It is a truism in sports; football, and hockey most of all that defense wins championships. We’ve seen it year after year. This year it seems to be adding a wrinkle to itself. Powerplays are costing teams games. Not by failing to produce, but by favoring offense so heavily, they aren’t prepared to play responsibly.

The Dallas Stars in game two of their series with the Anaheim Ducks were down two to one in the third. They were on the powerplay. On the ice are Valeri Nichushkin, Sergei Gonchar, Colton Scevoir, Cody Eakin, and Trevor Daley. Gonchar at age 40 is not in any way the skater he was ten or fifteen years ago. Nichushkin is rookie who is not only in his first NHL season, but his first season playing hockey in North America. Facing them were Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Ben Lovejoy. Either Getzlaf or Fowler deserve watching, and if you fall asleep at the switch with both of them on the ice, you deserve what happens next. The Stars did.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead last night, they went on a powerplay, and lost it. All the momentum they had, and it was notable, the disorder of the Blue Jackets was equally notable. But the Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, the same man who was in charge of a very mushy team USA roster not long ago, puts out a PP of Malkin, Crosby, Niskanen, Kunitz an Neal against a team that had nine short handed goals in the regular season. The most defensively capable of that group is probably the 34 year old Chris Kunitz. As you know, the BlueJackets scored, the Penguins did not and the scramble began. Momentum was reversed, an the game ended ugly for Penguins fans.

In the first game of their series, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens.  The Bolts are up 2-1 on home ice, a raucous crowd is making the building shake. P.K. Subban is in the box for slashing.  Onto the ice storm Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, they are joined by Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and completing the unit is Valeri Filppula. We can argue about who the best defender in that group is, its probably Callahan, but it doesn’t matter. They got cute, and got beat by Brian Gionta setting up Lars Eller. To highlight how little offense the pair produced only seven more points than rookie Ondrej Palat, and neither actually surpassed Stamkos who was limited to 37 games and 40 points, while Gionta and Eller played 81 an 77 respectively. While the teams went back and forth scoring on a game that went to overtime, the Lightning never led again, and lost the game.

This irregular feature will run when I get bored. It will ask one scintillating question about each NHL team.

 

Anaheim Ducks: Can this team take advantage of its abundance of youth to compliment its savvy and skilled veteran core?

Boston Bruins: Is there a single hockey observer anywhere who doesn’t think the team is dangling Matt Bartkowski for trade?

Buffalo Sabres: So ah, how about those Buffalo Bills?

Calgary Flames: Are you the one non Flames fan or executive who expected the team to start the season 2-0?

Carolina Hurricanes: Isn’t it great that the Canes put in a great effort for their goaltender Cam Ward opening night and only allowed 38 shots on goal?

Chicago Blackhawks: If the media doesn’t have Patrick Kane’s off ice antics to talk about, will they actually cover the team now?

Colorado Avalanche: We all know the limited shelf life of firey over the top NHL coaches like Guy Boucher and Patrick Roy right?

Columbus Blue Jackets: Do we blame Bobrovksy’s four goal opener on moving east, a lack of defenders who play defense, or just a fat pay day?

Dallas Stars: Will Alex Goligoski ever get recognized as top defenseman?

Detroit Red Wings: Is there a player in the system 30 or under who can emerge as the next “face of the franchise”?

Edmonton Oilers: Can prodigal son and eco-warrior Andrew Ference lead his band of merry man-children to liberate a playoff spot from and deliver it to their poor fans?

Florida Panthers: With new ownership and oodles of cap space this year, how wide with the tap be opened for established NHL talent in the future?

Los Angeles Kings: Without a proven backup will Quick get overworked in the regular season?

Minnesota Wild: Will the Wild faithful stay true if the team underperforms this season?

Montreal Canadiens: With the soon to be 35 year old Brian Gionta’s star waning and an expiring contract, will the Habs relocate the C to another jersey possibly before moving him?

