For the second year in a row, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in hockey and it isn’t even close. Some teams are better than last year, others are worse, and anyone who tells you what the others will do is just a bit out of their mind.

Top shelf:

New York Rangers

The Rangers are a safe bet for the playoffs and likely for the division title as well. Lundqvist will be entering the season with a quality backup, and most of the key players in front of him healthy. Despite an injury to top center Stepan that will keep him until around Halloween, the Rangers have otherwise good health up and down the lineup, McDonaugh, Staal, Girardi on the backend, St. Louis, Nash, Brassard and Hagelin up front will do the heavy lifting for the team again.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Like the Rangers, the Blue Jackets have a high quality goalie, this one who just happens to be in a contract year. They also have an underrated defense group. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murphy, James Wisniewski and the rest will contribute at both ends of the ice. The forward group is unheralded as well, Brandon Dubinsky rarely gets the recognition he deserves, Scott Hartnell is a legitimate scoring threat who should be entering the season with something to prove. If Johansen can be signed, and retained, and Horton can have a healthy season, this team is going to be more than a handful.

Wild Cards

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have a lot of chaos factors to contend with this year. A new coach is one. Their putative number one goaltender is on an expiring contract and unlike Crosby, Malkin, and Letang was not extended early. They lost two of their top four defensemen from last year. Matt Niskanen was their top points producer and Brooks Orpik led the team in short handed time on ice. To replace them they brought in Christian Ehrhoff. Aside from the top 3-4 names, it would be hard for an observer to guess where the rest of the forward group sits as most of them look a lot like bottom line players.

New York Islanders

The Islanders actually made some smart moves this summer. They picked up and locked up Grabovski giving them a compelling one two punch at center. Their defense is a whole lot of young and learning with Visnovsky and Carkner for contrast. On the backend they have two goalies new to the system, the up, then down, then sideways Jaroslav Halak and the surprising Chad Johnson. I will be equally unsurprised if this team is in the playoffs, or in the bottom five in the league.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are the east coast equivalent of the San Jose Sharks. On paper they’ve had the talent to win the Cup at lest once in the last decade, on ice, not so much. They too have a new coach, and possibly more importantly they have a coach who recognizes what he’s dealing with. Barry Trotz did what was probably the smartest thing a Capitals coach has done in several years and put Ovechkin back on left wing where he is most comfortable and had several pretty good seasons. The defense could shake out into pairings of Carlson-Greene, Niskanen-Orpik, and Alzner-Erskine, which as top six defense units go, is better than many can boast.

The Rest

Philadelphia Flyers

Even allowing for the Pronger/Timonen money once the season starts and he can be placed on LTIR, the Flyers are still in cap trouble. The roster genuinely looks like the team is trying to tank but just doesn’t know how. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jacob Voracek are all top end players, the rest of the forward group and much of the rest of the roster feels like the punchline to an inside joke that you’re not quite inside enough for. That said, this is largely the group that managed to make the playoffs last year.

New Jersey Devils

On the plus side the added Mike Cammalleri and finally admitted who their number one goaltender is. On the other side of the balance they added Martin Havlat who is generally good for one bizarre injury and twenty or more man games lost. The defense is rather bland, no one makes over Zajac’s $5.75m and yet they are still only three million from the cap, all without their seeming to have found a backup goalie.

Carolina Hurricanes

The season will kickoff on a sour note with Jordan Staal down-checked for an unknown amount of time with a broken leg. Even assuming Jordan Staal and he rest of the top six forwards were healthy and productive all season, Caniacs were still in for a long slog. The teams defense has high water marks that are merely average followed up by players who are at historical drought levels of talent. It would not be a surprise to see this team draft in the top three next June. The only real hope in season for this team is for the coach with the enthusiastic backing of management to go with whichever goalie is playing better and not with the one they’ve been trying to pass off a a franchise goalie for half a decade.

Its never a good thing when a team and player can’t manage to combine for the common good. Sometimes the player is a misfit, other times the teams flat fail to appreciate the talent of a player and put him in a role that bars him from success. Other cases are just a mismatch of player and system. Whatever the cause, there are several NHL players who could do so much better elsewhere.

Ryan Johansen – Columbus Blue Jackets

The Story:

Ryan Johansen and The Columbus Blue Jackets are in the end stages of a protracted, bitter, and public dispute over exactly what Johansen is worth for his second contract. Management is arguing that with only one season of notable performance he should take a more modest contract to prove last years 33-30-63 season wasn’t a fluke. The 22 year is likely pointing at other players with similar levels of success, who likely had more years with better rosters around them.

