NHL.com released a list of the top 14 defensemen in the NHL. While I’m not surprised by any names on the final list, I am a bit dismayed by one or two or at least where they placed. And I’m pleased as can be about one semi-notable exclusion. One name I’d put in, instead of one of the person who did make it without any real merit is quite often overlooked and I’m hoping that this season that comes to an end.

Debating the exact position of each player on the list is futile. Four people voted, and I think that if you had fourteen people vote, you’d get very nearly the same results. There are however three things I can’t wrap my head around.

Too High:

For all that he’s been on two cup winning teams, and for all his admitted prowess, Duncan Keith is not, and has not in the last two or three years been a top five defenseman in the NHL. You can’t be considered among the elite of the elite if you don’t play against the top of the food chain. Keith does not. He shouldn’t be any higher than seven or eight. Still an impressive player, still someone everyone wants on their roster, but not in the conversation for best defenseman in the NHL.

Too Low:

Alex Pietrangelo is far too low. When you consider how much worse the goaltending talent he’s played his career in front of is than the guys Doughty, Weber, and Chara have spent the same years in front of, things take on a different tint. No, he hasn’t won a Norris (neither have Doughty, which he probably deserves, and Weber which is an outright crime) but a measurable chunk of that is the city he plays in. He does all things well, and plays hard minutes. Part of his lack of public affection may just be how few games he’s played, only one player above him on the list has fewer NHL games and Subban plays in a much, much more scrutinized market. For well rounded play, Pietrangelo is Subban’s superior for both defensive prowess and levelheadedness.

Are You Sure About That Name:

Why Erik Karlsson makes the list at all is a mystery. There are sixty or seventy wingers in the NHL with less than 100 games played who have better defensive instincts and ability than Karlsson. I could (barely) swallow him coming in at 13 or 14, assuming their were no better choices. There are however, at least half a dozen that don’t even need a sniff test and probably six three to five more that can be made to work. One of the better choices is John Carlson who has a better differential between zone starts and finishes, a better on ice save percentage, but is actually more productive per minute of powerplay time than Karlsson.

My delight upon mature and sober consideration was unmitigated upon not seeing the name Kris Letang on the list. Having heard of his unjustly vaunted prowess for year after year, it is nice to see his exposure in the playoffs the last two years doing some good. I am surprised to Giordano so high on the list especially with only one real season the spotlight to himself, but he does deserve a spot on the list.

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.

October 1:

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will get the headlines, but if you want the best game of the night, it isn’t this one. It isn’t The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, it is the Washington Capitals taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, you’ve got a banner raising, the return of Russian Olympic torchbearer Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, John Carlson, Mikhail Grabovski, and Brooks Laich all ready healthy and ready to go.

The star power on both sides is great, goaltending is about equal. This may be the best game of the week.

October 2:

With just three games on the docket, another easy choice. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers both underwent huge roster turnover since last spring. One was a playoff team and may manage it again, the other needs to get into the playoffs or heads will roll. James Van Riemsdyk and Luke Schenn will faceoff against their old teams, and it least one of roster will sport a different goaltender than the last time these two teams met.

October 3:

This is an almost impossible night of coverage to choose from. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning always put on a good show, and this will be the first night on the ice for the Bolts new captain. The Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings should be a good tilt, the jilted former champions versus the rising power looking to wash away the stain of being pushed out of the playoffs so easily. The Saint Louis Blues and Nashville Predators will square off with what could be two of the best backends in the NHL.  But the game of the night will be the San Jose Sharks and their playoff feast the Vancouver Canucks. The changes in the Canucks lineup and coaching will make the game even more compelling.

October 4:

Friday night will be a smorgasbord of NHL action. The game of the night is easily the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. These two division rivals will square off with both hoping to be in the top three in the new Atlantic division. With Boston and Montreal to compete with every point, every game, every shift counts and these teams know it. Ottawa was in the mix last year, but new captain Jason Spezza will want to bring the boys to the top of the standings from the starting pistol to the final horn.

