#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

 

The deadline is coming!

The deadline is coming!

And it is a glorious thing, the western conference has a lot of interesting parts that make it hard to say who will be buyers or sellers. Some of the bottom teams have improved a lot, some of the middle teams aren’t as good as they look, and some of the top teams are just scary.

Chicago: If there’s anything this team could use other than better centers not named Toews, I’m not sure it really matters, they are scoring lots, allowing little, and beating people on a regular basis (at least the ones who aren’t from Anaheim). Extra depth for the playoffs wouldn’t hurt but how do you tinker with a team that’s lead the league since the word go?

Anaheim: With just one player in the top 40 in the NHL’s scoring race, and a defense where the TOI split between #1 and #6 is about four minutes, one wonders how this team has been the the second most consistent team in the NHL this season. This team doesn’t seem to have any weaknesses, unless it is a lack of playoff experience up and down the roster.

Vancouver: We know the Canucks are desperately trying to win he very last northwest division title. We know they have less ROW’s than Minnesota who also have a game in hand. We know the team traded away the talented young Hodgson even though Kesler is rarely healthy and they don’t have a viable 2nd center without them. We know after year of being at the top o the NHL’s scoring race, the Sedins who sat on the couch during the lockout are behind guys like Sam Gagner, Patrice Bergeron, Mikko Koivu, and Chris Stewart in the scoring race.

Minnesota: We knowWild will be the word for the emotions of fans in the state of hockey when they get to see their first playoff game in a few years. There’s still a good chance they win the division. We know that Mikko Koivu might finally get some of the adulation and national attention he deserves if they win a round or two in the playoffs. We know they need to do something pretty damned extreme to get their goalie and a respectable roster put together by opening night this fall. We know it is a crying shame Jonas Brodin won’t even make the long list for the Calder.

Los Angeles: We know the Kings who weren’t notoriously good at scoring last year are very quietly number seven in goals for this year. We know that their number one goaltender has had a performance dip year over year.  We know this team will be a different variety of difficult to beat in seven games than last spring.

Detroit: With the trade of Huskins for a conditional 2014 draft pick, and hometown boy Danny DeKeyeser, we’re starting to get a look at what the team will look like in a year or two. We know that with 27 skaters having taken the ice in 34 games and just two players with 10 or more goals, long term answers need to be found.

San Jose:  82 goals for, 82 goals against tells us this team is rather mediocre. I can’t see a high price on some of their middling talent, but I can’t see this team selling big before the deadline, ownership has apparently decided to drive this core group into the ground, meaning Sharks fans can expect another year or two of making the playoffs and getting made into chum in the second season.

Saint Louis; Good news, bad news. We know the team is scoring better than last season, we also know the team is allowing more goals than last season. We know the team needs to find an identity, and see if they can get more recognition for Pietreangelo.

Dallas: We know this team needs to find defenders who can get the puck out of their own zone. We know this team has lots of old guys left and the team wouldn’t be made worse medium term to get rid of every forward over thirty.

Columbus: We know if this team won half their games on the road instead of one fourth they’d not only be a playoff team, they’d be poised for home ice advantage at least through the first round.

Nashville: What ails this team isn’t just the loss of Suter, they are missing some of the same drive the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins lack. They also still don’t know how to score.

Edmonton: We know the Oilers defense is made out of wet tissues, we know the offense is struggling despite the nearly point per game production of Sam Gagner, we know the team isn’t going to be fixed until the leadership is changed.

Phoenix: Like the desert they play in, this team is hot and cold, last season they won the division and went to the conference finals last season, and this season they are in the basement. We know the ownership drama may never end. We know the Coyotes need both depth and quality.

Calgary: We know handing out too many no movement clauses makes rebuilding difficult. We know failing to acquire good young talent makes rebuilding difficult. We know being publicly shown to have no clue, and no ability to make deals makes rebuilding difficult.

Colorado: We know if this team was playing in a top tier hockey market the media bludgeoning would make their record and team stats look pleasant. We know this team will probably draft a high end talent and then fail to develop them.

 

 

 

 

The Canucks have been the whole show in a pretty pathetic division for a couple years. The division won’t be quite as bad this season and that could be either better or worse for them. As noted at the trade deadline, this team abandoned their identity then, and collapse came pretty close on the heels of doing so.

Good News

  • The Sedin’s are healthy.
  • Jason Garrison is a sound addition.
  • Kevin Bieksa is signed long term.

Bad News

  • Ryan Kesler is injured, again, to start the season.
  • No major changes have been made to a possibly complacent team.
  • The goalie drama will continue to be a distraction.

Forecast

High: There’s no question this team should win the division and challenge for another President’s Trophy.

