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 .

This may be the best first round matchup for hockey. The Kings have won a cup recently, as have have the Ducks. The Sharks spent half a decade as the favorites to win it and still haven’t. A first round meeting of two California teams where the winner will quite likely play the third California team is likely to catapult the youth hockey enrollment numbers. And yes, seeing guys like Carter and Richards go toe to toe with Thornton and Pavelski will be more than a bit fun to watch too.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks a very interesting mix of household names and guys no ones ever heard of. They have arguably the deepest six defensemen in the NHL, without having a guy currently at an elite level back there. Thornton and Marleau will get most of the media attention, but Vlasic, Pavelski, and Couture have worn out some boots this season getting them here.

Best Players

While Joe Thornton is still the best pure passer in the NHL, he’s not getting any younger, Joe Pavelski is a different case. They younger Joe is clearly at, or possibly just reaching the height of his powers, and Marleau just keeps trucking along.

X-Factor

Do they want it? This team has not ever reached its potential. Some years they went into the playoffs very damaged, others they got hurt early, and some years they just showed up and expected to win. This year they need to go attack the ice like it is their last chance at glory and their only hope at salvation, because it just well may be.

Los Angeles Kings

Same story, different year. The Kings enter the playoffs this year with bottom tier scoring and top end defense. The backup goalie could be a starter on many teams, and the late season trade piece (in this case Gaborik) are expected to scare up offense for the whole team. If you’re looking at recent history, that was what happened their Cup year. Can it happen now? Who knows?

Best players:

Jonathan Quick is having a solid, if not spectacular year, Drew Doughty is still improving in his own zone, and Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are the only two players who managed to break 20 goals this season. For the team to make a deep run, they are going to need help from all over the roster.

X-Factor

Goaltending. If Quick can regain his cup winning form, or Martin Jones goes in and makes people look as foolish as he did in the regular season, the Kings will likely be playing in May. They will still need to score goals however and that has been a problem in LA for at least half a decade.

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

 

Players:

  • that Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury would not only have more starts than Craig Anderson but better stats too.
  • that Tim Thomas would have more games played than Tomas Vokoun, Cam Ward and Anton Kudobin combined.
  • Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild would have more goals and points than Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks or any member of the New York Rangers
  • that Jeff Carter’s mystery foot injury of a couple seasons back might not have been a product of not wanting to play or live in Columbus but be part of some other long term health issue.
  • of the four players tied for the lead league in short handed goals at two, Bryan Little, Brandon Dubinsky, Brad Richardson, and Dwight King only King would be on a team currently in a playoff spot.
  • of the 734 skaters to take the ice since the beginning of the season the only player with more than one overtime goal would be Florida Panthers discard and Vancouver Canucks bargain pickup Mike Santorelli.
  • 22 games into the season none of the 14 game winning goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins would have come from Sidney Crosby, while Chuck Kobasew would own two.
  • Josh Harding could be labeled the front runner for both the Vezina and the starting job on the Canadian Olympic team.

Teams:

  • the Detroit Red Wings would have more overtime losses than any other team in the NHL.
  • through the first quarter of the season the Phoenix Coyotes would be fourth in goals per game at 3.29.
  • the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks, and Toronto Maple Leafs would be the only teams even or with a winning record when trailing after one period.
  • with 23 games in the books the Buffalo Sabres would not have led at the end of the first period even once.
  • of the four teams with a winning record when trailing first, three would be in the same division the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Los Angeles Kings, while the Toronto Maple Leafs were the only team from outside the Pacific to do so.
  • the Colorado Avalanche would be undefeated when scoring first.
  • the Anaheim Ducks who are being outspent by 18 teams would lead the league in points.
  • the Buffalo Sabres were projecting for less wins in this 82 game season than in last years lockout shortened one. (18 vs 21)

We’re a week into the new NHL season. Teams have played between two and four games, and several possibly sustainable surprises have come out of the first seven days.

 

Anaheim Ducks: Secondary scoring may actually be a factor this year, the top two in points through three games were added since last year, Mathieu Perreault and Jakob Silferberg.

Boston Bruins: We know that this should be Jordan Caron’s last opportunity to carve out a roster spot in the top 9 of the team. What we don’t know is if he can.

Buffalo Sabres: We know that with four games played, and just one point in the bank, Ron Rolston and company are going to have to eventually get around to supporting their goaltenders who have done everything they could (Ryan Miller .963Sv% and Jhonas Enroth .912sv%).

Calgary Flames: While being tied for the points lead in your division is great, 18 year old rookie centers statistically don’t maintain a 1.2 ppg pace all season very often, and that’s what Sean Monahan is doing. Monahan is tied with Jiri Hudler for the teams points lead.

