Maple Leafs would be the only teams even or with a winning record when trailing after one period.
  • with 23 games in the books the Buffalo Sabres would not have led at the end of the first period even once.
  • of the four teams with a winning record when trailing first, three would be in the same division the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings, while the Toronto Maple Leafs were the only team from outside the Pacific to do so.
  • the Colorado Avalanche would be undefeated when scoring first.
  • the Anaheim Ducks who are being outspent by 18 teams would lead the league in points.
  • the Buffalo Sabres were projecting for less wins in this 82 game season than in last years lockout shortened one. (18 vs 21)

The biggest single factor in dealing with concussions is that most, if not all of the techniques in use in sports are subjective. This means each time someone is sent for evaluation there is a high risk of something going wrong. The person administering the test could be incompetent. The person taking the test could have thrown the baseline testing at the beginning of the year in case they “got their bell rung”. The administrator could be instructed by nefarious types to pass everyone who isn’t bleeding from the ears and throwing up on themselves. And of course players could fake the results and lie their way back into play.

The University of Pennsylvania may just have solved the problem. According to an article published in Frontiers of Neurology, they have developed a blood test to accurately predict long term impact of brain trauma. The study was small, and it is unknown what number of the participants had previous concussions. The study is however promising and potentially good news for parents, athletes and the sporting industry.

The Montreal Canadiens are only lacking one thing to keep them from being a top team in the NHL.

They have a goaltender in Carey Price who is more than doing his part. A .929 sv% is more than many teams can hope for from their starter. Doing it in 15 of 18 games, which is on pace for a 69 game season, is a level of play well above satisfactory. The fifth overall pick int he 2005 draft class is playing like you would expect such a high pick.

The vastly under-appreciated Josh Gorges and Rapheal Diaz are the top rearguards for a penalty kill that is near the top of the NHL. Up front are Brandon Prust who while he has a very lengthy fight history is more than just a puncher, and Tom Plekanec should be on everyone’s Selke short list. The four are key portions of one of the better short handed units in the NHL.

Did you know the Montreal Canadiens have the 2nd ranked power-play in the NHL? Well, they do. Who leads them in goals on the man advantage? Some guy named Tom Plekanec, three goals, seven points. Norris winner P.K. Subban leads the team with nine total points.

With a team that has a top penalty kill, a killer powerplay, and a goalie playing stellar hockey you have to look closer to find the problems. They are getting scoring from a number of sources, even if more than one of their top players is not at the top of their game. If the issue isn’t the on ice talent, and the team categories seem to say they are not, one must look further.

The team’s leadership is not openly incompetent, but that doesn’t mean they are the right mix to produce top results. When you look at the fact that the Canadiens are a top five team in fighting majors, and built around a stout, (mostly) mobile defense, and playing with a touch of snarl you have to wonder what Michel Therrien is doing behind the bench of this roster configuration. A certain vocal, and perhaps belligerent segment of the fan-base believes the team should have a Francophone as its head coach, winning cures all ills.

As a coach Therrian could have a higher ceiling than many believe. The Pittsburgh Penguins for example exiled him before pulling things together and charging full tilt towards the promised land. He was also fired by the Canadiens in the past. Despite trips to the finals in both the AHL and NHL he’s never won. This might have something to do with the way he deploys top assets, like P.K. Subban. It almost certainly has something to do with a lack of follow through, this is after all the coach who promised savage retribution after the famous Kyle MacLaren hit on Richard Zednik, and then produced nothing.


While coaches aren’t the only ones who can inject consistency into a team, they have the most sway. And consistency is that one thing the Canadiens need to be a successful team both before and after the middle of April this year.

The Western Conference has run over the east so far this year. The odd thing is how concentrated the losses are, so many of the east’s teams are in complete disarray while most of the weakest of the western teams are either over performing or have finally started to turn the corner on rebuilds that their is an imbalance.

Anaheim Ducks: We know that despite injuries to Sheldon Souray, Matt Beleskey, Viktor Fasth, Jakob Silfverberg, Saku Koivu, and Sami Vatanen, no team has wracked up more points or an equal amount of wins in the six week old season.

