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

Teams:

  • that the Vegas Golden Knights would lead their division with games in hand after Thanksgiving…
  • the Detroit Red Wings would hold a playoff spot and the Montreal Canadien’s who won the division last year would not…
  • at the quarter pole the best record in the NHL would belong to a healthy Tampa Bay Lightning would lead the NHL in points, wins, home wins, and goal differential…
  • the Pittsburgh Penguins would have the fifth lowest goals per game in the NHL..
  • the New York Islander’s would have the 2nd highest goals for per game and be barely 8th in the overall NHL standings after all their off season forward turnover.
  • the Saint Louis Blues would have lost the third most man games to injury and still be the best team in the west after Thanksgiving
  • after going to the second round in the spring the Edmonton Oilers would be back to their seemingly traditional position in the bottom five in the NHL.

Players:

  • the goalie controversy in Boston wouldn’t be who was going to be backing up Tuukka Rask this year, but when he would be allowed to take the net again
  • we would have two players over 1.5 goals per game (Steven Stamkos & Nikita Kucherov) who are not named Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, or even McDavid.
  • none of the last five Norris Trophy awardees (Brent Burns, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban) would be in the top 3 in scoring among defensemen.
  • that Mike Green who has only passed the 40 point mark once since the 2009-10  season would be among the top 10 defensemen in scoring.
  • the NHL’s highest scoring rookie would be Brock Boeser of Vancouver Canucks and he’d have a line of 11-10-21 through 19 games with three game winning goals
  • at the quarter point of the season 553 players would have scored at least one goal versus 774 total last year to do the same

The Stanley Cup Finals are over. The hockey season is over. And worse, the NHL Front Office and Pittsburgh Penguins have won.

A team that had numerous favorable calls made for them, and at least as many calls not made against them most notably the debacle of Sidney Crosby slamming P.K. Subban’s head into the ice. Not just for the non call, not just for the non suspension, not just for the racial overtones, not for completely ignoring the concussion protocol, but because it showed explicitly what everyone who has any ability to decipher an NHL game already knows: The front office care more about which market, and player, wins the Cup than it does about what is actually best for the game, the players, or the fans.

As if further proof were needed, the Conn-Smyth went to about the fourth or even fifth most influential player on the Penguins winning the Cup. Matt Murray was stellar behind a banged up defense. Geno Malkin was unarguably better, Jake Guentzal played in hall of fame territory. Brian Doumalin was quietly the best of the Penguins defense from their 83rd game of the season right until the end. Justin Schultz did a great deal to fill the Letang void. Then there was Crosby.

In a season when Crosby should rightly have been suspended for nearly removing the finger of Marc Methot, a playoff suspension, as a repeat offender after Crosby attempted to injure Subban would have taken him out at least two games. But using the marking plan that has been in place since 2005 is far, far more important than doing what is right.

 

The time is now. No one knows how this series will end. History and statistics are on the side of the Pittsburgh Penguins who are up two to nothing. If it gets to three nothing, the team with that lead wins almost all the time. But games aren’t decided by historical statistics, they are decided by the men on the ice.

If Pekka Rinne remembers not the last couple games, but the last couple months and plays the way he did against Chicago, and Anaheim, and Saint Louis, he’ll be a completely different player. If James Neal can recall that he’s capable of thirty and forty goal seasons, and focuses on the game he might, might just score a goal for the first time in seven games. Similarly Victor Arvidsson who ran the board in the regular season hasn’t scored since April, in the first series, against the Chicago Blackhawks. Whatever jitters he has need to die as thorough a death as the notion Nashville isn’t a hockey town.

Arvidsson, Neal, and Rinne aren’t alone on the ice and aren’t even the only problems. The number of penalties the team has taken needs to be addressed. While I’m all for physicality, and on ice leadership and will never complain about two willing combatants going after it, Subban is a huge part of the team’s success both offensively and defensively. He’s not the first guy to punch Malkin in the face, he won’t be the last, but even on a defense as stacked as Nashville’s Subban is not a player you can lose when your back is against the wall, you’re already down your best center and you’re in the fight of your life with no one stepping up.

This team is better than the part time effort they are putting in. They haven’t played a sixty minuted game since maybe game six in Anaheim, and they won’t be winning their last game of the season if they play 37 to 40 minutes a night until the series is over.

Terry Pegula finally got around to selecting a general manager for the Buffalo Sabres. The rumor mill was a little better than average this time with early word that Jason Botterill was the man who was getting the job. Botterhill comes out of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization where he was a fixture for about a decade. His stated goal is to build a contender every year at both the NHL and AHL levels.

