The last several weeks have seen quite an improvement in the hundred million dollar man, and his team. They are the hottest team in hockey right now and he’s having a respectable season all of a sudden.  Kovalchuck enters the day with a line of 21-21-41 -20. The last the biggest area of improvement.

On the blueline we find Kevin Shattenkirk with a new zip code and tied for points with Cam Fowler. Just behind the two in points andahead of them in +/- is das wundermouth PK Subban. Not to be overlooked is the Washington Capitals John Carlson. The  breakdown:

  • Shattenkirk, is playing as much as 2:30 minutes less a night than the three guys immediately behind him in scoring, has also played five less games than Fowler who has the same number of points, and seven less than Subban.
  • Fowler, while his -22 is startling, it should be noted over 55% of his points have come on the powerplay. May or may not be living up to his reputation for softeness with just 16 penalty minutes. A lot of people would call that disciplined.
  • Subban, with more than 50 more shots on goal than the second active shooter among rookie defensemen it appears Subban swings his stick almost as often as his jaw. Unlike Fowler and Shattenkirk, Subban also sees significant penalty kill time with over 2 minutes a night on average.
  • Carlson is clearly the most complete player of all the rookie defensemen. He plays in all situations, has a team leading +/- and is second to only the Bruins defensive stalwart Adam McQuaid in +/- for rookie blueliners. Useless fact: While he’s got less points on the road, his +/- is better away from home.

Forwards are an increasingly more interesting story. Some guys have bounced in and out of the statistical leaders, some have fought their way in, and one or two have been at or near the top all season. Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes look to take the race for the top of the heap from coast to coast. Michael Grabner, Brad Marchand, and Taylor Hall have worked their way to the top of the pile, while Derek Stepen and Tyler Ennis have bounced in and out of the top tier.

  • Ennis has earned his minutes on a weak Sabres squad with lots of speed and a willingness to shoot the puck.
  • Stepan is very, very quietly third in scoring on his team. That might be a more impressive stat if his team, the New York Rangers wasn’t 22nd in goals for. Their 25th ranked powerplay isn’t helping his stats either.
  • Hall hit the middle of the season and hit his stride, while third in scoring he is also playing more minutes than any other rookie forward.
  • Grabner is the sleeper for post season recognition. His speed is absurd, and the All Star weekend was something of a coming out party for him. On a team with a collective -32 his +9 is eye opening. Of his 25 goals, 17 have come since 1/1. Is second to Marchand in rookie shorthanded goals.
  • Couture, lots of goals from lots of shots on goals, with lots of time on ice would be less impressive if he weren’t maintaining a high +/- on a team in the bottom half of the NHL for goal differential.
  • Marchand, leads all rookies in shorthanded goals and points, leads all rookies in +/-, leads all the scoring leaders in short handed time on ice, has more hits than any of the top scorers is the most complete player of all the rookie forwards.
  • Skinner. Mr Consistent, has been the scoring leader for most of the season, is producing more points per minute than other top rookies. Has an impressive take away to turnover ratio.

Once clear as day, the rookie goalie landscape has been turned over several times.  Injuries, trades, the retrn of other goalies and cold spells have made this an interesting position to watch, but assured us the Calder Trophy winner won’t be coming from the crease unless something extraordinary happens over the next twenty games.

  • James Riemer hasn’t been in the NHL long, but he’s making it damned hard to ignore him. In just 17 games played he’s 1 win short of  team leader J.S. Giguere’s win total, and has a 2.24 GAA and .931 Sv% on a team that’s not worth much.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky, is still hanging around the top of the pack despite being shuffled into the background in Flyer country.  With more wins than any other rookie a 2.46 GAA and a .918 Sv% you can’t complain about much of his game and not sound like a moron.
  • Corey Crawford is the show stopper though, he’s just a couple wins behind Bobrovsky, with a slightly better Sv% at .923 and a much better GAA at 2.11, he leads rookies in both and does it behind a much weaker defense than Bobrovsky. He might just manage to drag his team into the playoffs too.

In no particular order the five best rookies are:

Crawford, Skinner, Marchand, Carlson, and Subban.

The five most interesting stories to watch from now until the the trade deadline.