Colorado Avalanche: We know the Avs may be led by Matt Duchene, but they are getting contributions deep into the forward pool. In 14 games (or less for some) seven forwards have at least 9 points. Matt Duchene’s 10 goals are complimented nicely by five each from Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, PA Parenteau, and Ryan O’Reilly. We know the goalies are beating the competition with silly ease in wins, neither Giguere nor Semyon Varlemov have allowed more than 2 goals in a win.

San Jose Sharks: We know that two regulation losses in sixteen games is pretty damn spiffy. We know that a certain player might be tempted to celebrate this with his rooster out. We know the Sharks defense is going to be overlooked when people point out why the team is succeeding this season. We know not to get our hopes to high about this team and the playoffs.

Chicago Blackhawks: We know that even with Toews and Kane at just under a point per game this team has another gear.  We know it is nice not to be talking about the team’s powerplay. We know they team would rather not talk about their rather dismal penalty kill.

Phoenix Coyotes: We know the media stopped paying attention to this team when the arena deal went through. We know they have as many regulation or over time wins as the San Jose Sharks. We know that their powerplay is just .4 behind their Pacific division rival Sharks. We know that this team won’t get any real attention until the second round of the playoffs, and then only reluctantly from certain media outlets.

Vancouver Canucks: With 18 games played and 11 ROW’s the team is currently in the first wild card spot in the west. We know they have either played well after their adjustment to a new coach or that they are getting good puck luck with four of their last ten games going more than sixty minutes and victories in three of those.

Saint Louis Blues: We know the off season moves, and maturity (and health) are playing a big part in this teams success. We know that this should be the season Alex Pietrangelo becomes a household name. We know Vladimir Sobotka is on pace for a career season. We know Alex Steen will remember every moment of this season.

Minnesota Wild: We know that if this team were allowed just a little more offensive freedom they might just move into one of the divisional playoff spots and avoid the wild card chase. We know that Nino Niederreiter must be enjoying his escape from New York given that he’s played all 17 of the Wild’s games this year. We know being 16th in goals for and 3rd in goals against is very traditional Wild hockey and makes for a lot over very tight games.

Los Angeles Kings: We know this is one of just three teams without an overtime loss. We know that Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas present a pretty good case for a curse of the Conn-Smythe, at least for American goaltenders. We know that hovering low in the playoff picture has been just about perfected by this team. We know Anze Kopitar’s point per game pace is pretty surprising for this team and will be ignored, again.

Nashville Predators: We know 14 points in their last 10 games should tell us a lot about how bad the Preds first few games were. We know the team is a very uncharacteristic 19th in goals against. We know that having done nothing to improve their forward pool in the off season that no one is surprised they are 21st in goals for. We know that the forward group’s lack of offensive zest will likely cost Shea Weber another Norris and could cost Seth Jones the Calder.

Dallas Stars: We know that despite adding Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin in the off season the team is still being outscored by their opponents. We know that Valeri Nichushkin is the only draft pick from the last four drafts on the roster. We know a Lindy Ruff coached team is never going to be more than mediocre offensively so the rest of the team has to be high end and that this roster doesn’t qualify.

Calgary Flames: We know that a 6-8-2 is about where most people expected this team to be. We know Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler are doing what heavy lifting is getting done in Calgary. We know those same two players are probably preventing the team from locking up the first overall pick that has to be the aim of the front office. We know that as bad as other teams are playing the return of Mark Giordano means management will have to come up with a better plan for tanking.

Winnipeg Jets: We know that this teams lack of a number on center and arguably of a number two center are making the shortcomings on the back end even more apparent. We know the time to burn this roster to the ground and spare no one over the age of 25 is coming real soon.

Edmonton Oilers: We know there’s just no excuse for this team to be this bad. We know they’ve had all sorts of high draft picks. We know Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Sam Gagner are legitimate NHL talents. We know goaltending is a big, big issue. We know that the defense as a whole can’t get out of its own way much less get the goaltender a clear view or move the puck out of their own end. We know that unless they overpay one or three of the pending UFA defensive defensemen in July, hopes should not be high for improvement any time soon. We know that less than twenty games into the season injuries have played a big part with only seven skaters playing all 17 games.

This feature runs when someone we all know says something interesting, usually it is by accident.

 

cluneonbourneRich Clune, who is largely a secret outside the Predators home arena took exception to Justin Bourne (@jtbourne) critique of his teammate. Clune’s defense of teammate was a bit wordier than a similar on ice response might have been.