This past season was interesting. With the compressed schedule it is hard to keep track of all 30 teams, or even just three or four. There were however been a few noticeable things that have crept into regular appearances in games league wide.

The first is plain and simple stupid that creeps into the play of otherwise sensible players. There is no other way to describe Volchenkov’s suspend-able hit on Brad Marchand. Volchenkov will play his 600th NHL game sometime early next season, he handily dishes out over 100 and often close to 200 hits a season, and yet has just 404 minutes in penalties in his career including the five he was assessed for trying to crack open Brad Marchand’s skull.

The second thing about this season that isn’t surprising, is the absolute collapse of good teams late in games. This season saw numerous games turn around completely not because one team got early bounces and the other got later game bounces, but based on who had played and traveled the least in the past week. If the NHL really wants to be the worlds top skill league, another lockout will damage that as much by talent bleed to the KHL and SHL as by turning in a season of supremely ugly hockey. The third period of games across the NHL were purely ugly this year, it didn’t matter if it was the eventual champions in Chicago, the slick skating Carolina Hurricanes, the lionhearted Columbus Blue Jackets or one of the leagues lottery teams.

Perhaps the biggest thing to suffer in the NHL this season was the officiating. Consistency didn’t exist call to call much less period to period or game to game. In a lifetime of watching the NHL,  can honestly say I’ve never seen the leagues officiating at such a low water mark. The only comparable for NHL Officials this season would be the NFL’s replacement referees, and it probably does the NFL scabs a disservice. Interference calls that were made on a regular basis the first three weeks of the season were weeks dead at the trade deadline. All season long you had as much chance of nailing jelly to the wall as pinning down exactly what was and wasn’t goaltending interference. Some games you could get away with what looked like full stride charges into the crease from the faceoff dot, other games getting pushed into the opposing goalie by their teammate would land you in the sin bin for two minutes.

None of these defects is something you want to sell the game to new fans. Bad hockey, isn’t endearing to existing fans. As the league prepares for its near inevitable expansion, these things have to be addressed. When the NHL sets up it tent in new cities, it needs not just the national sponsors who can be sold on the sexy numbers of big markets and 32 or more major markets, but the local business communities wherever the new franchises land. Why should an advertiser spend millions of dollars to advertise in an arena that isn’t going to see many ticket sales because the product is uncertain, and the market as of yet has no loyalty to it?  There are very few major corporations that don’t pay attention to who they are tying their name to, the recession that has gripped North America and much of the world has weeded out many of those who didn’t. The bottom line is that advertising decisions are made by people, the best people to have making those crucial choices for the NHL and its franchises are fans.

No team wins without at least one very good center, most teams have more than one. In no particular order.

 

Derek Roy (age 30): While the last year or two have not been his best, he did get the extra rest of the lockout, and an unimpressive playoff run with the Vancouver. At 5’9″ and 184 lbs he’s not quite imposing, but has in the past managed to be effective against defenses like Boston and Montreal.

Michal Handzus (age 36): Probably the strongest faceoff man available in this free agent crop he’s also shown there is still gas in the tank playing 15 games in is native Slovakia, the bulk of the season with the San Jose Sharks before being swapped for a fourth round pick to the Blackhawks. In 23 playoff games Handzus put up 11 points while averaging about 16 minutes a night. Arguably he’s the best 2/3C available.

Mikhail Grabovski (age 29): The Maple Leafs somehow came to the conclusion Grabovksi was no longer needed, and that the team would be better off playing him to go away. On the ice Grabovski is aggressive, physical, impossible to intimidate and has produced three 20 goal seasons during his Maple Leafs tenure topping off at 29. Even with somehow landing in Randy Carlyle’s during the regular season and playing just 15:34 in the regular season his “poor play” got him burdened with additional minutes pushing him to 19:03 per game in the playoffs.  So in the break down between the stats guys, and the independent “eyeball test” guys, and the teams evaluation you can decide who you want to believe.