Nashville Predators: Barry Trotz entered the season the NHL’s longest tenured head coach, will he end the season in his current position?

New Jersey Devils: With the leagues oldest team, and all but one of the free agents brought in this season over 30, does this franchise have a path to the future?

New York Islanders: The Islanders took a big step forward last year climbing into the playoffs and battling Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, can Tavares and Hamonic make themselves household names this year?

New York Rangers: How long will it take Marc Staal, Brad Richards and the rest of the blueshirts to adapt to Alain Vigneault’s system?

Ottawa Senators: Captain Spezza, with Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen and Craig Anderson are more than enough to get this team to the second round of the playoffs right?

Philadelphia Flyers: Who will lead the Flyers in the three categories that have defined the team in recent seasons: missed games, PIMS and suspensions?

Phoenix Coyotes: Is Mike Ribeiro the right centerpiece for the teams offense or just another free agent that will do just ok and move on?

Pittsburgh Penguins: This is the year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both healthy right? Right?

San Jose Sharks: Will Bruan, Vlasic, and Hertl emerge to form the new core of this team with Logan Couture?

Saint Louis Blues: Does this team have enough scoring talent and the right coach to take advantage of it?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Does Steve Yzerman who wants fighting out of the game have a punchers chance of seeing his team in the playoffs any time soon?

Toronto Maple Leafs: When the Olympic break rolls around will we be asking where they will find a center, or marveling at Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri as a one two punch?

Vancouver Canucks: With a new coach and system in John Tortorella and a general manager Mike Gillis, who has to be fighting for his own job, how much of the current roster will still be in place after the trade deadline?

Washington Capitals: We can all agree that Alex Ovechkin is good for 50+ goals this season, and Mikhail Grabovski will set a personal high in at least one offensive category right?

Winnipeg Jets: With Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and more in full stride, the biggest question about this team is once again in the crease isn’t it?

The dividing line between the upper echelon of the NHL’s forwards in terms of pay and the merely competent is always sliding upwards. Right now the line is slipping from the five million mark upwards. Without knowing what the next CBA will look like, much less the next two or three annual caps we’ll take a look at the league and who’s earning about twice the leagues average salary or more.

In the Northeast division, there are this year or next only a handful at this salary or more. The Montreal Canadiens have three on the list, Scott Gomez, Thomas Plekanec, and Brian Gionta, combining for a cap hit of $17,357,143. The Ottawa Senators have just Jason Spezza making north of five million, and he’s got making a cool seven million with a no trade clause. The second highest paid forward in the division is Thomas Vanek, who along with Pominville are over the threshold for the Sabres. Boston boasts Patrice Bergeron, Brian Rolston and David Krejci. The Maple Leafs lay claim to Mikhail Grabosi and Phil Kessel.

A brief look at the disposable:

  • Gomez is a punchline. He appears to be liked by his teammates, but with 38 points in the 2010-11 season, and a boatload of missed games in the 2011-12 season that’s allowed him to put up 11 points in 38 games, he’s not in anyway living up to his contract. While it’s true no one forced the Rangers to sign him to the contract or the Canadiens to trade for him, he’s unlikely to see another contract worth north of $2million anywhere in the NHL when his deal expires in two more seasons. He’ll be 34 by then and can retire if he chooses having suffered through his $51,000,000 seven year contract.
  • Phil Kessel is exactly the player he was at the end of his second season. He’s a one dimensional goal scorer who disappears for weeks at a time. He shows up and blows the doors off the league working hard for October, showing interest in November and then might as well not exist the rest of the season. He’s shut down on a regular basis by smart defense regardless of it is the top pairing or the third against him. He “didn’t want to be traded” from Boston, and landed in Toronto to the tune of $5,400,000 a year and frequent “Thank You Kessel!” chants. If he did any thing other than score or at least did it consistently all year he’d be an elite player, as it is his contract is dead money December 1st onward.
  • Brian Rolston, while part of his issue is simply not fitting into the plan and system on Long Island, his age has more than a small part in it. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be in the NHL in two years, and how much he plays from now until the end of the season in Boston depends on how fast Horton and Peverley work their way back into the lineup.