Man is that delusional. In order to build a contending NHL team in the salary cap era you have to be constantly flushing talent out of your farm system. Yes there are exceptions, and Pittsburgh is one of them, but they aren’t common. Further more the biggest factors the Penguins have in their favor simply don’t apply to the Buffalo Sabres organization.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have cache they have the two of the top ten players in the NHL in Geno Malkin and Sidney Crosby. They have two cup wins in the last decade. They have an owner who won multiple cups, multiple MVPs, and who is one of those rare generational talents who actually understand’s the business side of the game as well. The other sneaky thing they do that is the kryptonite of other teams is bring players from their successful AHL franchise to their successful NHL franchise while they’re still young

While there are a lot of players who would like to play in one city for their whole career, the truth is that all of them simply want to play in the NHL the bulk of their career. If they can put a couple seasons with Malkin and Crosby on their resume, they know they will get better offers when it is time to go elsewhere. Those players also know that the next man up mantra isn’t just lip service. Unlike with the Red Wings or Boston Bruins the next roster spot will open up before players drafted into the system at 18 turn 25 or 30.

That window to get into the NHL and play for a bigger salary is longer and closer. This enables them to sign free agent out of the USHL, college, and the CHL. While Pittsburgh is hardly America’s premier metropolis, its total metroplitan area population is larger than that of Buffalo and Rochester combined. All those additional opportunities for entertainment are important when you have two or thee months off every year, and when you just want to take your billet parents or your family to a couple nice places.

Buffalo doesn’t have that winning tradition. While Eichel, Kane, Lehner, and O’Reilly are all well above average players, most hockey observers would rate the star appeal of Malkin and Crosby higher, and some would say that either Penguin outweighs the four Sabres.

Am I saying there’s no one in the world who will want to play hockey in Rochester and Buffalo? No. Just that the pool of talent is so much smaller that building not one but two contenders is likely beyond the ability of anyone, much less a newly minted general manager who like his ownership group has done two things when in the big chair. One of them is ‘jack’ and the other starts with ‘s’.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have gotten off to a great start this season. They lead the Metropolitan Division with a game in hand. They are the only team in their division with a double digit goal differential. No one has a better or even a comparable powerplay, and their goaltender is having a career year. Sidney Crosby is producing at a rate he never has before, and he, Hornqvist and Malkin are all producing half or more of their points on the powerplay.

That’s the problem. Most of this is completely unsustainable. The Penguins powerplay is rocking along at 35.6%. Going back all the way to the 2005-06 season, the best a powerplay has finished is 26.8%. That’s 9% below what the team is rolling along at, and still well above the 21-22% the top powerplays have finished at in the last decade. When you consider that they are 13th in 5 on 5 scoring, you have to wonder how hard the fall will be.

Marc-Andre Fleury is saving a noticeably higher number of pucks than is normal for him. A career .911% save percentage with over 500 games played and no full season higher than .918, means people shouldn’t fall in love with his current .924. Through 12 games played he is also facing more shots per game than anytime in the last five years.

While there are lots of reasons for the decline, the Pittsburgh Penguins are near the top of the league in scoring in the first and second periods, and twentieth in third.  In the third period they’ve also allowed more goals than in any other period, 30% more goals than in either the first or second period. Is it conditioning? Is it desperation by the other team? Or are the Penguins just getting caught playing passively and running out the clock as happens to many teams?

Unsustainable powerplay, high reliance upon it for scoring, weak 3rd period, a goaltender fighting above his weight class all on one team add up to a team that will slide backwards at some point soon.

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

 

Players;

  • Among all defensemen with more than five games played there are still six with a perfect on ice save percentage; Ian Cole, Kevan Miller, and Erik Gudbranson, and three teammates Jonas Brodin, Ryan Suter, and Jared Spurgeon.
  • That Jay Harrison of the Carolina Hurricanes would lead the entire NHL in PIMS with 27, higher than the top three PIMs pilers from last season put together, all from a guy who’s never topped 72 PIMS, in just 6 games this year.
  • That six games into the season Carl Alzner would be finishing up in the offensive zone at a rate 24.4% less than his starts there, while still maintaining a positive plus minus.
  • That Daniel Carcillo, would lead all forwards in penalties drawn per sixty minutes and only have two himself.
  • Two plus weeks into the season there would be two defensemen playing over 28 minutes a night, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
  • That Chris Stewart would have the most shots on net without a goal standing at 26 shots and eight games with no goals.
  • At nearly the end of the first month of the season Evgani Malkin, Sami Vatanen, Trevor Daley, Claude Giroux, Johnny Boychuk, David Backes, Linden Vey, Brad Boyes, Scott Hartnell, Mark Giordano, Tyler Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Keith Yandle, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, Teddy Purcell, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larson (among others) would all have something important in common, they have all only scored a goal(s) on the powerplay.

