I finally return to my favorite feature column.

If I told you in September that

Teams:

  • on 2/12 there would be three teams in playoff spots, including the Canadiens, Senators, and Leafs with the Calgary Flames knocking on the door
  • the best penalty kill in the NHL would belong to the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • the Montreal Canadiens would be 2nd in times shorthanded, with 197 times through 57 games
  • the Dallas Stars would not only have a worse powerplay than the Boston Bruins but be in the bottom third of the league
  • the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the only team in February with zero shorthanded goals allowed.
  • three of the top five NHL teams in five on five goals for would be outside the the playoffs
  • nearly one quarter of the teams holding a playoff spot including the Saint Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators would have an even or negative goal differential.

Players

  • Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators would be tied for second in blocked shots per game.
  • Brayden Schenn would lead the NHL in powerplay goals
  • that Sidney Crosby would tied for 86th in powerplay assists
  • Jeff Carter would lead his team and the NHL in game winning goals, including one third of the tallies for the Kings
  • three of the top five rookies in the NHL in scoring would all play on one team: Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander
  • Peter Budaj would have his best career save percentage, the Kings in a playoff position, 26 wins, and the lead in shutouts.
  • two goalies would hold 30 win seasons, Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky, in less than 45 games played and also both be in the top 5 in total saves.

 

If I told you any of this in September would you have believed me?

Look for the next episode of Two Man Forecheck soon!

We’ll talk: Mike Illitch and his legacy, Claude Julien, expansion, the New York Islanders and more. Give my co-host @TheOffWing a follow and catch up on what he’s writing at TheOffWing.com .

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.

Injuries were the definition and demise of the Ottawa Senators season 2012-13 season. Players who made it through the regular season healthy were as rare as honest politicians. Scoring was perhaps even rarer with only three players crossing the ten goal mark and a 27th place finish in goal for. As bright spots go, aside from unexpected depth at goaltending, there wasn’t much to speak of. Certainly, when you consider that half the games were played not by starter Craig Anderson but by two backups it is safe to say none of the shine on this season would require you to shade your eyes.

The off season saw the aging face of the Senators Daniel Alfredsson leave in a huff for a team just across the border.  General Manager Bryan Murray brought in the long scapegoated Bobby Ryan in exchange for depth. Arguably if the Senators had managed to massage Alfredsson’s ego enough to get him to stay the team would have had the most offensive depth it had seen in at least half a decade. But for now, this team belongs to Craig Anderson, Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, Cory Conacher, and whomever else can carve themselves a piece of the pie. Among the most curious moves of the NHL off season was the signing of Joe Corvo, even at the rate he’s signed for, there are better uses for money.

The regular season opens with the Senators on a six game road trip. The Buffalo Sabres are the first team they will try to beat on the road, then fellow Ontario team the Toronto Maple Leafs. After that a tour of California, facing the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and finally a home coming for Bobby Ryan in Anaheim to drop the puck against the Ducks. Four out of five made the playoffs last year, and two back to backs will keep things lively for Paul MacLean and company.

Number of days 1-5:

Number of cities: 5

Best opponent: Anaheim Ducks

Weakest opponent: Buffalo Sabres

Home games: 0

Projected points: 4+

October does not have a pretty schedule in store for the Ottawa Senators. That said, many coaches like early road trips as both a bonding aid, and a way of eliminating home life distractions. Paul MacLean is one of the best coaches in the NHL, and while most of the team is the same as last year, the loss of Alfredsson’s leadership will make a difference. If the team manages to find time to sign Jared Cowen and return him to the line up, Cowen, Eric Gryba, and Patrick Weircioch can apply those hard earned lessons from last season and go about making up for the defensive deficiencies of the offense only Erik Karlsson.

Welcome to the Second Season, unlike most years, the second season for the best teams will run nearly half the length of the regular season.

#1 vs. #8

The Pittsburgh Penguins marched determinedly through the regular season, attempting to keep pace with the western powers. Malkin, Crosby, Letang and other key players all missed games due to injury. Crosby is out least for game one, and Jarome Iginla will be playing in the post season for the first time in almost half a decade.

The Islanders haven’t seen the post season in so long you have to wonder how many members of the staff at Nassau had vaction plans this week and next. Sixteen players will be making their playoff debut, including nearly all of their key forwards, and several of their battered blueliners. From the blueline, only three gentlemen appeared in all 48 games this season; Mark Streit age 35, Andrew MacDonald, and 22 year old Travis Hamonic who’s in his third season for the Islanders.