 

The interesting:

  • David Krejci is nearly a mercurial as Phil Kessel. He shows up willy-nilly, sometimes for a game, other times for a week or even a month. Then like responsible government he becomes a myth for days, weeks and months at a time. His saving grace is that even if he’s not particularly physical he’s willing to hit, take a hit to make a play and can be counted on not to make reasonable efforts defensively when engaged.  Next year the soon to be 26 year old becomes the highest paid Boston Bruins forward with a cap hit of $5.25m.
  • Brian Gionta may be proof that going from the Atlantic division to the Canadiens is a bad career move. No one would bat an eyelash at the numbers he put up for the Devils and his current contract. Unfortunately when your production drops about 20 percent people tend to notice. Not a complete waste of a contract, but possibly they are putting him on the ice too much. His last year in New Jersey he played about four minutes less per game and produced twenty percent more points, including picking up shorthanded points. Nineteen and a half minutes a night is a lot for any forward. At an even $5m he’s worth watching to see what happens if and when a new coach takes over, especially if the team drafts a high end forward like Filip Forsberg or Alex Galchenyuk who might make the immediate jump to the NHL.
  • Thomas Vanek is another curious case. The last three seasons have seen his numbers spiral. Even if you throw this season where the Buffalo Sabres had more injuries than can be counted out, the last two years are still wanting. He’s got a ton of ability, but is very, very streaky. Realistically he hasn’t much support around him in recent years, and that will drag any one down. But after two 40+ goal seasons, more is needed. Maybe if he’s paired with skilled import Hodgson he’ll revitalize himself.

The cream:

  • Jason Spezza for all the negative press he’s earned over the years is still a very highly skilled center working around the fact he’s been marooned on a team with little NHL talent for the last several seasons. Hometown All Star appearance aside, with one more goal he’ll be the least heralded 30 goal man in the NHL. He’s won almost 54% of his faceoffs this season, won over 56% last season and is over a point per game this season while spending a lot of time on lines with guys you probably can’t name. The Ottawa Senators star center is on the books for $7m a year with a no NTC>
  • Patrice Bergeron in any reasonable version of the universe Bergeron would probably own at least two Selkie trophies. That could finally be addressed this season.  He wins faceoffs, is arguably eclipsed defensively only by Norris trophy winner Zdeno Chara on the Boston Bruins. He’s a former 30 goal scorer who has not often been gifted in terms of his linemates offensive abilities and despite that he’s 6th in total points for the fabled 2003 draft, just 6 points behind Zach Parise, and ahead of a number of big names taken ahead of him like Richards, Carter, Kesler, Eriksson, and Brown among others. He’s taking home $5m with a no movement clause.
  • Thomas Plekanec is living the post Thornton pre-Savard era of Patrice Bergeron’s career in Montreal. There’s very little offensive help and he’s spending entirely too much time on the ice. With almost 21 minutes a night of ice time sucking down his reserves his production would plummet even if there were someone to pass the puck too. More than three of those minutes are spent standing in front of slapshots as he plays and produces points short handed. If I’m going to point to a guy in the league currently “under producing” and say it’s the system or team, it’ him. The $5m and ntc are about what he deserves simply for taking the mess the team is quietly.
  • Mikhail Grabovksi is the newest member of the club. If I were taking over the general managers job in Toronto, immediately after scheduling weekly time with a therapist, I’d put him officially on the teams “untouchable” list. Much like Plekanec or Bergeron he’s a gamer. He shows up ready to play and play hard. He may or may not prove to be as offensively gifted as some of the other players on the list, but he doesn’t take nights off and he brings his game no matter how bad the teams situation is.