Teams

  • Seven games into the season the Detroit Red Wings would be the final team not to have allowed a powerplay goal.
  • The Chicago BlackHawks would lead the NHL in shorthanded goals with two in just six games played.
  • the last two teams not to have scored a powerplay goal would be the Minnesota Wild and Buffalo Sabres.
  • the Carolina Hurricanes would be winless, a minus 29, and still have scored more goals per game than the Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, and Buffalo Sabres.
  • The Boston Bruins would be 13th in the NHL in goals against.
  • Three teams, the Arizona Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes would all be winless when scoring first.
  • The Columbus Blue Jackets would have the best differential between powerplay and penalty kill time after finishing 17th in the NHL last season.

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.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the most disappointing team in the NHL every year since they won the cup in the entire eastern conference. The Sharks arguably are worse, but then San Jose never actually won offering up the proof that they could, the Penguins did. Why is the new broom needed?

The problem isn’t lack of talent. Whatever else can be said of Crosby, Letang, and Fleury, they have not covered themselves with glory in the playoffs. When they did win the cup, Malkin was the Conn-Smyth winner, Fleury allowed more goals than any other goaltender in that post season. Crosby now has seventeen post season games with just one goal. In this years post season he generated zero points in six games. Letang was scoreless in ten games. In his case, he is coming back from a stroke and a lot of time off, but since being drafted he’s only crossed 75 games in one regular season. Whatever good Letang may do a team offensively, and that’s undeniable, defensively he leaves room for notable improvement.

If anyone needs explained to them why Marc-Andre Fleury needs to be ousted from the Pittsburgh crease, I really can’t help you. He’s a living blooper reel of post season gaffes. His ability to track the puck in pressure situations in almost non-existent. This years .915 sv% is by far his highest in five post seasons, last year he lost the starting job to a man who hadn’t played in the playoffs in about a decade.

Dan Bylsma has failed to keep this team focused in the playoffs every year since his first full season. Five playoff runs, all ending with him looking befuddled on his way to the handshake line after no visible attempts to camp the troubled waters on his bench in the previous several games. The last two years they’ve gotten through their first rounds not because they deserved to win based on the way they played, but because neither the Islanders nor Blue Jackets possessed any measure of playoff experience. This year with America’s best hockey players on his roster for the Olympics he did nothing. The team failed to medal because he is a one trick pony; put the two best offensive players together and pray. That’s it.

Ray Shero has been hunting a white whale for years. Year in, year out he goes out and looks for “someone to play with Crosby”, he brings someone in, they don’t gel, and that person gets shuffled to Malkin’s line where they normally produce at least at the level they did before arriving there. But the subtext to what Shero has done the past half decade is even more alarming when you realize who most of the players brought in were. Last year it was Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, both former team captains, in the past almost everyone brought in has worn a letter. Why? Whether he is willing to admit it or not, some part of him recognized the lack of leadership at ice level. And yet, he kept doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

For Pittsburgh to improve the changes need to be wholesale; Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma need to be given their walking papers. Sidney Crosby and at least one of Marc-Andre Fleury or Kris Letang need to go as well. Without changing the supposed leadership, and the actual faces of the team you can’t change its direction, mental composition or yearly fate.

With each first round series begun, it is time to take our first serious look at who might be carrying around the extra hardware this summer.

Before we get to the men still playing there are some honorable mentions that had individually stellar first rounds. Out west that list is headed by pending UFA Paul Stastny who contributed not just a lot of points, but timely ones. In the east no one deserves more respect than Steve Mason who came into the second season behind a pretty porous defense and put up a more than respectable .939 Sv%.

West:

  • Ryan Suter, 29:14 a night is more minutes a night than any one else still playing. His 14 hits and 15 blocked shots blocked piled up in 8 games.
  • Anze Kopitar, the Selke finalist leads all players in post season points with 13 through 8 games, 51.6% on the faceoff dot, and is a +5 to go with it.
  • Ryan Getzlaf, seven games, 9 points, 3 power play points, a shorthanded point, and a +3 say he’s doing the job in all three zones and all situations over almost 22 minutes a night is quite the workout for a forward.
  • Jonathan Toews, three game winning goals in seven games, 23:16 a night in TOI, and 62.5% in the faceoff circle are a step or three above good.

East:

  • P.K. Subban, 6 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, leads the Canadiens in scoring.
  • Torey Krug over the regular season his ice time has increased 2:30, his on ice save percentage has climbed, he’s a point per game in the most defensive minded system left in the playoffs.
  • Henrik Lundqvist, through eight games he’s allowed 2 or less goals in six games. His sv% is up over the regular season, and of all the goalies left, he’s the only one not playing behind someone in the top 15 in post season scoring.
  • Paul Martin 7 games, 8 points, three powerplay points, 2 shorthanded points, +7, 27:29 of TOI, 20 blocked shots, arguably.

Honorable mentions still playing, Evgani Malkin, Tuukka Rask, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Lars Eller, Corey Crawford, Drew Doughty, Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik, Matt Niskanen, Marc Staal.