  • How far will the dismantlement of the Colorado Avalanche go? I was shocked to see Calder Trophy candidate Kevin Shattenkirk shipped out.  Stuffed into the wagon along with him was 23 year old power-forward Chris Stewart, and a conditional pick. Going the other was was Erik Johnson a defensemen with a great pedigree, who has lost his luster.  Paul Statsny is rumored to be available,
  • What will the NHL’s newest owner do with his team? He stated on NHLLive today he was more likely to make future moves than put band-aids on this season, but with players like Statsny, Brad Richards, and who knows who else coming or potentially coming on the market, will he say I want that one! Brad Richards, Ed Jovonovski, and others could contribute to the team for a while.
  • Who blinks first? The Western conference is so tight you can probably get almost anything from those who are determined to succeed now. We’ve see the Avalanche run up the white flag while the Kings have been really quiet. With Carolina having played two more games than the Sabres they have to be looking over their shoulders. If they decide to keep restocking via the draft Cole, Samsanov, Pitkanen, and Jokienen could fetch some decent picks or prospects.
  • What Will Lou Do? The New Jersey Devils general manager has perhaps the hardest calls to make this silly season. He’s got a team that’s playing world beating hockey and is following teams down dark alleys and going through their pockets for loose points, but the odds of getting to the playoffs are really stacked against them. Purely from the cap management point of view, shaking the team loose of Rolston’s contract or one of the other larger contracts on the books for next year could keep them from being an embarrassment to the NHL again next year as they were when they were icing understrength rosters thanks to injuries and cap issues.
  • Hands down the most interesting issue of the off season is what happens to the big name UFAs. As we saw with Bouwmesster recently they are the players that will have reverberations on and off the ice for years to come no matter what call is made. Brad Richards, Shea Weber, Ilya Bryzgalov, Simon Gagne, are all the type of player that when healthy can push an organization from bubble to playoff team and playoff team to contender or cup favorite. If not signed, all four of these guys will be free to sign anywhere they please July 1st. There are lost of people who think Richards would look great in a Sabre’s uniform so would Weber for that matter either of the two when added to Miller, Vanek and Myers gives you a hell of core. The Predators and Lightning are pretty firmly in the playoffs, but an offer too good to refuse is always possible.

Bonus story: How many more times will someone at Versus make the histerical statement that the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have the hottest rivalry in the NHL?

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.
If I told you in September…

  • in All Star week, that Evgani Malkin would not only be not in the top ten league scorers, or on the All Star team, but behind Patrice Bergeron, rookie sensation Jeff Skinner, Dustin Byfugelien, Brandon Dubinski and Mikko Koivu… while sitting at #50
  • the Boston Bruins would have a rookie with a shot at catching Taylor Hall who’s name was not Maxime Suave, Joe Colborne, Jordan Caron, Jared Knight, Tyler Seguin, or Ryan Spooner, but Brad Marchand…
  • that the same rookie would lead the entire NHL in shorthanded goals ahead of players like Mike Richards, Pavel Datsyuk, and and other well known penalty kill game breakers.
  • the Boston Bruins would be #5 in goals for, with little help from Marc Savard.
  • the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres would all have better powerplay percentages on 1/24 than the Washington Capitals.
  • that Michael Ryder (7) and Mark Recchi (6) would combine for as many powerplay goals as Alexander Semin (6), Mike Green (5), and Alexander Ovechkin (2) at the end of January.
  • Kari Lehtonen and UFA to be Brad Richards would be leading their team to the second largest division lead in the NHL (5 points)…
  • the LA Kings would be staring down the barrel of the trade deadline with the third stingiest defense in the Western Conference, a goal differential of +13, and still sit four points out of the playoffs and nineteen points out of the division lead to a team with a goal differential of -7
  • that Ilya Kovalchuk would have the most goals on the New Jersey Devils, and the worst plus minus with 14 and -27.
  • that Peter Budja, Johan Hedberg, and Maple Leafs rookie James Riemer would have more wins than Tukka Rask
  • the Dallas Stars division lead, and +14 goal differential would be in spite of having the lowest ranked penalty kill of any playoff team.

If I told you all these things in September, how many would you believe?

With Marco Sturms tenure with the Bruins laying firmly in the crosshairs of the salary cap, injuries and the surprising play of others, it was only a matter of time before the trigger was pulled. Before you get overwhelmed by the Bruins not so many woes, let’s take a look at some of those woes.

Woe 1) The Bruins need better defense.

Sure, being the best in the NHL, in a conference with five (six if you count Lucic) of the top goal scorers, and six of the top goal scoring teams is clearly a sign of faulty defense. I’m not sure why any mobs haven’t already strung up Peter Chiarelli, Claude Julien, Geoff Ward and the rest of the Bruins management, Cam included. Atrocious.

Woe 2) The Bruins want a puck moving defenseman.