Low: If the Luongo/Schnieder drama becomes really ugly, Kesler is out longer than expected, and one or more of the teams in the division play better there is a small chance they fall to 4th or 5th if they lose the division.

X-Factor

Whatever happens in net, or off ice this team needs an identity. The Kassian for Hodgson trade was a poor one in terms of adding an element that fits, if Luongo is indeed traded whoever comes back in his place needs to either be someone the team will rally around as a new leader, or slide into the murky waters of the Vancouver media scene without a ripple.

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

Some teams you just can’t tell how the moves will work out. In some cases it is because the player is inexperienced, or going from a really good team to a bottom feeder and the adjust might period might be rocky. In some cases it is a question of the player fitting the system. In still others the chemistry of players left behind can be damaged.

The Vancouver Canucks took a big, big gamble on deadline day. Not only did they give up skill and experience. Zach Kassians physicality is a huge element to add to the team. Marc Andre Grangnani is also a skilled defenseman I’m pretty high on. But Cody Hodgson is not just skilled, he’s canny. He’s displayed the ability to be a game changer. Alexander Sultzer is a more defensive minded defenseman than Gragnani as well. The relative skill difference doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the age and attitude differences. Sultzer is 27 and broke into the NHL in 2008-9, Kassian just turned 21, and Gragnani is 24. While Sultzer didn’t play a huge role for the Canucks, I’m curious as to how the Sedins, Salo, Bieksa and the other older players are going to deal with being told, implicitly or explicitly, that they need to take their emotional cues from guys that young who have never even seen a conference final in Gragnani’s case or a single NHL playoff game in Kassian’s.

Even more you have to wonder if, should the team make it that far, if Kassian will have enough skill to be impacting on the ice or if he’ll just be setting things up for other players to take lumps for him. We saw last year in their series against the Bruins and in the earlier rounds that the bulk of this roster is not able to play ferociously and focused at the same time. I’m not sure Bitz and Kassian can impart that trick to the rest of the roster and shaking up a teams identity is rarely a good thing unless it is changed entirely from the top down.

The Winnipeg Jets didn’t do much. This is probably for the best given some of the prices we saw and that were reported. They did pick up defensemen Grant Clitsome (@GClitsome) off waivers and then shipped out Johnny Oduya to Chicago for two draft picks. They are still a bubble team and entered Monday’s play in 8th place, but given how desperate Claude Noel was for offensive help, its curious that there wasn’t even a token trade. A team that’s been as erratic as this one has could have used the vote of confidence implied by bringing in a little help, as it is they essentially stood still. This might rally the dressing room or deflate it.

The Boston Bruins gambled and gambled big. Their biggest question marks are offensive production and forward depth. Adding Greg Zanon, Brian Rolston and Mike Mottau does little to address that. With Rich Peverley out with a knee injury, Nathan Horton not even skating yet with his second concussion in a year, and now Boychuk out they added no one who has displayed an offensive gift of late. Mike Mattau hasn’t scored a regular season NHL goal since March 13th 2010. Since breaking into the NHL Greg Zanon has never had more than four goals in his seven seasons of NHL play. Brian Rolston is not the player some Bruins fans remember, not only has his shooting percentage dropped every year since 2004, he only hasn’t broken 40 points since the 07-08.

Tampa Bay Lightning had an interesting two or three weeks heading up to the deadline.  Steve Downie was packed off, as was Dominic Moore, Aulie, Lee, a second round pick and a 1st round pick were the major fruits of the trades. Neither Aulie nor Lee have managed to be impacting players to date in their careers. The two picks are from teams who will almost certainly be in the playoffs meaning they first can’t be any higher than 17th and the 2nd will at best be 47th. Given the deficiencies of the defense and goaltending this season that seems an odd way to address them even if you lay the blame at the feet of injuries to key players and father time catching up with Roloson.

The Minnesota Wild rolled the dice by trying to add by substitution. Bringing in Steve Kampfer for Greg Zanon is a clear attempt to get younger and better offensively. Erik Christensen coming over from the New York Rangers earlier in the year was also a clear attempt to add offense. Gilbert for Shultz was again a swap up in offense. The problem with all of these trades is that the total goal difference is probably on the order of 7-8 goals a year. That is unlikely to be what separates a tenth place finish from a sixth or third place finish. If they had ten more goals to date this season it would move them from 29th in goals for to 27th, hardly inspiring. These may prove to be helpful moves, but you have to wonder how long even “The State of Hockey” will put up with a mediocre team that can’t score and doesn’t often stand up for itself.

