Goalie may be the most important position in all of sports. In hockey they are not only the last line of defense, playing more minutes a year than any skater, they are often the spark plug for offensive breakouts. Some teams have impressive goaltenders who not have played well in the past, but have done so in their system.

Philadelphia Flyers

The last half dozen years have served as a great example of why this team needs solid goaltenders who can play that way in their system. Ilya Bryzgalov was great in Phoenix. In Philadelphia he was bought out two years into a forever contract. When they squared off with the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals a few years back they used three different goalies in one post season. It isn’t hard to make the case that a goalie better than Michael Leighton, Brian Boucher or Johan Backlund might have had them hoisting the Cup and not Chicago. This year we will see if their cursed crease can bring down the resurgent Ray Emery, and Columbus Blue Jackets discard Steve Mason. I doubt either goaltender gets taken in first five rounds of any fantasy hockey draft.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The serial meltdowns of Marc-Andre Fleury are too much for all but the willfully blind to ignore. If once is chance, twice is coincidence, and three times is a certainty, four consecutive playoff flame-outs should be enough for anyone. In the last four seasons his save percentages are .891 following the Stanley Cup win, .899, .834, and most recent .883. Those numbers won’t keep you employed in the regular season. Last year Fleury forfeited the crease to the 36 year old Vokoun who’s first playoff appearance came the year Fleury was drafted, turned in a Sv% of .933 behind the exact same defense, Vokoun is now out recovering from a blood clot.

Calgary Flames

When most of your fans can’t name your goaltenders you’ve either found the new sexy netminder or you found someone willing to get peppered for a pay check. Joey MacDonald is career backup who since entering the NHL in the 2006-7 season has only played in 122 games. Forty-nine of them were in 2008-9 for the New York Islanders. He has a career save % of .903. The likely starter broke into the NHL the same season. He then spent three seasons on the shuttle between the AHL and NHL before fleeing to Europe. While in the KHL Karri Romo never topped 45 games. In the KHL playoffs, all but one post season his Sv% dropped from the regular season. To make it worse, Romo and MacDonald are playing behind a defense that just isn’t good. You could as accurately name the player best in their own end with stats as by picking a name from a hat.

Florida Panthers

New owners, old owners the story has been the same in Sunrise for years: not much quality. If the aim is to improve, at minimum a quality, healthy backup for Jacob Markstrom is needed. Last year Markstrom split 56 games between the AHL and NHL, and tacked on three more world cup games for good measure. The other goalie under NHL contract is Scott Clemmensen the less said about his play last season the better. They’ve brought in Tim Thomas on a professional tryout, but however good he has played in the past hasn’t been signed, and hasn’t played in a year.

Some o these teams are doomed from the start, for others their weakness won’t be exposed until the post season, all of these teams have some form of crease crisis.

Inglorious is the most fitting word to describe the Florida Panthers of the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. In a normal season finishing 59 goals less than your opponent would be bad, in just 48 games in exposes the weaknesses of the team. They were tied for last in goals for. They owned the worst penalty kill in the league. They allowed the most goals. As winning recipes go, that one goes to the bottom of the stack. Almost worse than the season for the club as whole was managing to lose the draft lottery to the Avalanche. Then too there was the injury bug, Scottie Upshall, Stephen Weiss, Kris Verseteeg, and Erik Gudbranson are just the biggest names on the list.

For all the bad things that happened, their were bright spots. Jonathan Huberdeau reset the team record for most points as a teenager and finished second  on the Panthers in scoring and picked up the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie. Tomas Fleischmann turned in a strong season with 35 points in 48 games.  Perhaps surprisingly the Sultans of Sunrise had the 6th best powerplay in the NHL. Clearly there are building blocks, here. How well team develops Aleksander Barkov, Quentin Howard, Nick Bjugstad and other youngsters like Jacob Markstrom will either set the table for a return to the playoffs in the not too distant future or result in more of the same.

The first five games are a mixed bag. There’s a team with exceptional defense in the Saint Louis Blues, two teams with high end offensive stars in their cross state rivals the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Filling out the rest of the early season are the Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars.