October 5:

Saturday’s game of the night is easy: Original 6 action. The Boston Bruins host the Detroit Red Wings. Both the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins were laid low by the Chicago Blackhawks last June. With the Red Wings playing as an eastern conference team for the first time in a generation, both fan bases will have to work overtime to get this rivalry to something with a bit of hate in it. Kronwall and Lucic will provide devastating open ice hits, Bergeron and Datsyuk will be on display as three zone aces, Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard will be in the crease making their case for inclusion on their nation’s Olympic rosters for Sochi, and Zdeno Chara and Henrik Zetterberg will be captaining each ship in the first of five regular season battles.

The Washington Capitals welcomed the sixth coach of the George McPhee era. This one is hall of fame inductee Adam Oates. With no real training camp or exhibition period, the Capitals were trying to absorb their new system for at leas the first month of the season. Among his other innovations was moving Left and Right Wing All-Star Alex Ovechkin from the former to the latter. The first half of the season was not pretty.

With guile, wisdom and no doubt some threats Oates got the team to the playoffs. Since last season, the Capitals have waived good-bye to Roman Hamerlik, Tom Poti, Mike Ribeiro and a few other well known faces. Perhaps the best signing this off season was the Capitals picking up Mikhail Grabovski. As compelling in terms of addition is having Brooks Laich and Mike Green both entering the season healthy.

Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and the crew will open the season with a roadtrip to the windy city where they’ll get to watch the Chicago Blackhawks raise their newest banner. After returning home for a game they will hows the Calgary Flames who start the season without Jarome Iginla for the first time in well over a decade. The Dallas Stars will be their next port of call and they’ll face Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and the revamped forward group in the Lonestar state. Back home they will have showdowns with Eric Staal and his Carolina Hurricanes and Gabriel Landeskog’s Colorado Avalanche.

Number of days 1-5: 11

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Chicago Blackhawks

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7

The Metropolitan division will be brutally tough.  I have no doubt Adam Oates will do everything he can to motivate the team and let them jump on the division lead early. They don’t have any really stiff competition other than the Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and the Chicago Blackhawks. While the Dallas Stars are no longer pushovers, and even the Avalanche aren’t a gimmie, this is a better team than four of their first five opponents on paper. They need to prove it on the ice.

Last season was one for the record books. They ran through the regular season with an absolute vengeance. The took home the Presidents trophy. The beat second place by five points in a shortened season, and packed up 30% more wins than several teams to make the playoffs. Their forward momentum carried them through the first round against the overmatched and deeply inexperienced Minnesota Wild. The Red Wings fought out of their weight class and overachieved to take the Blackhawks to seven games helped along by the uncharacteristic slump of team camptain Jonathan Toews. Round three and four were shorter, and the parades and parties came after the cup went up. Since then they’ve lost Bolland, Frolik, and Stalberg upfront, Emery in net. Also gone is Daniel “@CarBomb13” Carcillo.

The BlackHawks will start their Stanley Cup defense with three of their first five against teams who were in the playoffs last season. They square off with the surprisingly plucky New York Islanders, a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that for the first time since the 97-98 season will not include Vincent Lecavalier. They also cross swards with the St Louis Blues and the Buffalo Sabres after opening up against the Washington Capitals.

Number of Days 1-5: 12

Number of cities: 2

Best Opponent: Saint Louis Blues

Weakest Opponent: Buffalo Sabres

Home Games: 4

Projected Points: 6

The two biggest challenges for the reigning champs will be recovering from a long playoff run with a compressed regular season, and of course trying to have overcome getting everything they wanted from their NHL careers. Just months ago all of the players not on the team 4 years ago put themselves in elite company, the returning putt themselves in the rarefied company of multiple winners. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and the others all made major contributions to both wins, and none of them are as young as they were. Overall the team is certainly a playoff team and probably the best team on the paper in the Western conference, but we don’t yet know what the physical and emotional toll on the winners will be.

 

Every season, every series we get unexpected things. The NHL wth its grueling schedule, physical play, and hard working players you simply can’t escape the drama.