The most popular example is Ryan O’Reilly who in the final year of his entry level deal put up 18-37-55 in 81 games for the Colorado Avalanche. O’Reilly was rewarded with a contract worth $3.5m in year one and $6.5m for an average annual value of $5m. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is another comparable, who ended up with a big contract with similar but lesser production. You can look at Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner as well, in the third year out of juniors Johansen was more productive or healthier than most of the comparables, in some cases both.

Evander Kane – The Winnipeg Jets

The Story:

Kane has more goals in the last three seasons than any other Jets player, one of those seasons included a coaching change in season. He’s played under four different coaches in five seasons; John Anderson, Craig Ramsay, Claude Noel, and Paul Maurice, given how different those coaches are in temperament, experience, and style it would be hard to fault Kane if he wondered if management and or ownership had a clue and a plan. Kane is a rugged winger (drafted center) who has played in all situations and even contributed shorthanded goals. He hits, blocks shots, and has averaged over twenty minutes a night the last two seasons, yet he’s still treated as some sort of leper by the team.

If some or even most of what is said about him off ice is true maybe they are just sick of dealing with that. No matter what the cause, Evander Kane trade rumors are frequent enough to not be news and he’s only entering his sixth year.

Mark Giordano – Calgary Flames

The Story:

Giordano is one of the rising stars of the NHL. On a pretty bad team last year, he none the less was voted one of the best NHL defensemen by the writers of NHL.com this year. With a very friendly salary of just over four million this year and next, he can be moved for a considerable return to a team like Philadelphia or the Islanders who want to win soon. Giordano is 31 which is not old for a defenseman, but it is highly doubtful he’ll still be near peak if and when the Flames acquire enough talent to be a contending team. Better still, with less wins and more picks, they stand a better shot at getting not only good building blocks, but someone at the top end of the next NHL draft.

Reilly Smith – Boston Bruins

The Story:

Reilly Smith is part of the return for the trade that sent Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. He came in last year and cemented Seguin’s old spot on Patrice Bergeron’s line, and proved himself a good and willing passer and a goal scorer. With the cap crunch and a stagnating pool of NHL ready talent in the AHL, the Bruins have had little room and less inclination to sign him when cheaper options are at hand. Even if Smith is asking for a more than reasonable $2.25m, the team is likely to see him as replaceable and should part with him as soon as possible for as much as they can get.

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.

In most sports relative skill levels are the magic smoke in the ox that determines the outcome of games, specifically playoff games. In the NHL more than other major league sports there are other factors that obliterate the relevance of the skill level of the two or three best players. Health is often a big factor, and coaching is perhaps more important than in any sport but football.

But for the most part, what determines early playoff series is the matchup. The interplay between the tendencies and abilities of the 36 skaters and two (or more) goales on the ice each game are what decides a game. Factors like home ice and the officiating are influential, but not (usually) paramount. If we look at each of four series briefly who does what better becomes apparent.

Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning:

This is the one series that is already over. That Tampa Bay didn’t get good goaltending from Lindback is evident, but a more interesting stat tells the story. In three of the four game, including both of the games in Tampa Bay where Lightning coach Jon Cooper had last change, the Montreal Canadiens were able to get more players free of coverage for two or more shots on goal in the game. Essentially, the goaltending wasn’t the only issue for Tampa Bay, their defense wasn’t as good as Montreal’s at addressing the other teams depth.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets

This series is so even on the ice it would be impossible for any casual sports fan to look at the four games and tell which of the two finished the season on top of a division and which was a wild card. If you were going to pin this series being even on one thing, it would have to be complacency. Both teams have given up two goal leads twice. In three of the four games the team that won had more shots and more than forty shots on goal.

San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings

Multiple shot diversity is again playing a a factor. San Jose has been even in one game (game 1) and ahead of Los Angeles in what I’ve decided to call the “Shooting Depth Quotient” in the other three games. Simply put they’ve again had more players get loose to get multiple shots. In other terms the almost no name defense of the Sharks has been superior to the Doughty led defense of the Kings. The Sharks lead their series 3-1.

Boston Bruins vs Detroit Red Wings

Yup, the SDQ is in play again. The Bruins had a greater SDQ in all four games, and while it was fairly close in three, the game with arguably the most lopsided outcome, game three, the Detroit Red Wings got half as many players loose for multiple shots as did the game winner. In game three where the Bruins out scored the Wings 3-0 the visitors had 12 players get loose for multiple shots. The Bruins lead this series 3-1.