Carolina Hurricanes: What do we know about Jordan Staal, Alex Semin, and Ron Hainsey? Other than taking up 1/4th of the Canes cap space they are exactly 3 points behind Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner who lead the team in points.

Chicago Blackhawks: The champs enter the second week of the season with an odd vulnerability to Alex Steen and one of just two teams with a 1-1-1 record sitting in fourth place in their division.

Colorado Avalanche: 3-0-0? Great start for the Avalanche, but the team is averaging over 30 shots against per game, and Varlamov’s .963 sv% is more than just fighting out of his weight class.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Six goals through their first pair of games and twelve players have been involved in the scoring.

Dallas Stars: We know that with the possible exceptions of an over indulgent aunt of their no one picked Alex Chaisson and Brenden Dillon to lead the team in scoring through two games, certainly not management.

Detroit Red Wings: The Wings have points from ten different skaters through three games, and are winning 55.6% of their faceoffs.

Edmonton Oilers: The good news is that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made it into a game, and that David Perron has contributed three points. The bad news is a 1-2-0 record that has them in the Pacific basement.

Florida Panthers: We know distinguishing yourself by playing the worst defense on this team will take a monumental effort of will.

Los Angeles Kings:  We know that Jeff Carter’s 36% of the teams goals is not a good sign for an offense that should be better than this.

Minnesota Wild: At 0-1-2 they are one of just three teams not to have a win yet. On the plus side Zach Parise has three goals.

Montreal Canadiens: Anyone who picked Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk to lead the team in scoring, and be in or tied for a top ten spot in the NHL scoring race, raise your hand.

Nashville Predators: We know this team needs more from fifth year forward Colin Wilson and third year man Craig Smith if they are going to be playing in the third week of April.

New Jersey Devils: While this team is far more balanced than last years both financially and on the ice, they are 0-1-3 through four games.  We also know this team needs to get younger real soon, of the six players with two points or more only soon to be 28 year old Damien Brunner is under 30.

New York Islanders: We know after a decade in the dumpster, the vertigo that goes along with finding themselves in 2nd entering the 2nd week of the season will leave some fans a bit giddy. Michael Grabner and his two point game per pace are a bit noteworthy as well.

New York Rangers: There are three bright spots to this season so far: Brad Richards is scoring, Marc Staal is playing, and Derek Stepan is signed and on the ice. Everything else from Henrik Lundqvist’s .897 sv% to 6th place in the Metropolitan division are ungood.

Ottawa Senators: If the playoffs were to start today, the Pesky Sens would own one of the two wildcard spots in the east, despite only winning one of their three games. At some point they will have to improve in one or both ends.

Philadelphia Flyers: When the Flyers signed former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Lecavalier, they appear to have signed his old teams basement lease as well.  Through four games they have just 2 points and are being outscored two to one.

Phoenix Coyotes: Just about nothing is going right for the team right now, their defense and penalty kill are both well below last years pace.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury has a career sv% of .910, so we’re all sure he can maintain his current .963 through and beyond this year, aren’t we? He should probably buy a $1000 savings bond for a defenseman’s kid every game he allows less than three goals.

San Jose Sharks:  So, Tomas Hertl. Launched 1000 puns, and leads the NHL in goals and points. He might manage to hold a place in the NHL for a bit.

Saint Louis Blues: Not a sad note in town as the David Backes, Vlad Sobotka, Alex Pietrangelo, and company open the season 3-0-0.

Tampa Bay Lightning: While its only October, and the first week is just wrapping up, they currently hold the first eastern wild card spot. That fact becomes truly amazing when you realize that through three games Stamkos and St Louis only have one goal between them.

Toronto Maple Leafs: This team might have a perfect record through four games if they hadn’t dumped Grabovski who is tied for 3rd in the NHL in scoring.

Vancouver Canucks: What is with Bobby Lou? He looked back to Olympic form in the preseason, and  since then its been mostly fizzle. At least the Sedins are producing again, its pure coincidence that this is their contract year.

Washington Capitals: The defense and goaltending have evaporated on this team since spring. Ovechkin appears to be back to world beating form.

Winnipeg Jets: Tobias Entrom and Dustin Byfuglien have four assists each through three games, the team is 2-1-0 and on the sunny side of the goal differential for a change. Evander Kane is on a point per game pace, lots to cheer about.