6: The New York Islanders; Throwing Blows

The Islanders may have gone down int he first round, but they didn’t go out alone. The Islanders in fact put Marc-Andre Fleury on the shelf and possibly set him up for a buyout. Another element of the surprises was which defenseman was tasked with defending Sidney Crosby. It wasn’t Lubomir Vishnovsky who probably owns the best league wide reputation in his own zone among the Islanders. It wasn’t Mark Streit, captain and slick skater. It was the 22 year old veteran of a slim 186 regular season games, Travis Hamonic. The St. Malo native performed admirably, and much to the surprise of many NHL observers, and Pittsburgh Penguins fans the series went six games.

5: Vancouver Canucks: Silence of the Twins, Voiding of Vigneault

The Sedin twins failure to score even one goal between them in the first round was stunning. Just two years removed from back to back MVP season for Henrik and Daniel, they were bound and gagged by the Sharks able only to contribute assists. The team was swept from the playoffs, and the coach, quite surprisingly was the one to bear the brunt of the organizational wrath. Alain Vigneault was fired quickly after the defeat opening the way for a new voice, and new system.The firing of a seemingly bullet proof coach, is always something that while frequently deserved, is almost always a surprise by the time it happens. Vigneault, seemed to lead a charmed life in Vancouver escaping blame for an underdisciplined team

4: Bryan Bickell: Post Season Superstar

To say this playoff run was a surprise would be a charming understatement. In this his fourth playoff run, Bryan  Bickell racked up what is north of 69% of his post season points total. The 41st pick of the 2004 draft racked up 85 hits, went a plus 11, and put up 17 points on his way to helping the Chicago BlackHawks hoist the cup for the second time in four years.

3: Pittsburgh Penguins: Swimming Like A Stone

The first round saw the Pittsburgh Penguins go blow for blow with division rivals the New York Islanders, and win. In the second round they had an opponent in their sights they had won handily against in several consecutive games. Unfortunately three things doomed them. The first was an offense that wilted under a punishing Bruins defense. The second was a lack of composure that saw Malkin get into his third NHL fight, Crosby not merely get in the face of the NHL’s apex predator, but start the confrontation, and the team as a whole fail to accomplish anything, and third was a lack of accountability that saw them make few adjustments, none effective. The team scored two goals in four games. They were shutout not once buy twice, and never managed to get into the series, much less take control of it. Hardly what one would expect from the team that won the eastern conference.

2: Patrick Kane: American Hero

Jokes about Kane’s life off the ice are as easy to make as hailing a cab, but no one can deny his on ice prowess. The speedy sniper put up g0als against every netminder he faced, scored timely goals and looked entirely relaxed doing it. The big stage isn’t something that makes Kane shrink and hide. What was surprising was to see him win the Conn-Smythe. Not just because he’s neither a goalie nor a center, but because he’s an American. You could make legitimate cases for Corey Crawford, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith all of whom had enviable second seasons, and who had the good grace to be born Canadian. Kane is just the fourth American to win the Conn-Smythe and the third in a row, his former USA Olympic teammate Tim Thomas started the streak.

1: Anaheim Ducks: No Migration

The Ducks cruised through the regular season racking up wins with very nearly the easy and regularity of the Chicago squad, fans and NHL observers hoped for a Western Conference Finals for the ages between the Ducks and Blackhawks, but it was not meant to be. Despite scoring from depth players, solid goaltending from Hiller, and Getzlaf and Beauchemin providing leadership the Ducks lacked one thing that would keep them from taking flight into the second round; killer instinct. Game five ended with them up three to two in the series. They had home ice advantage, and went on to lose to the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.

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

#1 Vs #8

The Chicago Blackhawks seemingly have everything going this season. They have two goalies putting up top flight numbers. they have an upgraded defense that has allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to reclaim the form that helped the team win the Cup a few years back. Better still, they have arguably the best forward group in the NHL; Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad and Sharp.