Well, so do 29 other teams in the NHL, and probably every other team in every other hockey league on the planet. Every little girl on the planet wants a pony too, that doesn’t mean they need one. With very few exceptions, puck moving defensemen (once called two way defensemen) are the streaky wingers of the blueline. Of the defensemen who were in the top five for points last season, none are currently in the top five, and only Duncan Keith is in the top ten. He’s a -7 on the year. The Chicago BlackHawks have scored about one eighth of a goal more per game, and allowed just under a goal per game.

Woe 3) The Bruins aren’t scoring enough!

This is nearly legitimate. When the Penguins last won the Cup, they headed into the post season having scored twenty three goals more than they allowed. In other words they had a +23. Today, right now the Bruins sit with a +25. With their top play-maker Marc Savard having spent time on the shelf, and not back to full capacity yet, and with David Krejci missing time being 11th in the NHL with just a few percentage points separating them from ten is a nice place to me. I can’t imagine guys like Lucic, Bergeron, Chara, Savard being complacent and not wanting to get into the top ten, or even the top five before the end of the season.

Woe 4) Why aren’t they doing anything with all the cap space?

Even with Sturm gone, the Bruins are still pretty tight to the cap. The reason for moving him, and not the salary of a slightly higher paid winger was that they didn’t want to rock the boat. You may not have noticed, but the Bruins have scored more goals, and allowed less than anyone in their division. This is considered by a few people to be a winning formula. While Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe reports, there were Dallas Stars scouts at the Philadelphia and Buffalo games, I’d be surprised to see anything huge come out of it. The west is so tight this year, that I’ll be amazed if we know anything more than which teams won’t make the playoffs before the final week or two of the season. If something does happen I wouldn’t be surprised if it was something like C, D to Dallas, W, Pick to Boston.

With Mark Stuart on the shelf until as late as February recent Bruins acquisition Steve Kampfer is in. Mark Stuart blocked a shot early in the Bruins over time win against the Buffalo Sabres. While this is the second broken hand for Stuart in two years, entering last season Boston’s “Caveman” was the team ironman.  With the stats updated through last nights game, Stuart is just one blocked shot below Captain Zdeno Chara, and in third overall.

Kampfer is a Michigan native, and like Stuart came up through the college ranks instead of heading north to play major juniors. Listed at 197lbs, he’s larger than either Ference or McQuaid and gives the team three sub 200lb blueliners. With Boychuck and McQuaid totaling a spare 105 NHL games and now Kampfer added to the mix, one has to wonder how long the Bruins defense can remain the NHL’s stingiest.

On the plus side Kampfer was among the last cuts made from the NHL roster at the end of the preseason. More importantly he hasn’t spent any time sulking. Like Jamie Arniel who had a cameo earlier this season, Kampfer took the time in Providence to prove it wasn’t where he belongs. At the time of his recall Kamfer was second overall in team scoring, first in defensemen, and first in assists. His stat line of 3-13-16 +10 is good enough to be tied for sixth in AHL defensemen scoring.  The first year pro was also tied for 8th in rookie scoring in the AHL.

If Kampfer can achieve a similar level of performance in the NHL, he might just jump into the Calder Trophy race. Given the nature of the Bruins defense, more injuries are not a probability, but a certainty. Hell, if he plays well enough one or more of the current top six could find themselves sent packing. Despite his frequent pairings with Chara in the preseason, I’d expect that he probably won’t see more than 12-15 minutes a night over his first half dozen games if there are no other injuries.

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

Teams:

  • If I told you in September that if the season ended at the quarter poll, that the Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Dallas Stars would all be in the playoffs….
  • If I told you in September that the bottom five New York Islanders would have an extended losing streak, fire their head coach with wide internal criticism, and then get worse…
  • If I told you in September that the Bruins would be without their top center, and one of their top goal scorers of the past three years and still be in 11th in goals for…
  • If I told you in September that the New Jersey Devils, would have less points than the Edmonton Oilers…
  • If I told you in September the New Jersey Devils, Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres, and Colorado Avalanche would all be on the outside looking into the playoff race…

…would you have asked me where you could get some of the fun drugs too?

Players:

  • If I told you in September that Ilya Kovalchuk would have less goals than Milan Lucic at any point this season…
  • If I told you in September Patrick Sharp would lead not just his team, but the entire Western Conference in goals, and be fourth in goals…
  • If I told you in September Steve Montador , and Rostislav Kleska (career -43) would be second and first in +/- for the league…
  • If I told you in September that between them Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundquist, Roberto Loungo, Jaroslav Halak, and Thomas Vokoun would not own a single top five goalie stat between them…
  • If I told you in September Jeff Skinner, this years seventh overall draft pick would lead all rookies in scoring…
  • If I told you in September that Peter Schaefer would play more games in the NHL this year than Bill Guerin, Miroslav Satan, and Evgani Nabokov…

…would you ask me how many times I was dropped on my head as a child?