 

Mike Ribeiro (age 33) : While playing with the restructuring Washington Capitals under first year head coach and hall of fame inductee Adam Oates Ribeiro put up one of two point per game seasons in a NHL career that stretches back to 1999-2000. The former Montreal Canadien, and Dallas Star got into his first NHL fight with the Bruins Brad Marchand last season. Not the oldest center available, but certainly showing he’s willing to learn a few new tricks.

Tyler Bozak (age 27): Perhaps the most derided player on the list, Bozak plays with high energy, played the regular season at over 20 minutes a game, and the post season at almost twenty two. Last seasons short handed TOI was about triple the previous years. There aren’t a lot of younger centers available. and a general manager and coach that think they can get him for the right price and develop him

Danny Briere (age 35): Briere is among the legion of players signed to long term deals in Philadelphia and either traded or bought out. Small, a bit dirty and perhaps losing a step of late. While hes probably due for a significant pay cut, there’s no question his playoff prowess is more than tempting; 108 games played and 109 points, 50 of them goals.

With three games in the history books, the Stanley Cup Finals reaches the halfway point of possible games tonight. Each team has seen the other throw the best they have out there, each team has had players head down the tunnel and not come back.

Puck Possession:

While faceoffs are a key part of this, they aren’t the only component. The Blackhawks are not winning enough battles along the boards. They have plenty of big strong guys who should be able to go get the puck from smaller Bruins players like Ference, Marchand or Seguin, but we haven’t seen that. If you lose both the board battles and the faceoff war, you’re not going to win many games unless the other team has a truly bad goalie.

Passion versus Control:

Halfway through the first Kaspars Daugavins may have taken the stupidest penalty of the Bruins post season with a flagrant elbow he’s lucky didn’t see him sent to the dressing room. At the end of the third period of game three the nasty climbed out of the alleyways and onto the ice. Zdeno Chara and Bryan Bickell locked up and exchanged some leather and lather. Andrew Shaw and Brad Marchand went a little further and dropped the gloves before quickly joining them there.

Will we see a cleanly played series devolve into something where stupid penalties and reprisals break up the flow of the game. So far we’ve seen long periods of whistle free hockey, not just because of the abbreviated playoff rule book, but because both teams have played clean. If the emotional storm we saw in the fading minutes of game three continues, especially with frustration mounting for players like Toews who had a bit of a meltdown during the Red Wings series the penalty box could get quite cramped.

Rebounds and Follow Ups:

We’ve seen both goalies control a lot of the shots they face, when they haven’t that’s when we see goals. In game two, the first period goal on Rask was one that bounced off his glove twice in a sequence where he had to make five or six saves before allowing the goal. Game two didn’t see much in the way of rebounds, and even less of Blackhawks in the right spots to get to them.

Matchups:

As is often the case in the playoffs, it isn’t the star players doing most of the five on five scoring. This series has seen the Bruins new look third line of Paille-Kelly-Seguin has given the Blackhawks fit. It combines two of the Bruins three fastest forwards on the wings, and the solid passing, strong faceoff ability, and focused determination of Chris Kelly. If the Blackhawks have to pull Keith or Seabrook off of other duties to cover this line, it means they are likely opening up another can of worms.

At five on five, the Bergeron line has generated chances, but not much finish, likewise the Krejci line has had chances but little finish since Lucic’s two goals in game one. The Bruins need to take advantage of the Blackhawks relatively weak road game and perhaps send these two lines over the boards against different defensive pairs.

Injuries and Endurance:

We’ve seen Marian Hossa sit out a game, and Nathan Horton depart in overtime in this series. With thirteen periods of hard hitting, tight checking hockey played these two teams have already played more than four games of ice time against each other. We know neither of the two big bodied right wings is at 100%, we’ve also seen enough hits, bodies crashing into the boards or net, and simple fatigue to know there are likely to be two or three other players on each team who wouldn’t be playing if this were a regular season game.