Players to watch:

With Crosby out, the cameras may actually grace other Penguins, Neal is a human highlight reel, Brandon Sutter is finally making himself comfortable in the NHL, and Chris Kunitz quietly led the team in goals in the regular season.

For the Islanders if you aren’t already a member of the United Temple of Taveres; get familiar. The 2009 #1 overall has outpaced his class across the board, he’s got 20 more goals than the second place goal scorer from his class, and almost three times as many as 4th place. On the backend Vishnovsky and Streit are more than capable of being momemtum changers in any zone.

Edge:

The Penguins should win this series. But that depends on Marc Andre Fleury turning in a useful playoff performence. In the last three years his sv% has been awful, despite reasonable regular season numbers, .834, .899, .891 are useful but only for making sure your team gets plenty of sun. The Islanders have a chance if Nabokov can out duel The Flower.

#2 vs. #7

The Montreal Canadiens had a wretched season last year, and reaped the draft rewards, American rookie Alex Galchenyuk made an instant impact, Vancouver Giants alumni Brendan Gallagher did as well. They’ve had a small downturn since Alexi Emelin injured himself, but they still held on to win the last Northeast division title.

The Ottawa Senators are probably glad they don’t have to make room on the plane for medical records. Overcoming injuries have defined this team this season. Jason Spezza is still out, Erik Karlsson is just back, and the list of who didn’t play all or most games is much longer than the list of those who did.

Players to watch:

P.K. Subban is the most electrifying player in this series, and possibly on all of the Canadian teams, Lars Eller has shown a willingness to get his nose dirty, and Michael Ryder still has one of the fastest releases in the NHL.

For the Senators, Alfredsson isn’t a player you should ever take your eyes off of, Kyle Turris led the team in goals and points, and Gonchar is still a consistent threat.

Edge:

Offensively the difference between these teams is night and day, the Canadiens had the fifth best offense in the regular season, and the Senators the fourth worst. On the other hand the Senators finished second in goals against, while the Canadiens were a pedestrian 14th. Craig Anderson has better post season numbers, and should be able to snatch a game or two, but the Habs should win it.

#3 vs. #6

When it comes to winning the Southeast Division, the Washington Capitals have had that locked down for most of its existance, it seems only fitting they should finish its last season on top. Unfortunately, that’s all they seem to be able to win. Maybe this year with a rejuvinated Ovechkin, a mature Carlson and Alzner, and most miraculously a healthy Green they can turn in a good performence.

Last year the New York Rangers went to the Eastern Conference finals, and but for the skill of Adam Henrique, might have gone further. Some might consider it a problem when their 12th best paid forward leads the team in scoring, especially when that player makes roughly 10% of their highest paid forward, for the Rangers, that’s just the way things are.

Players to watch:

The Caps bost a potent offense, and a bit more grit than they are given credit for, Troy Brouwer was second in goals this season, Chimera had a big season last year, and Backstrom has finally started to round back into All Star form.

While Stepan led the Rangers in scoring, Richards, Nash and Callahan have got to be due for an offensive explosion at some point, right?

#4 vs. #5

The Boston Bruins had a heap of distractions towards the end of the season with bombings, blizzards and forever long pregame ceremonies, which might excuse their poor play if it hadn’t been a season long occurance. The positives for the Bruins are that they are pretty healthy physically. The negative is that no one knows where their collective head is.

The Maple Leafs are making their return to the playoffs. Lots of this team hasn’t played in the playoffs at all, and some who have aren’t all that good in the second season. Lupul and Van Riemsdyk have the most playoff experience, Kessel is a point per game player in the playoffs, but he’ll have to get over his ineffectiveness against Chara and Boston in a hurry to keep that going.

Players to watch:

For the Bruins, everyone is waiting on Soderberg to make his impact felt, but he may well sit, watch Bergeron per usual, and see if Ference and Lucic can keep up their snarl.

The Maple Leafs have woefully underused Grabovski this season, and he might just be the key to winning this series, Kadri and Gunnarsson should also be in your crosshairs.

Edge:

The Bruins played poorly down the stretch, but the Leafs are new as a team to the playoffs, and have a bug in their heads about the Bruins. Expect a lot of physical play and for the team that wants it more to win.