The Minnesota Wild are that new kid in playoff town no one knows quite what to make of. On paper the Wild have every tool they need to be dangerous, and even contend. In reality, they lack playoff experience, especially with Pominville and Heatley on the shelf. Add that to five of six blueliners who have never seen the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for a dicey playoff series.

Players to watch:

For the Wild, don’t be surprised if rookie Charlie Coyle comes up big in spots, Setogouchi is a threat, and Mikko Koivu is never to be underestimated.

On the other side of the puck for the Blackhawks, Kane, Hossa and Toews can all take over games individually.

Edge:

Chicago, it isn’t purely the quality that they lead in, it is the playoff experience, particularly on the blueline that will decide this series.

#2 vs. #7

Anaheim Ducks have almost no pressure this year. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are drawing an inexplicable amount of attention, and Chicago was start to finish the best team in the NHL. The Ducks simply have to get on the ice and execute. They have savvy older veterans in Koivu and Selanne. They have high quality younger veterans still in their prime in Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. They also have a surprisingly strong backend in net and on the blueline. They don’t have any dominant or elite players there, but they do have several really good ones.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs again keeping their two decade long streak intact. They have Jimmy Howard who again very quietly put up impressive numbers, they have Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. These are not your Dad’s Red Wing’s though, they just don’t have even one elite talent on their blueline, much less two or three as they have had in years past.

Players to watch:

If the Wings don’t have Howard playing top notch goaltending, they don’t have anything, For them to win,  guys like Tootoo, Smith, and other role players will have to elevate their game.

The Ducks need to have their defense continue to smother their opponents, and have at least one of their goaltenders show up and never take their eyes off of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Edge:

Wings can’t win this if the Ducks show up and execute. It’s just that simple.

#3 vs. #6

Vancouver Canucks, it is put up or shutup time in Vancouver. They drama in their net has covered up the fact that this isn’t as good a team as it was in years past. They only won their division by four points, by comparison the Washington Capitals won by 6, and of the six division winners this is the team that scored the least this season. The Sedin twins combined for less goals than Jiri Tlusty. They put up the mediocre season numbers with three of the bottom four teams in their conference playing in their division.

San Jose Sharks are also at the point where if they don’t win the Cup it is tie to break up the band. Marleau, Boyle, and Thornton don’t have many more years left in them and behind them there isn’t much to write home about. What gives this squad a bit of believability is that Niemi, who was part of the Chicago cup run, has turned in the best regular season of his career and played in 43 of the teams 48 games.

Players to watch:

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are two guys you should never ever count out, for the Canucks to do well, these two will likely be the biggest impact players.

Joe Thornton appears to have learned how to play big in the playoffs, and Raffi Torres (when he plays clean) is a surprisingly good playoff player.

Edge:

This series is almost a push, but I give the edge to San Jose, Thornton, Marleau, Couture are are better right now than any three forwards you can name for the Sharks, and with Schneider’s injury and the general chaos in British Columbia I don’t like the Canucks chances.

#4 vs. #5

The Saint Louis Blues boast some damn fine players no one talks about because the team is too far south. David Backes is a game changer, Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Chris Stewart turned in more points in 48 games this year than he did in 79 last year. Goaltending is clearly this teams weakness, but with Oshie coming back the team gains immediately in two way play.

The reigning champions the Los Angeles Kings have to get scoring from more people than just Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, if for no other reason than Jonathan Quick is not as good this year as last. They’ve gotten a slight refresh adding Regehr and injecting Muzzin into the lineup, but the roster is really almost identical. You have to question the teams hunger a little.

Players to watch:

Drew Doughty emerged as an elite two way defenseman during last year playoffs establishing his bona fides in his own end in addition to the offensive ability he’s always displayed, he and Mike Richards who is frequently overlooked on this team will be crucial to this team going anywhere.

For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka just finds an extra gear in the playoffs and he can tilt the ice, but he won’t be enough, Bouwmeester, Oshie, and Perron will have to show up and put in work.

Edge:

This is a push, the Blues I think have the edge in hunger, the Kings have the edge in knowing how to win in the post season.

Total Wins by eliminated teams this round; 9

 

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.