The shell game Quenneville played with the Hossa injury and the Smith substitution can probably fill in one or two names for us there. For the Bruins, if we see Daugavins back in the lineup after some pretty poor play, you can’t help but wonder what type of shape Jordan Caron and the other black aces are in.

This years Stanley Cup finals present an almost unique chance to judge the two conferences based purely on the interactions of the top team from each. With the compressed schedule, and no out of conference play, all of the leagues stats are really skewed by being entirely against fourteen teams with no real long road trips or extended homestands. There’s was simply no way to judge which teams were best even with all the advanced stats, until now.

The Chicago Blackhawks handled the Los Angeles Kings with relative ease in five games. The Boston Bruins ran over the Pittsburgh Penguins in four. Neither team possess much of a powerplay, and both are really solid on the penalty kill. They are the last teams standing. With ten periods of Stanley Cup Final hockey played, standing is probably a little more difficult than anyone would have expected after just two games.

What we know:

We know, the BlackHawks are much faster as a team than their opposite number.

We know the key players of the Bruins are fitter, as evidenced by minute counts than their opposite number.

We know the Blackhawks bottom six won game one.

We know the Bruins bottom six won game two.

We know that despite very similar results on things like the penalty kill, the two teams do things a bit differently with Chicago’s squad using speed to haul the puck out of the zone, and the Bruins using the body to impeded pucks and progress.

We know that despite the vigorous physical play of these two squads, they care capable of playing remarkably disciplined hockey.

Despite the expectations of nearly everyone superpests Andrew Shaw and Brad Marchand have largely been quiet and workmanlike on the ice.

We know that with a combined 47 giveaways through two games, there will be plenty of opportunities for offense, and two unhappy coaches.

We know that with 179 shots on net through two games, the goalies haven’t had to work too hard to stay involved.

We know this is going to be a very memorable Stanley Cup final.

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

 

Teams:

  • … the Anaheim Ducks would go up on the Detroit Red Wings and fail to close the series after dominating the west nearly to the Blackhawks level and bow out ingloriously in seven.
  • … that the Pittsburgh Penguins would score just twice in four games against the Boston Bruins.
  • … the Toronto Maple Leafs would end their playoff run with a better powerplay success rate than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • … the Chicago Blackhawks would be 14th overall in faceoff % and yet holding their own against the #2 Boston Bruins
  • … the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals would take ten period to play.
  • …after potting five shorthanded goals each in the regular season, the BlackHawks and Bruins would have just one a piece through their 19th and 18th games respectively.

Players:

  • … that Andrew Shaw and Brad Marchand would combine for zero penalty minutes through the first ten periods of the Finals.
  • … of the first rounders in the Finals (Toews, Kane, Jagr, Seguin, Frolik, Hossa, Horton) Daniel Paille would finish the first two games with the most points.
  • …through 19 games, several of them with overtimes Jonathan Toews would have just 1 goal and 9 points.
  • … the two defensemen with the most goals in the finals would be Johnny “Nicholas” Boychuk who had just 1 goal in 44 regular season games, and Torey Krug who has played just 11 post season games.
  • … Bryan Bickell would lead all BlackHawks in hits with 68 and shooting percentage with 21.6%.
  • … only one top six forward for the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews would be above half a blocked shot per game.
  • … the oldest player in the Finals, Jaromir Jagr would have been drafted into the NHL before half a dozen of his teammates and opponents were born.

Game one showed how even these teams are. It took almost two full games for one to pull out the win. Game two, where both coaches and players have seen the other side in action promises to be even more exciting.

Boston Bruins:

1: How effective will Nathan Horton be?

Horton’s ability to score big goals, and quietly contribute away from the puck and with little fanfare has been a big part of the teams success. His familiarity with his linemates, and their ability to play smart, physical hockey is of enormous value.