Number of days 1-5: 8

Number of cities:  5

Best opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins

Weakest opponent: Tampa Bay Lightning

Home games: 1

Projected points: 3

If the team beats my projection for the opening five game, they will be set for a better finish than most are willing to project for them. They have a steep hill to climb to make it to the playoffs, but with better health, and some development out of the youth, they are unlikely to finish as poorly as last year and likely climb into range of the bubble (7-12) versus being 13-16 in the east this year. With almost 12 million in cap space to start the year, the team will at least on paper be able to make moves during the season to add talent in key positions. Dale Tallon is unlikely to get much rest this season as he evaluates the system.

Some of the biggest cities are really tight to the cap, the Bruins, Flyers, and Lightning could all use a touch more cap space to deal with. Both the Bruins and Flyers are likely to lose pieces to free agency. The Canadiens are in danger of losing Ryder and Armstrong. Boston is supposedly getting attention on Seguin, and the Lecavalier to Montreal rumors won’t die until he’s retired or the Canadiens move, unless of course he does sign there.

What We Know

(By New Divisions)

Division C

Boston: After a run to the finals with lots of injuries, and some key contracts that are due, the Bruins could be in for a bigger offseason makeover than expected. With Horton headed to free agency, questions about Seguin and a previous lack of depth at that position, the right wing position is an area of need.

Buffalo: Miller rumors persist, as do rumors of trading nearly everyone. With the eighth and sixteenth picks overall, the Sabres should be able to get at least one more building block that enters the lineup and contributes within two seasons. It is an open question if that time frame is enough to keep Regier in the general managers office.

Detroit: Moving back into the eastern conference might be an advantage in start times and travel for the Red Wings, but they are no better than the third best team in their new division. They are fortunate enough to have a solid goalie, and two stars at forward, not much else is worth noting about the team with the longest active playoff streak.

Florida: The Panthers have just about declared the starting job for Markstrom by putting Scott Clemmenson on the market. Taking home a 2nd round draft pick or solid NHL player for that trade would be great. With the 2nd pick they ought to be able to solidify one position on their team. Tallon has shown he isn’t afraid to spend on free agent so don’t be surprised by surprises in Sunrise.

Montreal: Having returned to the playoffs last year after an embarrassing hiatus they need to take a long hard look at who they expect to be the core of the team going forward. There are some clashes between players that are visible on TV, they may or may not be short-lived events. But, building around a hollow center isn’t the best of ideas. It may feel wrong to do it, but making a move to ship out a good soldier or two for more cap space, less conflict and younger picks or prospects might be the best thing to do. The Norris trophy winner also has just one year left on his contract.

Ottawa: The first two questions the Senators leadership should be asking about any player they want to sign or draft are: can they stay healthy, and are we sure about that? From there fitting them into the roster or the farm system is the next step. With a bit more health the Senators might just have knocked off the Penguins. Adding a veteran playoff competitor like Briere, or Horton might push this team to the next level.

Tampa Bay: With the expiration of the Southeast division, the Lightning find themselves more in need than ever of improving a threadbare defense. In the last three seasons they’ve finished 28th, 30th, and 21st. They’ll be drafting in the lottery forever at that rate. Swapping for defense with a team deep at the position like St Louis or adding veteran Andrew Ference would be a step in the right direction.

Toronto: They made one of the more interesting moves of the offseason by picking up Bernier. Some say there was no need and Reimer was good enough, neither Nonis nor I agree. They have a clutch of offensively gifted defenseman, a lot of roster space, and decisions to be made on Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and most the defense they iced last year. They are in a position of great flexibility but also a lot of vulnerability. The next two weeks will likely tell us how long it will be before the Maple Leafs next playoff appearance.