If you think Matt Cooke intentionally injured Erik Karlsson or not, is entirely immaterial. there are a couple possibilities as to where things go from here. Before this latest injury to an already depleted squad they were treading water. In sixth place, but with two more games played than seventh and eight place. also on the shelf are Latendresse, Regin, Spezza a lot of talent and money are out of reach of the head coach.

In such a short season, calling it in the rest of the way wouldn’t be hard, and with prizes Seth Jones this year, and McDavid in 2015, moving out some players in exchange for probably high picks, and in theory pushing the team closer to the lottery could be very, very favorable long term. If for example Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson are found new homes that’d clear up nine million in salary space this year, and four and a third next year. I can’t see trading them out for any package that doesn’t include at least one first round pick. Both players are the type that can push a middling team from bubble to firm playoff position.

If they decide to stock up, there are certainly teams that are in need of turning over their roster. They can look due south to the other capital city in the NHL. Mike Green has a six million dollar a year contract, and is very similar to Karlsson in playing style. The Capitals aren’t doing anything even with his returned health and 26 minutes a night. The Columbus Blue Jackets have a new sheriff in town and both Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski might find themselves redundant in the Jarmo world order, as might former Philadelphia Flyer R.J. Umberger, the highest paid forward on the Columbus roster.

Even without blowing up their roster, the Colorado Avalanche could happily unload Ryan O’Reilly for the right price to fill the Spezza roster spot for the nonce. There race for the playoffs is going to be rough and brutal between the compressed schedule and the arms war for complimentary parts as teams like the San Jose Sharks make what could be the last play for the current core at a Cup, the Dallas Stars vie for a return to the playoffs, and the Nashville Predators hope to woo fans turned off by the loss of Suter. And lest we forget, their plight, career right wing Jarome Iginla is probably the teams best faceoff man, meaning Zack Smith could return some nice assets if fired off before his next birthday, indeed a strong faceoff man for the top two lines for the Flames has more value now than later because more puck possession will give them time to climb back into the playoff picture.

The short answer to all questions of player value is: What ever they can get someone to pay for them.  In this case, Subban is what every team needs and wants: a highly talented, mobile, young defender with offensive skill, defensive savvy, and his best years ahead of him.

Q: So where does he rank in terms of both actual skill, and potential:A: In my book, top ten for NHL defensemen.

In whatever order you like, you can put Chara, Keith, Weber, Pietrangelo, Suter, Doughty ahead of him. The next tier of his true comparables is harder to gauge as that group has more and variability in strengths and weaknesses as well as age. That group includes the Capitals John Carlson, the Jets Dustin Byfugelien, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, Canucks blueliner Kevin Bieksa, and when used properly, Jay Bouwmeester of the Flames.

Of his comparables:

  • John Carlson is the closest in age and accomplishments, Carlson is better defensively, Subban is a little faster and better offensively. Carlson is also 23 and signed a team friendly pretty fair contract with a cap hit of four million a year in a town where he was at the time about the sixth or seventh biggest name.
  • Kevin Bieksa is the oldest of his comparables, is the fifth or so biggest name behind Kesler, the Sedins and whichever goalies the press is hectoring between pillar and post out in Vancouver. No Cup for Bieksa, but one of the NHL’s more dependable blueliners and is not the type to give up even if a game is out of hand. He’s got a talent laden blueline around him and has for years, not a natively gifted offensively, but knows where he fits in on his offensive minded team. Cap hit of $4.6 million.
  • Jay Bouwmeester was when he signed his current contract with the floundering Panthers about the most talented player and arguably the biggest name on the team. He plays huge minutes including more than two minutes a night on each special team. He blocks over 100 shot each year. His cap hit is $6.8m
  • Brent Seabrook is often overlooked in Chicago even if a good look at the numbers doesn’t bear that out. Skilled going in both directions, Seabrook would be the cornerstone of a lot of franchises in the NHL. He has similar offensive numbers, on a more offensively gifted team, to Subban. Was a big part of the Cup run for Chicago a couple years back. 5.8million.
  • Dustin Byfuglien is the Jets most sizeable defeneman, played his part in hoisting the cup for the windy city, and aside from some injury issues has been a dynamic player since landing in Atlanta-now-Winnipeg. Less defensive acuity than Subban, just as good a skater with a lot more size, and possibly the best known player on his team. His cap hit is 5.2million.