2: Will Marchand stepup and pester?

During game one, Marchand had a very quiet game. Despite 34 minutes of ice time, and being one of the fittest members of the team, he didn’t hit much and never seemed to get under anyone’s skin. Drawing players like Toews off their game might be a bit difficult, but as we’ve seen, Duncan Keith is susceptible to agitation, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see his teammates intervene to prevent another suspension.

3: Does the Bruins bottom six have a pulse?

In any normal game, the Boston Bruins can count on their second six of forwards going out and playing a useful game. Unfortunately in game one they all looked flat. Daugavins who is playing in the Cup Finals for the first time in his life, Peverley who was on the big stage two years ago looked flat with bursts of bad, and Chris Kelly may just have had the worst game of his Bruins tenure. Winning without these guys contributing is a near impossibility.

Chicago BlackHawks:

1: Where will they be early in the game?

In game one, despite eventually out-shooting, out chancing and outscoring Boston, their first period was noticeably lack luster. Their second period was only so-so. If the go at the Bruins like they did the last twenty five minutes of regulation for game one from the drop of the puck they have a solid shot at winning in regulation, and taking a 2-0 lead in the series.

2: Can they lower their giveaways?

In game one they are marked down for almost four times as many giveaways as their competition. You can’t do that and expect to win. Worse, your key players can’t be the major culprits. For the Blackhawks game one saw Keith and Seabrook commit as many giveaways as the entire Boston roster.

3: Can we spread out the shooting please?

The monstrously long game one produced a staggering amount of shots, and shot attempts. But a close look at the numbers shows a modestly disturbing fact: almost 43% of the teams shots came from three players. Of those three, only one had a goal. Worse, despite fifty combined minutes of ice time, neither Kruger nor Rozsival actually recorded a shot on net.

Coaches:

1: Can we please stop the Dave Lewis tribute?

Three bench minors in one game for too many men on the ice? Really? And these actually are two of the best coaches in hockey, who have both been to the big dance recently and won. This shouldn’t happen, even more so since there were probably one or two other ti

This is probably the most asked, least answered question in Boston sports. The answer is complex, and involves more than a few moving pieces.

Health:

The Bruins have certainly had less than average amounts of injuries, and unfortunately the two most prominent injuries have been to their top scorer, and their most important skater. Brad Marchand’s speed, ability to agitate, and his zero delay shot release are game changing. He is at this point one of the two or three best forwards in the division. Patrice Bergeron is the teams most important player. Not only is he the most skilled faceoff man in the NHL, he’s stunningly reliable, the number of non injury bad games he’s had in his career can be counted without exhausting one’s fingers, possibly without reaching a second hand. When both are out, the team is missing speed, scoring, puck control, leadership, and winning attitude. Chris Kelly’s  loss was crucial to the galloping inefficiency and creeping malaise, but that’s is something that has its real impact in the next section.

Depth:

When the Bruins won the Cup, they rolled four solid line, and had a defensive unit they could rely on. They were very much a Top 9 team with a fourth line capable of contributing at a level that many teams struggled to get their third line to impact the game at. This year they are very, very much a Top 6 – Bottom 6 team, and they have a similar issue with their bottom six to the year after Chicago won their Cup. Some pieces that are the same, but not having career years all at once, and some players who are either playing way under their expected level or who were out for an extended period.

When Chris Kelly went down, the already anemic third line flatlined. Chris Bourque, Jay Pandolfo, Jordan Caron, Ryan Spooner, Kaspars Daugavins, and Jamie Tardiff all trooped in and out of the line. Part of the problem is that when Peverley slid over to center he started trying to do too much in a year where he was already struggling. Part of it the problem is that the most promising players weren’t given legitimate opportunities. And part of the problem is just how many moving parts have been involved, especially as the lines were frequently shuffled trying to get players like Sequin, Lucic, Horton, and Krejci going as well.