Division D

Carolina: With the Staal brother, Semin, Skinner, and Tlusty offense won’t be an issue for this team so long as Faulk and his henchmen can get the puck out of their own zone and away from the triage unit that served as goalies last season. Improving the defense could come at the cost of Ruutu or several draft picks. For the first time in recent memory the Hurricanes don’t have a huge amount of cap space either. With the new divisions configuration, they need to act and act smart.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets came within 2 points of getting into the playoffs last year. The most important thing they can do is to sign their goaltender Bobrovsky, after that getting some scoring and puck distributing touch up front will make them a much better team. With three first round picks 14, 19, and 27 as well as their own 44th pick, via trade or draft this should be a productive weekend for ‘Lumbus. If Lecavalier could be landed at a reasonable cap hit together with Dubinsky the team team could have a very strong 1-2 punch at center.

New Jersey: The Devils are rumored to have two suitors interested in buying the “financially stable” team. Its unknown what impact that will have on team activity over the next week to ten days, but the team has enough holes almost anything is a good move. A slick passing center to maximize Kovalchuk’s shot, an aggressive defender or two to keep Broduer from having to work to hard, a future goaltender so the team doesn’t experience its own Flyers like run of disasters in net going for stop gap after stop gap. It might just be a good idea to resign Henrique and Clarkson before to long too.

New York Islanders: The  Islanders really should reup with Hamonic, and if at all possible swing a deal for another blueliner with playoff experience. It also might not hurt to have an NHL worthy goaltender under contract. It is likely the empty forward roster spots will be filled with the return of some combination of Boyes, Bailey, Aucoin and prospects.  Hickey was a solid find too, his contract is up as well.

New York Rangers: A new coach is coming, and no one knows what he’ll bring to the roster. It is hoped he can perform some necromancy on the powerplay and get it to shamble along. Brad Richards is being given one more chance after playing less minutes and posting less points against the Bruins than their enforcer Shawn Thornton. Former coach John Torterella said the team wasn’t “stiff” enough. With most key position filled, the Rangers can afford to be picky with free agents, but might want to get a head start on locking up core players. Only one defenseman is signed beyond next season,  neither goalie is, and there are just three forwards who are.

Philadelphia: The bloodletting began with the Bryzgalov and Briere being bought out. It is unlikely to end any time soon as this team is a disaster cap wise and not much better on the ice. To make matters worse Coburn is one of the names most active on the rumor mill and their defense is not pretty even with him.

Pittsburgh: Kris Letang has the gratitude of Penguins scribes for giving them something to write about. He’s rejected long term huge money deals. I’ll be shocked if he’s a Penguin on opening night and even more shocked if he’s still there after the trade deadline. The Penguins still need to come to terms with the issues with Fleury, and there is something wrong with the mental makeup of this team when the playoffs arrive. They’ve lost composure and the ability to play at both ends of the ice in the same game over the last three post seasons. Maybe they should reacquire Gill and Scuderi?

Washington:  Oates had done solid work rehabilitating this team, but he can only work with what he’s given. A big roster shakeup is overdue for this team. Regardless of what they say to the media, there is too big a gap between their regular season scoring and their post season scoring for this team to believe in itself. Without that swagger you just can’t win in May or June.

With the deadline looming, and about a bakers dozen games left for many team, it is time to take a look at what we know about all the teams in the NHL.

Pittsburgh: We know Ray Shero likes to make deadline trades, we know health is sorta returning for this team. We also know that with a current cumulative cap hit higher than next years cap, and Morrow’s decline and questionable health that this is likely a one shot deal for the guys currently in uniform.

Montreal:  It’s kinda hard to figure out why more people aren’t excited about his team. They are fifth in goals for, ninth in goals against, there only real bad component is their penalty kill. While we’re at it, Tomas Plekanec deserves way more attention than he gets, if he could drag the penalty kill into respectability, or even just score a shorthanded goal or two he’d be on my Selke shortlist.

Winnipeg; We know this team needs desperately to buy quality defense at the deadline. Adding offense wouldn’t hurt at all, but the backend needs to come first they are one of just two top eight teams in the east to allow triple digit goals already.

Boston: This team needs an attitude adjustment. They do not have the raw focus or hunger they did in their Cup winning year, what body they add isn’t the solution, the size of the fight in that dog is.

Ottawa; Clearly this is a team made up of undercover superheros, or at least the guys left on the ice. They might not go to far this year, but oh man this team has some good young talent and might even lead the conference if they were healthy. A cheap rental forward who can add to the scoring would be nice, but this team could easily produce an upset or two.