The Los Angeles Kings were cheated of much of their time in the limelight by the dragging, soul sucking lockout. They made their return to the ice with a strong regular season. Finishing seventh overall in the NHL, in a very top heavy western conference. To the surprise of no one Anze Kopitar again led the team in scoring. Jeff Carter racking up 26 goals in 48 games was eye opening and clearly signals good things to come. Dustin Brown played his usual game popping in 18 goals and dishing out 156 hits. Slava Voynov garnered further attention leading the blueline in scoring, and Drew Doughty erased the last of the viable criticisms of his defensive game.

The post season saw them and the Saint Louis Blues batter each other to bloody and bruised ruin for six games. When the first round ended it was time for a dance with the San Jose Sharks. This back and forth series sent the rivalry to a new level, and went seven games. In the western conference finals they faced the retooled Chicago Blackhawks, and were dethroned in double overtime. Very little has changed for the Kings. Jonathan Bernier was traded away while Dustin Penner and Rob Scuderi were lost to free agency.

The first five games for the Los Angeles Kings don’t contain any juggernauts, there aren’t even any trap games. They’ll open up in Minnesota against the Wild, then fly north to face the Jets. The next two games are at home against the Rangers and Senators, and they finish the opening five with a trip to Raleigh to square off with the Carolina Hurricanes. No back to back games anywhere in the opening set, and only one team with a fair chance of winning their division this year.

Number of days 1-5:

Number of cities:

Best opponent: Minnesota Wild

Weakest Opponent: Carolina Hurricanes

Home games: 2

Projected points: 7

The Kings don’t have a particularly difficult October schedule. If they can integrate the new additions quickly, they have a better than even chance of leading the division when the month is over. Tyler Toffoli had his baptism by fire late last season and in the playoffs, but with Simon Gagne gone, and Dustin Penner elsewhere as well, he Matt Frattin, and anyone else who can earn a roster spot in camp will have an open door to making themselves a fixture of the game time roster.

Getting out of the first round of the playoffs in any sport require some skill, some grit and not just being better at being average than a few other teams. The difference between the winners and losers in the second round are a lot easier to identify than the what separates ninth and tenth place teams from seventh and eight.

The Los Angeles Kings finished the regular season half a dozen points out of the division title, and without home ice advantage. In doing so the defending Stanley Cup champions had a three position improvement year over year. Most notable among the other improvements was finishing the season as a top ten NHL offense, in their Cup winning season despite a late surge coinciding nicely with the rumors of Dustin Brown’s trade availability and the acquisition of former Philadelphia Flyer and then Columbus Blue Jacket Jeff Carter they had finished 29th.

In the first round of the playoffs the Kings played a bruising round against the Saint Louis Blues and got through a pretty even series in six games. Then they met the Blackhawks. Their home dominance disappeared, and there was just one major factor in all four losses; speed.

The lack of speed overall on the Kings is usually compensated for by great coaching and players who stick to a system every bit as structured as Claude Julien’s recipe for Bruins success. While the Kings were mostly in the right place all series long, they were getting there steps behind the Blackhawks who have speed to burn.

Overall, the Kings may be the slowest skating team to make the playoffs. Of all the top six forwards and top pairing defensemen only Doughty and Carter are above average in speed. The bottom six forwards and lower pairing defensemen don’t offer much more speed. The simple fact is you can’t play the puck if you can’t get to it, and you can’t defend against someone who beats you to the net.

Be it through trades, the draft, promotion from their AHL affiliate the Manchester Monarch’s or signing key free agents, if the Kings want their crown back while there core is still together and highly effective, they need to add speed. As we’re seeing in the Stanley Cup Finals, even the Chicago Blackhawks are vulnerable to fast moving forward lines. Unless they can field at least one line where all three forwards are above average speed, they are going to have trouble getting any further into the playoffs than they did this year, even with the excellent play of the roster.

Click for parts one and two

#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 Edmonton Oilers have just inked Taylor Hall to a new contract. Despite the ownership demand in CBA negotiations, that contracts not exceed five years, Taylor Hall got seven. He also got six million a year. At six million, he’ll be making more than Selke Winner Patrice Bergeron, former scoring champ Martin St Louis, four time 30 goal man Phil Kessel, Calder winner Jeff Skinner, more than Ryan Kesler who is another Selke winner, and more than a few other names you might just recognize: Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Dustin Brown, all of whom have their names on the Stanley Cup.

Aside from being first overall pick, what has Taylor Hall done? Yeah, I can’t think of anything either. Yes, he’s played in two NHL seasons producing forty-nine goals which isn’t anything to sneeze at. However, on a team that isn’t that deep andhas to rely on its forwards producing oodles of goals to have a chance to win he’s also gotten a lot more ice time than other players his age. More importantly, he’s only managed to be on the ice for three quarters of each season. In two seasons he’s missed time for shoulder and ankle injuries and a concussion. That’s Simon Gagne or Martin Havlat level fragility.