Defensively, the team rushed Dougie Hamilton to the NHL before he was ready, this is a management failure, but speaks to a dearth of passable defenseman available in the off season. Hamilton certainly hasn’t been a disaster, but he’s experienced the peaks and valley’s of a rookie, and despite his size has been overpowered and beaten one on one for pucks. The question of if this would have been less serious in full season with more games and travel versus the current high compression is unanswerable, but either way another year of physical growth would have ameliorated some of the valleys in his play and freed up other defensemen from keeping an eye on him in addition to playing their own game. With McQuaid’s injury, Aaron Johnson was pulled into the lineup. While he’s possibly more skilled and a better puck handler than Mcquaid, he doesn’t have the raw aggression of McQuaid, and that means opposing players don’t slow up and look for support going to his corner.

Scoring:

When your top paid forward, David Krejci, has the same number of goals as a guy getting six minutes less of even strength time on ice a night and plays most games on the fourth line you have a genuine problem. There’s no doubt you have an issue. Nine goals isn’t a bad total for the season thus far but either of them is in the top four on the team.

Milan Lucic has gotten the most attention for scoring decline, and deserves it. He doesn’t look like himself most nights. But this dip in his scoring isn’t nearly alarming as Johnny Boychuk year over year decline since he spent his first full season in the NHL. In thirty nine games he has one more point than Shawn Thornton who has played less than half as many minutes. Part of the issue is that he’s just not shooting the puck much, Boychuck has just 64 shots to date, Thornton in the same number of games, and significantly less shifts has 46.

And yes, the powerplay is unenviable at just under 15%, but they haven’t been good at that in years.

Coaching:

Claude Julien has earned the right to a very, very long leash in his coaching tenure. But his fetish or veterans over rookies or young players is again strangling the teams creativity, and energy. Jay Pandalfo’s heart and professionalism are unquestionable. The rest of his body is not really fit for NHL action any more; and yet 18 times he has gotten the call to play over a younger, fitter, more skilled player who likely figures into the teams long term future. In those 18 games he is scoreless, based on his career total of 226 points in 899 NHL games, the expectations certainly were not high. Ryan Spooner, Jordan Caron, or Jamie Tardiff could just as easily have filled those games, and likely out performed him, Spooner and Tardiff were having very respectable years in the AHL at the time of their recall. For that matter when Chris Bourque was sent down his 19 game stint produced points, just four of them, but combined with his speed there was at least a going concern each shift for opposing defense to deal with.

And even on the veteran front, just as Corvo and Wideman and Ryder deserved to be scratched in favor of other players in the past, so too have several players this season. For all that he’s slowly starting to rebound in his own end, Ference could have used a breather, Boychuck likewise, and with so many healthy bodies circling the ice and the cap space the entire Krejci, Lucic, Horton line could and probably should have been sent to the pressbox more than once this season as there were more than a few nights all three were on the ice but not in the game.

Management:

One of the biggest issues with this team is complacency. This starts at the top. Players who know training camp is jut a formality and they can go on with the drudgery of the regular season don’t star the season in right state o mind. It isn’t just about having nothing to win with a good effort in training camp, and the off season leading to it, it is that the having nothing to lose in either time period.

This goes way beyond just this season. Part of it is a drafting tendency. The team has too many nice guys, and maybe two intermittent fire eaters. Regardless of what you think about his politics, you only had to watch one period of Tim Thomas playing to know he was one thousand percent in the game. It didn’t matter if it was policing his own crease, smashing his stick on a shot even he had no chance on, or skating out to check an opponent taking liberties with one of his team mates, he was all in from warmup until the game was in the books.

Who can you look at on the team and say that about? Which of the prospects likely to hit the roster in the next year or two does that describe? Does that describe Redden or Jagr? The same answer applies to all those questions; No and no one. This has been true for years, the last palyer to say anything not in the mold of generic athlete mutterings, or whatever the front office was saying was Steve Kampfer, and he was deported about as fast as the Brain Trust could find a dance partner.