Toronto: The fact that no real changes have been made to this team since Brian Burke was fired, and it has just about locked up a playoff spot means he shouldn’t have too much trouble landing his next GM job, and probably trading for Kadri, Gardiner, and Grabovski or pennies on the dollar.

New Jersey: The Devils have spent all season proving last season wasn’t a fluke. How they’ve done this is anyones guess. They are winning right now even without Kovalchuk, It would not surprise me if they became sellers at the deadline, but in a very limited sense.

New York Rangers: We know this is either the Eastern Conference’s best bad team or worst good team.  We know time is running out on the current off ice leadership for this team. We know in order to get this level of under-performance elsewhere in sports you’d have to threaten professional cycling with accurate testing and jail time for violators. We know that if the Islanders and Devils make the playoffs and the Rangers don’t the angst in Blue Shirt nation will be legendary

New York Islanders: We know John Tavares should be getting way more attention than he does, he is after all over a point per game, second in goals, and seventh in points. If the Islanders make the playoffs, he has to be on the Hart shortlist. We know that Brad Boyes would be a frickin’ idiot to sign anywhere else next season given that he has more points in 34 games this season, than in 65 last year.

Carolina: With several games in hand their current 10th place position is deceiving, we know however they need to win those games. We know that Cam Ward isn’t nearly as irreplaceable as the faithful would have you believe. We know that Jeff Skinner (signed to a big endorsement deal by Dewey, Slewfoot and Diver) will probably not like the attention he receives night after night from top defenses.

Washington: We know that Adam Oates deserves a boatload of capital for turning the ship around on the fly without the benefit of a training camp, stable goaltending, or a team with any confidence in itself. He’s also got Ovechkin back to a point per game by using that weird thing called logic and letting him play more minutes. We also know that this team still isn’t built right and that problem still resides at a higher level than Oates.

Tampa Bay: We know that Yzerman is just as good at constructing a defense as he was at fighting.

We know he needs to fix that if he’s going to make it to his fourth year as general manager. He’s clearly good at identifying offensive talent, so swapping some of the current stable to rebuilding or needy teams for a veteran defenseman or two shouldn’t be completely impossible.

Buffalo: We know Terry Pegula can’t be pleased with the state of his hockey team. We know that with next years realignment no one with an ounce of hockey sense would pencil this team into next years standings about sixth place without major changes. We know if they blow up the team right they could have a pretty good chance at drafty both Seth Jones and Connor Mcdavid.

Philadelphia: We know the keep defenseman healthy the same way The Real World finds the mentally unbalanced to film every season. We know that no to long ago the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals, and have regressed further and further every year. WE know this is another team that’s due for some administrative housekeeping even if the health problems make things look worse than they are.

Florida: We know that last year despite an absurd amount of injuries the team went toe to toe with the eventual Eastern Conference champions. We know that this year, another absurd amount of injuries and dramatically poorer goaltending from the guys not named Markstrom have lead not to the Southeast division title but once again to the eastern conference basement. We know they have a couple more solid prospects in the pipeline. We know there is tons and tons for Dale Tallon and company to do.

With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins down checked with an injury, it’s time to look at some of the top rookies again. No doubt he’ll come back and be the only rookie the media and most blogs mention.

Eric Staal currently boasts a stat line of 9-16-25 -23 through 41 games played. The good news for him is that’s he’s just two goals and four assists short of matching his own rookie season. The bad news is well, everything else. Since December tenth he’s added two goals, four assists and dropped down another -5.

Goalies:

  • Richard Bachman has leaped onto the scene. When Lehtonen went out with an injury, and Raycroft simply fell down on the job the Dallas Stars called on Salt Lake City’s Bachman to stand and deliver. He’s now gotten into nine games with a 5-2-0 line, one shutout, .912sv% and 2.76 gaa.
  • Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres has struggled lately (as has the team) with his last win coming back on November 26th. Still his numbers are solid on the season with a .921sv% and 2.49 gaa in 16 starts. Likely the only rookie netminder who will cross twenty five games.
  • Jakob Markstrom of the Florida Panthers appears to play a bit better in the NHL than the AHL, and has been recalled. In six games in the big show so far he’s got a five starts and is 2-3-0. His .928sv% is tops among rookie goalies with five or more games and is better than either Theodore or Clemmensen for the Panthers, his 2.59 gaa is about one fifth of a goal better than his AHL number.