A couple of contracts his agent is sure to bring up:

  • Erik Karlsson, who was mysteriously awarded the Norris, has almost negative defensive ability, and a contract for a $6.8 million cap hit, despite never making it out of the first round of the playoffs and playing a very soft game.
  • Dennis Wideman, the wildly inconsistent 29 year old now on his fifth NHL team was an All Star last season, carries a 5.25m cap hit, and no team he’s played for has ever made it out of the second round of the playoffs.
  • Dion Phaneuf who is one of those guys who was billed as the second coming of god in his early years, and is still picked for a Norris yearly buy some pundits has a large cap hit at 6.5million, but hasn’t seen a playoff game since 2009 and has been above average if not elite for the Toronto Maple Leafs since arriving.

If you crunch the numbers on his true comparables and leave out the laughably overpaid Karlsson, the Semin-level-enigma that is Wideman, and Phanuef, you’ve got an average cap hit of 5,280,000. That’s not really an unfair number for a short term contract, but realistically with only modest improvement in the next three years he should be in the running for legitimate Norris win, and a couple 50+ point seasons.

If your considering an offer sheet or trade for Subban, what does a roughly five point three million dollar contract offer sheet cost? That depends on where you expect to draft, and how well you’ve done drafting. For any amount in the price range of his comparables, assuming Montreal doesn’t match it, you’d be giving up selections in each of the first three rounds of the draft.

If you expect to draft in the top 10 this year, it might not be worth it.

If you expect to draft 11-20, you have to consider it very, very strongly.

If you expect to draft 21-30 this season you’re probably derelict in your duty if you don’t.

An immediate impact player, especially at a reasonable price and especially long term (four+ seasons) is better than potential that is years away. If as an organization you think Subban is the player that can put you over the top for a cup win, or even just generate enough buzz to sell 3000 more tickets a game you almost have to go for him via offer sheet or trade. If you’re in the division you can doubly impact the Habs by lowering their level of talent and improving yours. As poorly as the Habs have drafted in the last decade, them muffing on the draft is almost a given.

Oh what an off season. The surprise firing of Brian Burke, the lack of contract for P.K. Subban which will no doubt fuel the “Subban to Boston” rumor mill, and Chris Bourque son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque coming home to Boston.

Buffalo: This is Ryan Millers last change to prove his Vezina winning season wasn’t an aberration. Twenty five or twenty six wins out of thirty to thirty games would shut up all his critics. The rest of the team still has to help by doing little things like scoring goals and defending each other on a consistent basis, which will be harder without pivot Derek Roy, but Hodgson and Grigorenko are very capable of filling that hole.

Toronto: With Burke out, and Nonis in, every player and member of the coaching staff should consider this an extended audition. Goaltending is still a big question. Playing coherently as a team and not as a collection of individuals is still a complete unknown to this team. Getting it together will be a monumental, but hardly impossible task. They remain, as they have for over a decade, a work in progress.

Montreal: Last season was pretty much the perfect storm of a season. Everything that could go wrong did, sometimes twice. Injuries, coaching chaos, front office shenanigans, a divided locker room, and all under the benevolent eye of the Montreal hockey media. The good news for Habs fans is it would be nearly impossible to be that bad, that injured, that messed up and that chaotic two seasons in a row. American Galchenyuk and Armstrong of Saskatchewan bring new blood and loads of potential help to the team.

Ottawa: The Senators voted themselves into the playoffs last year and someone rewrote the definition of best defenseman so Karlsson could win, but last year they got in with a lot of help from Buffalo and Montreal who both filled their pants more often than they filled the net. The team itself likely isn’t worse than last year, but they will be playing against better competition.

Boston: While some area scribes think the whole season comes down to Rask for the Bruins, its not that simple. The Bruins have three defensemen they can rely on: Chara, Seidenberg, and Ference, and then bunches and bunches of questions. McQuaid has been steady when healthy, Boychuk is up and down, and the rest of the platoon aiming for the 4-7 slots all have big, big question marks. Warsovsky is not a gifted skater and by comparison even David Krejci is a hulking behemoth. Hamilton hasn’t played a single professional game, and was just a part of the Canadian meltdown at World Juniors. Aaron Johnson is now his sixth NHL stop (assuming he plays in the NHL here) at age 29, and has only crossed 50 games twice. Those are the best bets for those slots but anything can happen.