What are the Oilers suits thinking? If they’ve signed him that long for that much, what is Jordan Eberle going to command? Eberle is hands down the most game impacting young forward they have, based on the last two seasons the race isn’t even close. Eberle produced more points in less time on ice while playing the penalty kill two seasons ago in a close race, and last year was a walk off winner of the points chase. Based on production and good sense, Eberle who smacked aside the thirty goal mark in his second season should be worth at least another million a year.

Except this is the Edmonton Oilers we are talking about, good sense is not only not required it will likely be used against you. This team has a drafted, developed and retained one defenseman worth naming in the last decade and a quarter; Theo Peckham. That’s it, he’s the best they’ve done since Taylor Hall was 8 years old. They let Matt Greene of the Kings escape, and therein lies the total of their claims to drafting and developing the players you need most in the current NHL. Out of more than thirty tries, they’ve produced two viable NHL defensemen.

If the Oilers compensate Eberle around what Hall has gotten, they will still need to find a way to retain Gagner, Nugent-Hopkins, a viable defense, and of course figure out what to do with Yakupov, Schultz, Paajarvi, and others in the not to distant future. Anyone predicting the Oilers will either have to sacrifice talent to get people under the cap, or spend years icing a very unbalanced team is clearly more qualified to run a hockey team than anyone of the current Edmonton suits.

 

Shocking as it is to hear after last years success with only one American based team in the Stanley Cup finals, this years ratings are lower than last years. There is a reason for this. Just one reason. The solution, is not so easy because it would require a long term change to the way the NHL does business.

The cause of the ratings faltering this year isn’t the style of hockey, it isn’t even that the two teams are expansion teams no one knows about. The ratings have slipped because the National Hockey League can’t market at the same level as a fifth rate used car salesman in some backwater where he’s the only game in town. When your advertisements contain egregious factual errors and you continue to air them (much to the disgust of your hard core fans) you just can’t be taken seriously as an organization.

When you only market two or at most three players across a thirty team league, you can’t expect the bandwagon to fill up when no one knows who any of the players are except those guys and their teammates. Both of these teams have more than enough talent, personality and human interest angles to fill a 24 hour infomercial network. But what does the casual fan from outside those two markets know about them? Almost nothing.

The “redemption” angle on Mike Richards and Jeff Carter alone should be a license to print money. They were the keystones of a Stanley Cup run for the Flyers not long ago, both were jettisoned just last summer, and here they are again right at the cusp of greatness. Dustin Brown is while far younger built very much in the mode of Gordie Howe. He does everything for his team, conducts himself in a flawless manner off the ice and is likely to spend the next ten years running opponents over. Even Dustin Penner is great marketing material, he’s one of the most engaging personalities in the entire NHL, and does it with the sort of humble bearing that can be appreciated by all ages.

On the other coast you’ve got the sensational story of Adam Henrique who could capture the Calder trophy and the Stanley Cup. He’s personable, he’s versatile, and like Jonathan Toews, Ryan Kesler or Patrice Bergeron he contributes on every inch of the ice. Ilya Kovalchuk signed one the longest and most controversial contracts in North America. Love it or hate it he’s going to be with the Devils for years to come. It’s time to make hay. The litany of ways to market this guy is as long as his goals scored video and is being fleshed out by his gutsy one legged performence of the last few weeks.

But the time to start marketing players isn’t when the chips are down in late May and early June. It needs to happen in July, and September, and November, like the players taking care of their bodies, and the teams taking care of their rosters for the present and future it has to be a year round commitment. Zach Parise is a pending UFA. Dangling the “where will he play next season?” carrot over the league and its fans is a sure fire way to get him, his current team, and if he moves on from New Jersey his new team more attention.

If anyone has to explain how to market players like Drew Doughty who has been compared to Bourque and Lidstrom and Leetch since before he laced up the skates in the NHL for the first time, my advice to them is: McDonald’s is hiring. If the marketing department can’t come up with ways to draw attention to Brodeur: Walmart needs greeters.

The NHL has no one to blame but itself if they are disappointed in the ratings. The marketing is bad enough, but when the veteran broadcasters start tossing random letters into the names of players and do it four games running in the Stanley Cup Final, that’s just unacceptable and off putting to the full gamut of fans.

It’s certainly too late to save this years numbers. But to borrow the tag line from another popular enterprise Winter is coming, one should prepare now.