Forwards:

  • Adam Henrique of New Jersey Devils and Windsor Spitfires fame is behind only Nugent-Hopkins in rookie scoring and is tied for the lead in game winning goals for rookies with 3. Currently he’s playing 18:23 a night leading all rookie forwards in TOI/G.
  • Matt Read is one of the other guys tied for game winning goal leads. The Flyers prodigy is also the only rookie forward who has scored both a shorthanded goal and on the powerplay. Is one of just six rookie forwards playing more than two minutes shorthanded per game.
  • Craig Smith of the Nashville Predators leads all rookie forwards in powerplay goals and is third in scoring.
  • Gabriel Landeskog is the only rookie forward who has recorded more than 100 hits, he’s seventh for rookie scoring and second for average TOI/G with respectable numbers for both powerplay and penalty kill minutes.

Defensemen:

  • Rapheal Diaz of the Montreal Canadiens (Now In English!) is quietly putting together a very respectable season in chaos central. at 2-11-13 he’s tied for the scoring lead for rookie defensemen, just three points behind the scoring leader on the blueline in Montreal. The -2 he sports is in comparison to the teams -10 goal differential. His 72 blocked shots leads all rookie defensemen.
  • Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils has been one of the few constants of this NHL season. Huge minutes, very important to the team and leading rookie defenders in scoring.  He’s also tops in TOI and eats up over two minutes a night of powerplay time.
  • Jared Cowen is probably the most complete rookie defenseman. The Senators blueliner is 3rd in scoring, 2nd in total ice time, 2nd in hits (with more than twice as many as Larsson who is 3rd) is 1st in shorthanded time on ice by more than a little, and is behind only Spezza and Karlsson in TOI for the Senators.

Others to watch:

Defensemen: Slava Voynov, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Jake Gardiner

Forwards: Cody Hodgson, Luke Adam

Goalie: Matt Hackett, Mike Murphy, Leland Irving

 

 

Through 18 games the once sensational Eric Staal is still trying to get the engine to turn over. He’s a league worst -17, and his 4-4-8 line has people scratching their heads all over the hockey world.

Goalies:

  • Jacob Markstrom is back in the AHL playing for an offensively disabled team, while Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen  but don’t be surprised to see him back in Sunrise if the Panthers get an offer they can’t refuse for one of the two senior goalies.
  • Jhonas Enroth has the reigns in Buffalo after an unfortunate collision between the nominal number one goalie and an opposing forward. With a stellar .942 sv% and impressive 1.76 gaa, you have to wonder how many games he’ll get this season. If he’s in the #1 role long enough and still playing near this level it becomes a tough call to turn the job back over to a starter who hasn’t performed as well.
  • Thomas Greiss is 3-3-o in starts for the Sharks this season. Like Markstrom, he’s behind not one but two older goalies on the depth chart, and like Enroth he’s outplaying his teammates. his .919 sv% and 2.15 GAA are notable improvements over Niemi’s .903 and 2.74.
  • Ben Scrivens is the latest goalie of the future in Toronto. He’s been better than Gustavasson, with a .904 and 2.92 through five starts and six appearances.

Defensemen

  • Marc-Andre Gragnani leads all rookie defensemen in points, and sits at a +5 on the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Up on his second recall to the LA Kings this season is Slava Voynov, he’s playing over twenty minutes a game, has three points in his first five games, averaging just over 3 minutes a game in PPTOI means he’s likely to see a good number of points.
  • Jared Cohen is on pace for 208 hits and could hit triple digit blocked shots for the Senators, if he can find a few goals along the way the towering 2009 first round pick will make a name for himself.
  • The New Jersey Devil’s Adam Larsson is very quietly having himself a nice freshmen season. While the team has struggled he’s played a solid game with over 23 minutes of ice time each night, he’s second in hits for rookie blueliners, and sixth in scoring.

