The Central division is the toughest in the NHL. Last season five teams from the division made it into the playoffs something no other division in hockey matched. In the division you’ve got dynamic goal scorers Norris quality defensemen, top flight goalies and not a lot of mutual love.

Top Shelf

Chicago Blackhawks

They got edged for a trip to the Finals, and will likely be trading someone pretty soon. Two of their core forwards Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning, but they are probably the best balanced team in the conference. They’ve got got great forwards, strong defense and adequate goaltending.

St Louis Blues

This team is likely to take a half to a full step back this year. Elliot has never thrived as a number-one goalie, and Jake Allen is still an unknown quantity. That said, they may have the best top three for defense in Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, and Bouwmeester. They downgrade slightly going with Steve Ott over Vlad Sobotka, but did add Paul Stastny. Jaden Schwartz remains unsigned and doubtless need to do some catching up when he gets back into the fold.

Wild Cards

Minnesota Wild

Mikko Koivu led the team to the playoffs where he, Ryan Suter and the rest waged a fierce battle in the second round with the Blackhawks. Out are Clayton Stoner and Dany Heatley. Goaltending remains as unsteady as ever, but that doesn’t distract this team. Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and the rest will have to dig deep and pull in some more offense, but this team is capable of laying anyone out.

Colorado Avalanche

The advanced stats and the eyeball test said this team should not have been as dangerous as they proved to be in the regular season last year. It took until the playoffs to prove it. They did lose long time contributor Paul Stastny, and replaced him with the notably older Jarome Iginla. I don’t expect them to fall out of the playoffs, but 112 points again is not that likely. It will be interesting to see how older players like Briere and Iginla adjust to playing at altitude.

The Rest

The Dallas Stars

Finally a return to the playoffs last year. This year among other moves was punting the push and passion of Alex Chaisson for Jason Spezza’s finesse and offense. Anders Lindback will be this years backup in the crease. With a full season under his belt Valeri Nichushkin should be crossing the 20 goal mark this year. Given the changes in the roster, and the injury history of some players, this team a not a lock for the playoffs, but I don’t see them in the lottery.

Nashville Predators

In the off season the Predator made several moves that collectively add up to some big question marks. James Neal an elite sniper was added at the expense of Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Stalberg and Derek Roy were brought in to rearrange the forward group. I have no idea what these players will look like this season, and I don’t think anyone else does either. On the plus side, Pekka Rinne will have a full summer of health under his belt, Seth Jones and the other youngsters have played through the worst of things and the light is indeed brighter this year. Whatever else, the Predators have Shea Weber, and their opponents do not.

Winnipeg Jets

The weak sister of the division, the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in years. Ownership needs to decide if they are building or breaking down, because what they are doing isn’t going to get them a Stanley Cup. They have a lot of talent in Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien. When you look at the talent level at the top, and an average to above average middle of the roster, you have to wonder if it isn’t either the environment or the players themselves. Without reinforcement, and a strong on ice system, this team is not making the playoffs.

It seems every other blog post at the start of the season, the run up to the trade deadline, and again around free agency is deploring the plight of some franchise who is being strangled by the cap ceiling. Without even looking you can imagine all the articles on who the Chicago Blackhawks could have gotten if only they didn’t have “cap trouble”. You could probably while a away the entire off-season reading the articles decrying how cap trouble is depriving the Pittsburgh Penguins of the ability to (finally) find the right wingers to propel Sidney Crosby to his clearly fated 250 point season. You have a better chance of driving four consecutive Boston rush hours without seeing a moving violation than you do of not finding on average one post per site detailing how awful it is that the Bruins are being handcuffed by this contract or that and it being the cause of all their cap trouble.

You could rinse and repeat for all the other top ten teams to the salary cap. And that’s exactly what you should do. Wash your mouth out with soap and keep doing so every time you use the cop out of cap trouble to describe where a team stands or its current woes. Cap Trouble doesn’t exist. Management trouble is what you are talking about. Every front office in the league is working under the same ceiling.

How do teams get into this mythical place? Poor decisions by its leadership. In some cases players selected by a previous regime are still in place and those contracts are an anchor. The current CBA addresses that as well, in addition to the traditional buyouts teams were granted two get out of jail free cards handily labelled compliance buyouts that are perfect for jettisoning dead weight. Barring ownership interference, there’s not really any excuse for any General Manager or President to have a single contract they don’t want on their roster if they’ve been in their position more than four years.