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 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.

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.

October is over, and with the close of the seasons inaugural month we can finally start to get a handle on which teams are for real and which are just pretenders.

Anaheim Ducks: When will they turn one or more of their wealth of goaltenders in future assets or skater to improve them for the playoffs?

Boston Bruins: Which is the real team here, the one that beat both the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks or the one that lost to a severely under-performing New Jersey Devils squad?

Buffalo Sabres: Has the front office identified their first overall pick yet, will it be the right shooting defenseman Aaron Ekblad or savvy center Sam Reinhart?

Calgary Flames: Can’t this team even get tanking right, don’ they know a team that’s tanking isn’t supposed to be tied for 20th after a month?

Carolina Hurricanes: How in the world is it possible to have a team with Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, Jiri Tlustly, and Ron Hainsey still have the NHL’s 22nd best powerplay?

Chicago Blackhawks: If Joel Quenville’s squad didn’t have the worst penalty kill in the NHL they might be a tear similar to last year’s rampage through the NHL so how can they be so, so bad at the PK and still in the top half of the league for goals against?

Colorado Avalanche: Will the Semyon Varlemov situation affect the chemistry in the room and topple a team that has been a force of nature through the first 30 days?

Columbus Blue Jackets: When will the team figure out they need to either score more or stop more and do so if the want to see the playoffs?

Dallas Stars: Can one of the few rosters in the NHL without a player on injured reserve taking advantage of this window of health to climb the standings?

Detroit Red Wings: Can this team stay in the range of its current 19th in goals for and remain a playoff level team?

Edmonton Oilers: How in all the worlds did this team offend the Hockey Gods so much that they can be on the cusp of 60 goals against while most teams are in the 30’s and no other team has even allowed 50?

Florida Panthers: When Dale Tallon wakes up in the morning is his first question “How in the world can those teams be worse than mine?” or “How is this roster doing so well”?

Los Angeles Kings: Is the entire roster wondering if they didn’t accidentally trade the real Jonathan Quick in the off season for the slob who currently has a .896sv%?

Minnesota Wild: Are any of the Wild’s rivals even mildly concerned that the team holds a playoff spot and haven’t gotten any viable contributions from Dany Heatley, Charlie Coyle, nor had Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom healthy for two straight weeks?

Montreal Canadiens: Is anyone gonna acknowledge the incredible start Carey Price is off to, 12 starts in 15 games and a .932 sv%?

Nashville Predators: When will the answer to the question “What’s holding the Predators back?” not be “lack of scoring”?

New Jersey Devils: So this is what $63,473,577 buys when a general manager looses touch with the NHL, right?

New York Islanders: The lowest cap hit in the NHL and a playoff spot might be what it takes to inspire a hockey edition of Moneyball, huh?

New York Rangers: Ryan Callahan and Rick Nash are on injured reserve and the team has won three in a row for half their wins on the season is a bit eye opening isn’t it?

Ottawa Senators: Daniel Alfredsson’s old team is actually outscoring his new team, it’d be nice for what is now Jason Spezza’s squad if they could stop pucks as well this year wouldn’t it?

Philadelphia Flyers: For the first time in years goaltending isn’t the biggest problem for the Flyers, is that why the whole roster looks so befuddled on the ice?

Phoenix Coyotes: Did anyone expect the Coyotes to be fourth in goals for a month and three days into the the season?

Pittsburgh Penguins: What’s more surprising about the 2013-14 Penguins, the fact that Fleury is playing above his normal zone, or that defenseman Matt Niskanen has a better points per game number than Kris Letang?

San Jose Sharks: Exactly how many of this teams players will be on their nations Olympic roster in Sochi Russia?

Saint Louis Blues: If 18 points in 12 games isn’t surprising enough to get you to take David Backes and crew seriously, does the fact that the team is second in scoring do it for you?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Is it too late to place a healthy bet on this team to make the playoffs and bring in a very nice return?

Toronto Maple Leafs: Now that it is no longer October and Phil Kessel who is off to a 9-9-18 start will inevitably cool off, can the Leafs maintain their lofty perch in the standings?

Vancouver Canucks: With a stat line of 4-6-10 through 16 games Mike Santorelli has to be one of the best NHL players per cap dollar in the league this year right?

Washington CapitalsDo you think if Adam Oates adds fellow former Capital Donald Brashear to his coaching staff he can beat some consistency into this roster?

Winnipeg Jets: Is there any more damning statement that could be made about this team than that they might actually be overachieving since they’re best team statistic is an 11th ranked penalty kill?