Northeast

Buffalo Sabres:

This season comes down to three thrings, and two of them are Ryan Miller. One he must be healthy, and two he must be Ryan Miller, also known as the best goalie on the planet. The rest is pulling together consistent play. I doubt even a small percentage of fans realize they were tenth in goal scoring last season. No big changes, they did resign a few guys, and added Rob Niedermayer to help flesh out the penalty kill. Still weak down the middle, and not great on defense either.

Ottawa Senators:

This seasons edition is weaker than last years. With the departure of their best defenseman, and a giant question mark between the pipes Alfredsson and Spezza will have to work miracles at least once a week to get this team into the playoffs. While Gonchar will, when healthy, add to the teams offense the team was utterly average in both offense and defense last year and lost more talent off it’s blueline than offensive core.

Montreal Canadiens:

The boo birds are clearly year round residents of La Bella Province, they had their distinct calls aimed at Carey Price early in the preseason and will likely find cause to keep the noise level high, even when it’s undeserved. The splashiest move in Habland in the off season was the departure of playoff powerhouse Halak. To fill his void they brought in the well traveled Alex Auld. In the category of addition by subtraction the seditious Sergei Kostitsyn was sent packing for packing peanuts,

Toronto Maple Leafs

Despite having one legitimate first line forward, and a half dozen marginal second line forwards, Toronto will not be an easy two points if they have anything like cohesion this season. With the additions of Versteeg, Armstrong, they can’t be worse offensively or in energy. While it’s clear the leadership has a plan, how confident of it can we be when they pay Colton Orr a cool million a year, and let Komisarek rake in about twice what he’s worth? I don’t expect this team to either make the playoffs or land in the lottery.

Boston Bruins:

Despite all the off season hot air, Tim Thomas and Marc Savard are still members of the Boston Bruins. With Savard and Sturm starting the season on the LTIR, and Thomas recovering from off season injury, its clear the Bruins have some work to do. With the addition of fist rounder Tyler Seguin, and former first rounder Jordan Caron, not to mention one Nathan Horton its going to interesting here in the Hub to see if these three can give the team some of the bounce it had in the 08-09 season. The off season also saw the eviction of Denis Wideman from the Bruins roster this change alone is probably good for adding 10 points to the Bruin’s total of last season.

Northwest:

Vancouver

The Canucks may just be the best team in hockey. They upgraded their defense, already had a solid offense and if they can give Luongo less starts than he had last year, winning the division won’t be a question. The biggest question will be how much they win a pretty thin division by. The Flames and Avalanche should provide enough pressure to keep them honest, but the Canucks are the class of their division at the very least.

Minnesota:

The state of hockey is probably in for another year of a sad state of hockey. Mikko Kiouvu was their most important signing of the off season, and about the only one that will have an impact on the roster this year. They were twenty first and twenty second in goals against and for last year and with only the hopeful heath of “No Luck Chuck Kobasew” added to the offense and late season trade acquisition Cam Barker woven into the defense there’s not much to hope for aside from good drafting or a blockbuster trade or three.

Calgary:

What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. It would be one thing if Olli Jokinen had proved useful in his first stay, but that was hardly the case. The team lacks a legitimate first line center and without that they probably can’t expect to much improve on last seasons bare three twenty goal scorers. Who knows, maybe youngster Mikael Backlund will rise to that position and help Jarome Iginla hoist the cup before he retires.

Colorado:

Will the “Babylanche” grow up after their short and painful playoff run? Who knows! The team has been up and down as injuries and inconsistency robbed them of any momentum in the last three seasons. Maybe the Avalance are the plucky team that will duplicate the Chicago phenomenon. They have the talent and have a similar makeup with a better goalie, although a weaker defense. I think one of the things that made the Blackhawks run possible was the positive knowledge that they would not be together the next year no matter what happened thanks to intriguing cap management. The same pressure doesn’t exist for the Avs, but they are not a team to write off, especially not with the weakening of San Jose, Chicago and Detroit.

Edmonton:

Yee-ha they drafted well! Make no mistake about it, even if Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi are the three names on the Calder Trophy finalist list, the Oilers aren’t going anywhere this year. Their defense is still not going to strike terror, or even tepid respect into the hearts of opposing forwards, and Khabibulin’s back and legal problems leave them with a backend that is wholly uninspiring. Almost certainly still a lottery team.

Coming up ranking the playoff locks, bubble teams, and lottery bound…