Some of the sub-prime choices come as part and parcel of an inability to draft and develop talent. Here’s a hint; if your fanbase can’t identify three players drafted, developed and promoted to a spot in the roster where they succeed for each five years you’re in office, you probably are doing a poor job with at least one of the drafting or developing. Three should be regarded as minimum figure, especially if your team was bad in the early years of your tenure.

If you’re drafting and or developing poorly, you’re paying for it elsewhere. You’re either holding on to players past their usefulness, overpaying pending free agents to retain them or throwing cash at the free agent market like Mardi Gras beads. One of the cash equivalents that most just don’t pay enough attention to is the quantity of no trade and no movement clauses. If cash, readily replaceable is the equivalent of Mardi Gras beads, NTC’s and NMC’s are like diamond engagement rings, or maybe having a kid together. When more than a quarter of your roster has them you’re probably doing something wrong. If you get to one third or one half your roster, dust off an update your resume and remember where the file is, you’re gonna need it.

Another management failure that leads to misspending is undervaluing a player who fits right and then having to replace them because they refused to play at a Wal-Mart wage. Are some of those players overvaluing themselves? Absolutely, and those should be parted with, via trade if possible. But most, can be gotten back into the fold for about the fair market value for their talent. Free agents that you have to bid against the free market on the other hand almost always cost more than whoever they are replacing. Likewise, when you have to trade from a position of weakness to address a hole in your roster you will overpay unless you’re dealing with someone completely unimpeded by clue.

One last time: There is no such thing as cap trouble, there is only management trouble which influences the whole organization and how it spends money. If you think this post was written specifically about your own team, well, they probably were considered. But no, this is one of those trends in the NHL that reminds me of cars sliding uncontrollably across an icy surface at each other, it rarely ends pretty or with lots of smiles.

With the bulk of the NHL’s best free agents signed, its time to look at who did best.

Metropolitan Division

Winners

Washington Capitals:

They were 21st in goals against last year. What did they do about it? They picked up two 21+ minute a night guys. One who averaged almost 3 minutes a night shorthanded, the other who specializes in lugging the puck out of the defensive zone. Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are at least for the next two to three seasons good gets.

New York Islanders:

Signing up Grabovski long term and sliding him in behind Tavares gives them a smart, two way center who plays with passion. Chad Johnson gives them a pretty solid backup goaltender as well. Are the Islanders suddenly cup favorites? No. Are they are probably eight or ten points better than last season just based on those moves.

Losers

Pittsburgh Penguins:

Greiss is a good pickup, but Ehrhoff is going to cost them one way or another, he’s not good defensively, and if he puts up offensive numbers on his one year contract he’s either bolting for more money elsewhere next year or is going to demand a contract on par with Letang’s. The rest of their pickups were spare change.

Pacific Division

Winners

Dallas Stars:

With the addition of Spezza  (via trade) to the free agent signings the team can look forward to offensive balance for the first time in a decade.

Losers

Arizona Coyotes:

Last year the franchise was on the outside looking in and while Devon Dubnyk is well suited to their needs, I’m not convinced he’s enough to get them into the playoffs.

Central Division

Winners

Chicago Blackhawks:

They found a motivated guy who can play in the 2nd pivot slot and it didn’t cost them much.

Saint Louis Blues:

Taking one of the veteran leaders of a conference rival is always a good get, adding a guy with preexisting good chemistry with some of your top players just makes it even better.

Losers

Vancouver Canucks:

Despite the addition of a good goalie, they are no closer to playoff contention than they were at this time last week.

Atlantic Division

Winners

Tampa Bay Lightning

Adding Anton Stralman to the rest of an underrated cast makes this one of the most credible defensive units in the East heading into the season.

Florida Panthers

They added lots of highly competitive veterans, the skilled Jussi Jokinen, to wrap around their core of young players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. They are a very long shot to make the playoffs, but the pieces they added were priced appropriately (and in Jokinen’s case low) and unlike other teams they haven’t crowded other young talent off the roster allowing for young players to come in and win a roster spot and NHL experience for the future.