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

Players:

  • that Evgani Malkin would lead the league in points while playing 7 games less than Stamkos who was second, and 8 less than Henrik Sedin
  • Patrice Bergeron would be out producing Joe Thornton, and neither would be an All Star
  • Ilya Kovalchuk would average 9 seconds less time on ice per game than Zdeno Chara and Drew Doughty
  • Michael Del Zotto who spent half of last season in the AHL would have more PPTOI than Sidney Crosby’s total ice time
  • Ryan Miller, Ilya Bryzgalov, Dwayne Roloson and Martin Broduer would all be 40th or lower on the save percentage leader board
  • Scott Hartnell who’s previous high for powerplay goals is 10 would be second in the NHL in them with 11 through 46 games
  • rookie Adam Henrique would lead the NHL in shorthanded goals
  • Brandon Sutter would have more shorthanded goals than Patrick Kane has powerplay goals

Teams/League:

  • The Northwest Division would have four teams with negative goal differentials but the division leader would be sixth in points
  • Chicago and Los Angeles would be the last two teams not to allow an empty net goal
  • Ottawa and Chicago would both be among the five most scored against five on five and both would be within two points of their division lead
  • three division leaders; The Rangers, the Panthers, the Red Wings would not lead their division in goals for
  • despite the leagues best efforts at parity, the 12 teams with an even or positive goal differential (301) would have a cumulative goal differential essentially equal to the 18 team with a negative differential (302) .
  • despite all the jabbering about one conferences being stronger than the other, in goal differential they would have an equal split
  • only the Edmonton Oilers would have a losing record when leading after one period
  • the secret to beating the Toronto Maple Leafs would be letting them outshoot you: their winning percentage is  .350
  • the “dirty” Boston Bruins would have the exact same number of misconducts as the “clean” Vancouver Canucks

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

The Vancouver Canucks owned the regular season almost from the drop of the first puck. They claimed the Presidents Trophy by a cool ten points, entered the playoffs with home ice advantage all the way, and had good health in their key forwards and goaltenders. Partly this was deceptive. They played in the only division with just one team to make the playoffs, and with two of the bottom five defenses. That said the final battles of the 100 games war that is the road to the Stanley Cup was lost not on the basis of skill, but on will.

 

High Card:

Sedins. For the purposes of their play they are two halves of the same equation. While Henrik Sedin or “Thing -11” has proven an ability to play without his other-sib, Daniel hasn’t and that is the fundamental difference. The last two seasons have seen them atop the scoring race. It is likely they will both be in the top five again. In theory they may even learn to play some form of defense.

Wild Card:

Given the performance of the team in the playoffs, particularly in the finals, no one should have more questions about the team on the ice than Roberto Luongo. He put up two shutouts in the finals, won three home games, had better numbers in both save percentage and goals against average than either Marc-Andre Fleury or Antti Niemi when they were the Cup winning goalie. Can Roberto Luongo still trust the coach to manage this team? Can he trust the players in front of him to show up when it counts? On the other hand he had (with lots of help) some pretty spectacular meltdowns along the way that kept his team from ever getting into some games. Worse, Tim Thomas didn’t pump his tires.

There are multiple reports that as of yet unsigned Restricted Free Agent Steven Stamkos is set to be offered a cap maximum  decade or more deal. This would make him the highest paid player in the NHL. It would also leave him a UFA at age 31 to 33. Meaning he’d still be young enough to court another major deal, assuming he was still healthy, and still perceived as a top player. The Lightning are expected to match this deal, assuming they don’t have him signed to one of their own before then.

The question is why? Yes Stamkos is a top twenty forward, but he’s hardly the best in the game. I don’t see him as even likely to become the best in the game. If you look at this years playoff run, in three series against the heavily depleted Penguins, a sweep of the Capitals and the eventual Stanley Cup winning Bruins he was + player only once. He was a minus player six times. By comparison, Teddy Purcel who outscored him was a + player seven times and a minus player just four times. Simon Gagne’s split was five plus, and four minus games in three less games. Out west, Patric Marleau who played the same number of games, and ended with the same number of points was split 4+ and 5- games, while playing injured. Joe Thornton, put a similar 4/6 split while also playing injured he gathered four more points and was one point short of point per game production.

By any standard except Cup wins, Joe Thornton is one of the ten best forwards the NHL has produced in the last twenty years. To me, if you can’t produce at the same or better level, you don’t deserve a huge deal. This doesn’t count the futility that is having him take faceoffs. Nor does it count the notably unpretty takeaway to give away performance that’s noticeably worse than known defensive lightweights Henrik and Daniel Sedin (aka Thing -9 and Thing -11). Unlike say Corey Perry, Eric Staal, Pavel Datsyuk, Marian Hossa or even Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand he can’t be relied upon to play or produce points short handed.

Even as a pure public relations move designed to put rear-ends in seats and cash in the concession stands registers a league max or even very high end deal isn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever heard.