Top Dogs: Boston and Buffalo duke it out until the end, both Khudobin and Rask are capable of playing red hot for weeks, and the guys behind them are itching for them to fail.

The Ottawa Senators on Tuesday made Erik Karlsson one of the ten best paid defensemen in the entire NHL. His salary will be higher than Zdeno Chara’s and tied with Drew Doughty’s. Those are two of the four best defensemen in the NHL. Chara has of course won a Norris Trophy, and the Stanley Cup and been a huge minute eater for well over a decade. He’s also the captain of his team. Drew Doughty wears an A, plays in all situations, hits, scores and can be relied upon night in and night out. Unlike Karlsson, his team has actually won series in the playoffs, and yeah he’s a touch more likely to get shift starts outside the offensive zone.

Shockingly, and this owing to the unfair advantage Doughty, Weber, Suter, Girardi, Chara all have in actually being useful defensively, every one of these guys is way more likely to start in their own defensive zone or center ice. It is really unfair that their coaches trust them. Shameful in fact that a defenseman should play defense. Oddly there are teams and players and gosh even fans who think that defensemen playing defense is important.

Worst of all, this isn’t one of those situations where you can blame the general manager and expect them to be fired in the next seventy two hours. Bryan Murray has actually done a pretty good job over the last two or three years. Unfortunately when your owner tells the world you have a player who will go down as one of the greatest defensemen of all time you have a problem. More than a problem, you’re shackled to the stupidity. If someone sensible had been nearby and tossed Eugene Melnyk into a mental institution for a long weekend immediately after that statement this might have been avoided. Now just before this deal is inked Melnyk is crying poor mouth. It might have something to do with the Canadian government’s kicking around plans to stop certain subsidies that aid small market teams.

Realistically, given his scoring prowess, youth and marketability a three year contract with a four and a half million dollar contract would be the perfect deal. It puts Karlsson in company with defensemen like Kevin Bieksa who’s team actually wins rounds in the playoffs and who personally produces points at or above his regular season rate and does more besides. Also in that neck of the woods is Keith Yandle, who is better defensively, on a small market team as well and doesn’t have quite as much offensive potential to work with. Additionally neither of these players has been called out by NHL officials for diving in the middle of a season.

Contracts like this that grossly distort player value are bad for the team, bad for the market, and bad for the NHL as a whole. The Senators won’t be fined for this contract, even though it is far more damaging to the league than original Ilya Kovalchuk contract with the New Jersey Devils.  They will however be handicapped by an anchor as soon as his scoring starts to taper off a la Vincent Lecavalier. This of course on a Canadian team that hasn’t hit 100% of home seat sales in two of the last three seasons.

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

Teams:

  • The Saint Louis Blues would be the first team to 100 points
  • the New York Rangers would be first in the NHL in points with the 29th ranked powerplay
  • the Pacific Division team (The Los Angeles Kings) with the best goals differential, would also be the team in the division with the least goals scored
  • the Florida Panthers would have a winning road record at 16-15-5 and the Detroit Red Wings would at 16-20-3 would not
  • the NHL’s best powerplay would be owned by the Nashville Predators
  • only eight teams would have a winning record in the shootout
  • one team the Carolina Hurricanes would be winless in that gimmick
  • the Nashville Predators would lead the league in wins when giving up more shots than their opponent with 28
  • the Boston Bruins would have the best winning percentage when being outshot by their opponent at .690%
  • the ‘clean’ playing Vancouver Canucks would have spent the 6th most time killing penalties on the season

Players:

  • Rookie defenseman Jared Cowen would be two hits away form 200 hundred on the season and have more than 70 blocked shots
  • Chris Kelly would enter the stretch run with more PIMS than Matt Cooke
  • Rene Bourque would be suspended more than Raffi Torres
  • Alex Ovechkin would enter the last two weeks of the season with less points than Blake Wheeler
  • John Tavares and Phil Kessel would both be in the top ten in scoring and on non playoff teams
  • Ray Whitney would lead the entire Pacific Division in scoring at 39 years old
  • of the top 10 scoring defensemen Erik Karlsson would be one of only two with more than 55% offensive zone starts
  • with two weeks left in the regular season no one would be sure if there would be three 40 goal scorers this season
  • after back to back Art Ross wins neither Daniel Sedin nor Henrik Sedin would be in the top ten in the NHL for scoring