Losers

Boston Bruins

A laundry list of miscues means that the players signed by this team since noon on July 1 and the departures of a very solid backup and hall of fame forward leave the team worse off than they have been in years. Realistically, I doubt any Bruins fan had even heard of either guy, and its not a stretch to say their agents probably have trouble picking them out of a crowd.

Detroit Red Wings

What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Red Wings didn’t add any talent via free agency, and history tells us any of their draft picks this year are four or more years from the NHL.

A compilation of improbably stats and situations from the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

 

Teams

  • Five games into the divisional finals, the Minnesota Wild have still not lost at home, the path here included a seven game series against a team coached by a Jack Adams finalist, and being the lower ranked team in both series.
  • The Ducks have played thee different goaltenders, including a 20 year old American, a 24 year old Dane, and 32 year old from Switzerland.
  • The Minnesota Wild are the only team not to have been shutout this post season.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks are the only team to have two players suspended this post season.
  • The Anaheim Ducks after being average in penalty minutes during the regular season at 10.9 minutes per game, are the most penalized team left in the playoffs at 20.4.
  • Of the three teams with more than one shutout during these playoffs, the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota Wild, the Wild have had two goalies produce one; Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgaloz
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins lead all remaining teams with three wins when trailing after the first period.

Players

  • Erik Haula leads all rookies in post season goals with 3.
  • Two rookies have shorthanded goals in this years playoffs, Ondrej Palat and Brian Gibbons.
  • Brad Richards leads all players in powerplay time on ice with 61:57, but has just 1 powerplay point.
  • Three defensemen are over a point per game in the playoffs; P.K. Subban 1.33, Brent Seabrook at 1.25, and Jack Johnson at 1.17.
  • With 11 even strength points in eleven games, Anze Kopitar leads all forwards in ESPPG.
  • Brothers Mikko Koivu 57.5% and Saku Koivu 56.9% rank 2nd and 3rd in faceoff winning percentage among players still active.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed more goals than any other goalie, as he did the year he and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
  • Jonathan Quick leads all goaltenders in penalty minutes with 4.
  • Sidney Crosby is 102nd in goal in the playoffs, well behind household names like Brendan Gallagher (4), Charlie Coyle (3), Nick Holden 3, Mathieu Perrault (2), and Raffi Torres (2).

The first round of the playoffs may have been the best opening round as a whole in years. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded blows and goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the Metropolitan division winners looking just a bit weak. The loss of David Backes due to a suspend-able hit by Brent Seabrook was clearly the tipping point of the series between the Saint Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. The San Jose Sharks went from unmitigated domination of the Los Angeles Kings to going into the night with a whimper.

The Philadelphia Flyers played a pretty even series with the New York Rangers that came down to a memorable game seven decided by one goal; the series was also the coming out party for Steve Mason who put up a stellar 1.97 GAA and .939 sv%. The Alex Goligoski and Shawn Horcoff led Dallas Stars put a two game scare into the Anaheim Ducks before succumbing to a focused and superior team. In the battle between snowy Montreal and snowbird heaven Tampa Bay, the Lightning went down in the opening rounds only sweep, minus Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop. In the opening round the Boston Bruins lost the opening game to their Original Six rivals, and then laid them in the dust in four straight wins.

Biggest surprises of the first round:

  • 169 players having more goals than Sidney Crosby, including Luke Schenn, Bryan Allen, Raffi Torres, Jordan Caron and Devante Smith-Pelly
  • How much Jonathan Quick struggled in the first few games, and that Sutter didn’t go to Jones full time.
  • Paul Stastny ending a playoff run with well deserved accolades like “heroic performance” being thrown his way, even around all the love for the shiny new rookie.
  • Paul Martin weighing in at over a point per game. Yes, that Paul Martin.
  • Alex Goligoski gaining zero attention while playing 28:30 a night, putting up 4 points and being a +7 in a six game losing series.
  • How well the very young Colorado Avalanche held together through some very tough games.

Top 3 series of the opening round:

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins, the pure drama in this matchup was amazing to watch.
  2. Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche; There is so much young potential in this series it is staggering, Coyle, Neiderrietter, Brodin and Spurgeon we’ll see more of this year, MacKinnon, Landeskog, Hishon, and Duchene we’ll have ot wait until fall for more from.
  3. Chicago Blackhawks vs Saint Louis Blues, as far as the best hockey played game in and game out this series wins, but the drama level wasn’t quiet as high as the other two series.