Forwards

  • Craig Smith is tied for the rookie scoring lead, on a point per minute basis he’s doing quite a bit more than Nugent-Hopkins getting a minute and a half less ice time per game.  Smith is also tied for the Predators scoring lead.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has slowed a bit off the season opening scoring bonanza but has still produced enough to stay at the front of the pack. His plus/minus is two higher than Smiths, and he’s second on the Oilers to that other Ryan forward in scoring.
  • Luke Adam is right behind Nugent-Hopkins and Smith with just one less point. He’s the rookie leader in assists and playing two minutes less per game than Nugent-Hopkins.

Names to watch:

Roman Horak is getting some important minutes on the Calgary Flames, not a lot of them yet, but with both short handed and powerplay time on the clock it’s obvious he’s got the trust of the bench boss. Gabriel Landeskog leads rookie forwards in time on ice, and with 45 hits and 12 blocked shots its obvious he’s not loafing in the neutral zone. Sean Couturier and Matt Read are making solid contributions to a stacked Flyers team. Nate Prosser is eating a lot of minutes for the Wild. Jonathan Blum of the Nashville Predators is on pace for 212 blocked shots, and has shown a scoring touch at lower levels.  Adam Henrique is quickly making himself a household name among Devils fans.

Last year after signing a still debated contract Ilya Kovalchuk got off to a poor start and was the bench mark for rookie performance. This year, I can think of no star more deserving than Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes. No one is sure if the tailspin his career is the result of guilt from potentially ending his own brothers career, or the extended confusion caused by not being able to find the other Erik who used to share the ice with him.

Forwards:

  • The Edmonton Oilers once again had the first overall pick in the draft, and he is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While some questioned his ability to make an immediate impact in the NHL, he  is currently leading tied for the lead in rookie scoring.
  • Ask 100 hockey fans who’s tied with RNH for the rookie scoring lead, and you might get a double handful who come up with Luke Adam center for the Buffalo Sabres. Nugent-Hopkins has the better +/-, Adam wins more faceoffs and has achieved his points in significantly less minutes.
  • Right behind them with one less point is Nashville’s second leading scorer Craig Smith. Given the NHL’s lack of a picture to identify him, one can only assume he is Amish, which makes his career choice amazing, and his success highly admirable. Of the top three scorers he is clearly the most physical, and is currently on pace for 82 hits.

Defensemen:

  • Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils leads all rookies in time on ice with a mind boggling average shift length of 59 seconds. The scoring hasn’t come yet, but with nearly 24 minutes of ice time a night it has to come eventually for last June’s #4 pick and 1st defenseman.
  • Jake Gardiner skated onto the scene in training camp for the Maple Leafs and earned himself a spot on the crowded Toronto blueline. So far the small, slick skating defenseman has five assists on the season, enough for him to lead all rookie defensemen in scoring.
  • The Sabres second entry in the race for rookie recognition is Marc-Andre Gragnani, second in rookie scoring and with the best +/- among all rookie defensemen.

Goaltenders:

  • Sneering at the trend towards ultra-large goaltenders is Buffalo Sabres backup goalie Jhonas Enroth, listed at 5′ 10 he’s still putting up big numbers. Through four games he’s got a 1.29 GAA and .958Sv%.
  • With four starts Jacob Markstrom of the Florida Panthers is already endearing himself to fans and teammates. Slightly larger than Enroth at six and a half feet tall, he leads all rookies in saves and is sporting a2.05 GAA and .944 Sv%
  • Fussen Germany and San Jose Sharks goalie Thomas Greiss is putting up solid numbers for the  perennial regular season favorites. His 1.99 GAA and .928 Sv% are not just solid, but better by a wide margin than starter Antti Niemi’s.

Eric Staal’s numbers heading into today’s action, his line is 3-2-5 -14 through 13 games. The -14 is particularly significant because the next nearest forward is only a -5. Staal is currently averaging 19:58 a game in TOI, Anthony Steward who gets just 7:48 a night also has 3 goals and is a +1.