Where’s this teams Wayne Simmonds or David Backes? Apparently the front office is either blind to that need of the teams, or doesn’t want it.

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

 

Teams:

  • on April 17th the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets would have a better chance of making the playoffs than last years eastern conference champions the New Jersey Devils.
  • the Los Angeles Kings would have a better offense than the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks, or Philadelphia Flyers.
  • only three of the top five powerplays would belong to playoff teams while five of five penalty kills would belong to playoff teams.
  • the Montreal Canadiens, and the Ottawa Senators would have more penalties per game than the Anaheim Ducks.
  • only two of the bottom five faceoff teams would be in playoff position, while all of the top five faceoff teams would be in.
  • zero of last years eastern conference division winners, The Panthers, The Rangers, and the Bruins would be in that position today.
  • zero of last years bottom five years teams would be there right now.

Players:

  • despite missing games with a concussion, Brad Marchand would still be tied for a top 20 position in goal scoring.
  • Alex Ovechkin would not only be the only player in double digits in powerplay goals, but also have a six goal cushion on those tied for second.
  • half of Adam Henrique’s ten goals would come on special teams, two short handed, and three on the powerplay.
  • the league leader in short handed assists would have three, and be Lee Stempniak.
  • the only defenseman in the NHL with more than one short handed assist would be, Jay Bouwmeester.
  • heading into the last handful of games of the season, Daniel Alfredsson would have almost twice the PIMS of Raffi Torres.
  • seven of the top ten defensemen in assists would be left handed shots, Mark Streit, Duncan Keith, Niklas Kronwall, Alex Goligoski, Sergei Gonchar, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Suter, but two of the top three would be right handed, Kris Letang and P.K. Subban.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky would be the only goaltender in the top five for sv% and the top five for shootout wins.
  • the top ten goalies by save percentage would combine for a cap hit o $23,875,000 with over a quarter of it belonging to Henrik Lundqvist, who’s team has the lowest point total.

The Buffalo Sabre’s declared themselves sellers. Not trading for change, sellers. Today Darcy Regier might have moved a couple pens across his desk, but players? Not so much. Moving Jason Pominville is a start, and they got solidly rated prospects back, but this is a sellers market.  This is a team that should be blown up, they have talent to get pieces that fit together, they have an owner committed to winning, and they have a fan base who is getting really, really sick of losing.

The Calgary Flames certainly shipped out a lot of talent, but there wasn’t so much an earth shattering kaboom as a muddy plop, or at least a sound involving fluid and darkly hued stuff. The return on Bouwmeester and Iginla doesn’t appear to be worth the cost of the trade call to NHL HQ.

The Florida Panthers are excused, nearly everyone who was or should have been on their NHL roster opening night, is injured. They could still have shipped out a few people.

The Washington Capitals, did nothing. The team is certainly playing better now than at the beginning of the season, but that said they are still an incredibly mediocre team on the ice. Sure on paper with Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom, Alzner, as part of the long term core, the rest of the team is of a lot less value, and not built to win. For some reason, today they chose to add an aging Erat with two years left on his contract, and a guy who racks up penalties, for top prospect Forsberg.

The Colorado Avalanche are just pathetic. The team isn’t good at much.  They’re 26th in goals for, 28th in goals against, 23rd on the powerplay, 22nd on the penalty kill. There is no reason to hold on to anyone, for any reason if the price is solid. If someone offers a big enough return, even Gabriel Landeskog could and should be moved. Only eight players are in double digits in points, and the drop off between the second highest scorer Matt Duchene, and the third Paul Stastny is 14 points.  When you have Matt Hunwick lead your team in time on ice per game, you’re doing not a little wrong.

The Philadelphia Flyers had so many injuries it is tough to say what the could have done, but they deserve a public shaming for trading for Steve Mason.