The Nashville Predators cut ties with the NHL’s longest tenured head coach. They did it in the nicest possible, way of course but not renewing a contract is only different from firing in semantics. Barry Trotz who was the only head coach the Preds, their fans, and the world had known is soon to be merely the first head coach in team history. The issues with finding a replacement however are complex enough that his replacement is not only sure to be there less time, but significantly less time.

The main issues are:

  1. Nashville is not a major market.
  2. General Manager David Polie has to be on ice as thin as any general manager.
  3. The Predators have no history of success.
  4. The direction ownership and management wants to go in will severely limit the potential pool.

On the first point there is no arguing. On the third point there is even less. The team has won less than one playoff game a year sine its inception. The franchise has won exactly two playoff rounds in its history, not in the same year. The hero of one of those series was Joel Ward. A solid player, but not the guy who should be carrying a team.

David Polie had the opportunity to thicken the solid water on which he stands this year in selecting the American Olympic roster and coaching staff. He had every American player in the NHL, SHL, AHL, KHL, USHL, College, and CHL to choose from. No coach would say no. No healthy player would decline. The American program four years ago rocked the hockey world by beating Canada in a pre-medal game, and taking the eventual gold medal winners to overtime.

This years squad did nothing. Literally nothing. They flopped. The flailled about in the medal round and lost to Finland int he Bronze medal round, a game where they failed to bounce back from a loss to Canada. When the games mattered, the coach, hand picked by Polie couldn’t keep them focused. The squad he picked with no need to budget minded, no limitations on when they can talk to free agents, and no worries about how they’d adjust long term to a pretty small city and its dearth of entertainments.

Of these points, as other places have proved, the second and fourth points are most important. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles all had major market attractions, solid enough fanbases to support a team, and resources. What they lacked were a general manager who had an unassailable position, and ownership committed to making the team a winner. The Nashville Predators are not as far gone as the Oakland Raiders or the Atlanta Thrashers were in terms of disaffected and negative affect ownership, but are not at the upper tier or even the middle.

To find a coach that gives them the chance of moving among the elite of NHL franchises, the ownership needs to decide which group they want to be in, make the right choices and the right man will become available.

 

This series could be described as “A Tale of Two Cities In Freefall” by someone who particularly loved Dickens. That writer would no doubt treat their readers to a wordy, drawn out description of the teams records fillled with references to the a book most people never bothered to suffer through; that writer isn’t me. Neither the Blues who ended the season on a zero for six slide, nor the Blackhawks who played mediocre hockey have much to shout about coming into the post season.

Saint Louis Blues

The list of players dinged up over the last month of the regular season for the Blues reads like a who’s who of the team. David Backes spent time on the shelf, Olympic sharp shooter T.J. Oshie was down-checked, faceoff stud and defensive stalwart Valdimir Sobotka is down and out. Vladimir Taresenko hasn’t taken the ice since mid march, and both Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund found themselves in need of time to heal. Which makes it remarkable that the team was still within striking distance of the President’s Trophy until the final games of the regular season. This is a very talented team when healthy, who work hard and are coached well.

Best Players

On a team this deep, it is hard to winnow the list. Backes and Steen have gotten a lot of attention, but Oshie was second on the team in scoring. On the backend, it is hard to argue that the a more talented group has hit the ice for a playoff run since Bourque and Roy were in Colorado together. This team has three defensemen who could be considered number ones in Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk. In net they have Vezina winner and Olympic medalist Ryan Miller who is having one of his better years despite how much of the year he spent on the woeful Sabres.

X-Factor

This team has all the talent in the world, how well the execute and stay focused will determine how deep they go. Two years in a row they ran into the Kings and produced two brilliant, beautiful series which they lost. This year its the Chicago Blackhawks on the agenda.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

The defending champions had a very fast, very talented roster. Where the Blues thrive in games that are ultra physical and play a counter punch style many nights, the Blackhawks are quite happy to win on pure skill and determination. This team can make lots of great passes, the core group has been together a long time, and know each other very well. Of that core, Hossa, Toews, and Kane have all missed time due to injuries.

Best Players

Like the Blues, this is a pretty deep roster. Sharp led the team in scoring in the regular season, Seabrook is a very effective defensive-defenseman, Keith might be on the shortlist for the Norris, and not many GM’s would take too long thinking about a trade package coming their way that included Toews or Kane.

X-Factor

How much will fatigue and the physicality of the Blues affect this team? The Stanley Cup finals didn’t end until just before the draft in late June and most of this roster was part of that win, many of their top players played in the Olympics, and they do not have home ice advantage in this series.

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

 

Players:

  • Dion Phanuef at a staggering .956 would have the highest on ice sv% of any NHL defenseman with 30 or more games played.
  • that after leading the Ducks in scoring in the 2011-12 season, and finishing fifth in scoring last year, Teemu Selanne would be 12th in points this year.
  • of the top 10 players in PIMs one would be both a first round pick, and a teenager; Tom Wilson.
  • also among the top 10 players in PIMs Radko Gudas would be the only one playing more than 20 minutes per night.
  • US Olympian Cam Fowler would not only lead the Ducks in total ice time, but shorthanded TOI/G as well.
  • despite fewer games and trailing the overall points race Patrick Kane would lead the NHL in road points.
  • of the top to players in points at home, only two would appear in the top ten for road points: Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby.
  • Blake Wheeler would have the highest points total of any right wing against his division.

Teams:

  • the Phoenix Coyotes would be the only team without a shorthanded goal.
  • based on Capgeek.com rankings, the top 10 spending teams would all be in the playoffs, 2 of the bottom ten (Montreal, Colorado) would be in leaving just 4 playoff teams in the middle 10.
  • the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators would be the only teams without even one shootout win.
  • 40% of the Washington Capitals wins would come via the shootout, higher than any other team currently in a playoff spot.
  • the 26th place Florida Panthers would have as many wins in 41 games this season as in the 48 game lockout shortened season.
  • the Nashville Predators would be the only team to not allow a shorthanded goal.
  • the Calgary Flames would be the only NHL team to play three full games without a penalty, and all three would be in November: 3rd against the Blackhawks, 20th against the Blue Jackets, and 30th against the Ducks.
  • the Minnesota Wild would be the only team to make it to the new year without a bench penalty.
  • 4 of the 5 most teams with the most PIMS would be in a playoff position while only three of the five least penalized would be.

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

 

Players:

  • that Joe Thornton would be in the top ten in the NHL in scoring when he last finished a season there in the 2009-10 season.
  • of the top five goal scores, Ovechkin, Steen, Perry, Kane and Kunitz, Ovechkin would have both overtime goals in the quintet.
  • the leagues three leaders in PIMS Derek Dorsett of the New York Rangers, Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators, and Antoine Roussel would combine for more penalty minutes (275) than the New Jersey Devils (251) or San Jose Sharks (271) and each be playing 11:35 a night or more.
  • Brandon Dubinsky would be the only player over 20 points and 60 PIMS, and have a 56.1 FO%.
  • Mike Santorelli of the Vancouver Canucks and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings would be tied for the NHL lead in overtime points.
  • last years Masterson Award winner Josh Harding would be dominating the league and have the best save percentage of any goalie with more than 1000 minutes on the season and be sitting pretty with a .938 sv% and a 16-5-3 record.
  • undrafted rookie goaltender Cam Talbot with ten games played would have a significantly better sv% (.934 vs .910) than teammate and the NHL’s highest paid netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

Teams:

  • a month after losing Steven Stamkos to injury, the Tampa Bay Lightning would still be holding a top 3 spot in the Atlantic division.
  • on December 13th the spread betwen the 1st and 8th place teams in the east and west would be 10 in the west with 3 teams tied for 8, and 13 in the east.
  • to date, no team in the east would have scored 100 goals.
  • Of the teams in the bottom five (tie for 5th) last year in the NHL, only two would currently be in that place.
  • the Buffalo Sabres who are dead last in the NHL in points would have allowed just one more goal than the Chicago Blackhawks who have the most points in the league.
  • the Edmonton Oilers would be the only team to allow more than 4 shorthanded goals.
  • there would be no apparent pattern to the four teams yet to score a shorthanded goal as to date the Coyotes, Penguins, Panthers and Sabres would all be on the outside looking in.
  • four teams in the west would have scored 100 or more goals.
  • under offensive minded coach Alain Vigneault the New York Rangers would be producing over half a goal per game less than under the blueshirt’s previous bench boss in prior two seasons.