This irregular feature will run when I get bored. It will ask one scintillating question about each NHL team.

 

Anaheim Ducks: Can this team take advantage of its abundance of youth to compliment its savvy and skilled veteran core?

Boston Bruins: Is there a single hockey observer anywhere who doesn’t think the team is dangling Matt Bartkowski for trade?

Buffalo Sabres: So ah, how about those Buffalo Bills?

Calgary Flames: Are you the one non Flames fan or executive who expected the team to start the season 2-0?

Carolina Hurricanes: Isn’t it great that the Canes put in a great effort for their goaltender Cam Ward opening night and only allowed 38 shots on goal?

Chicago Blackhawks: If the media doesn’t have Patrick Kane’s off ice antics to talk about, will they actually cover the team now?

Colorado Avalanche: We all know the limited shelf life of firey over the top NHL coaches like Guy Boucher and Patrick Roy right?

Columbus Blue Jackets: Do we blame Bobrovksy’s four goal opener on moving east, a lack of defenders who play defense, or just a fat pay day?

Dallas Stars: Will Alex Goligoski ever get recognized as top defenseman?

Detroit Red Wings: Is there a player in the system 30 or under who can emerge as the next “face of the franchise”?

Edmonton Oilers: Can prodigal son and eco-warrior Andrew Ference lead his band of merry man-children to liberate a playoff spot from and deliver it to their poor fans?

Florida Panthers: With new ownership and oodles of cap space this year, how wide with the tap be opened for established NHL talent in the future?

Los Angeles Kings: Without a proven backup will Quick get overworked in the regular season?

Minnesota Wild: Will the Wild faithful stay true if the team underperforms this season?

Montreal Canadiens: With the soon to be 35 year old Brian Gionta’s star waning and an expiring contract, will the Habs relocate the C to another jersey possibly before moving him?

Nashville Predators: Barry Trotz entered the season the NHL’s longest tenured head coach, will he end the season in his current position?

New Jersey Devils: With the leagues oldest team, and all but one of the free agents brought in this season over 30, does this franchise have a path to the future?

New York Islanders: The Islanders took a big step forward last year climbing into the playoffs and battling Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, can Tavares and Hamonic make themselves household names this year?

New York Rangers: How long will it take Marc Staal, Brad Richards and the rest of the blueshirts to adapt to Alain Vigneault’s system?

Ottawa Senators: Captain Spezza, with Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen and Craig Anderson are more than enough to get this team to the second round of the playoffs right?

Philadelphia Flyers: Who will lead the Flyers in the three categories that have defined the team in recent seasons: missed games, PIMS and suspensions?

Phoenix Coyotes: Is Mike Ribeiro the right centerpiece for the teams offense or just another free agent that will do just ok and move on?

Pittsburgh Penguins: This is the year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both healthy right? Right?

San Jose Sharks: Will Bruan, Vlasic, and Hertl emerge to form the new core of this team with Logan Couture?

Saint Louis Blues: Does this team have enough scoring talent and the right coach to take advantage of it?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Does Steve Yzerman who wants fighting out of the game have a punchers chance of seeing his team in the playoffs any time soon?

Toronto Maple Leafs: When the Olympic break rolls around will we be asking where they will find a center, or marveling at Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri as a one two punch?

Vancouver Canucks: With a new coach and system in John Tortorella and a general manager Mike Gillis, who has to be fighting for his own job, how much of the current roster will still be in place after the trade deadline?

Washington Capitals: We can all agree that Alex Ovechkin is good for 50+ goals this season, and Mikhail Grabovski will set a personal high in at least one offensive category right?

Winnipeg Jets: With Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and more in full stride, the biggest question about this team is once again in the crease isn’t it?

The west is a very intruiging mix this year. Because of how few teams there are in the west, the races will be very, very tight after the number two slot in each division.

The Pacific Division:

The Phoenix Coyotes:

Good news is there is no more ownership drama. The better news is the roster was filled out a little bit more with the addition of the fiesty Mike Ribiero and at least currently with David Rundblad on the backline.

Bad news is they are an above average roster on paper in a division with several teams who are on paper better.

Anaheim Ducks:

Good news: Depth was added to the forward group over the summer, last years home grown young players are more developed as well.

Bad news: With the exile of Bobby Ryan, this team that was for so long Getzaf, Ryan, Perry, up front will have to recreate their on ice identity.

San Jose Sharks:

Good News: The teams core group is still intact.

Bad news: With the exception of Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, this group is aging rapidly, and prone to breaking down in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings:

Good News: The roster is changed very little since they won the cup. Tyler Toffoli is in, Dustin Penner is gone.

Bad News:  They are bad news for their opponents.

Vancouver Canucks:

Good news: No more “1a and 1b starters”, better depth at center.

Bad news: A backup that no one can name or recognize who hasn’t proven he’s NHL ready

Edmonton Oilers:

Good news: The defense has finally been upgraded. Finally.

Bad news: They still need to learn how to play defense as a team.

Calgary Flames:

Good news: Leadership finally acknowledged they need to rebuild.

Bad news: The job they are doing with that rebuild is still iffy.

 

Top three teams:

Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks.

If the Ducks can get solid performences from the guys after Getzlaf, Perry and Selanne, like Kyle Palmeri and Matthieu Perreault upfront, and on the backend Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm the division is there to be taken. If they can’t the Kings will grab it.

All of the surprises for the Canadian roster fall under the heading of either oh wow he’s still being considered or hmm, so they finally stopped snubbing him.

In goal, there is no Martin Brodeur. The iconic New Jersey Devil’s goaltender isn’t a part of this team, and it probably comes as a limited surprise given his age. With the questions surprising the Canadian goaltending pipeline it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him on the list at all. Mike Smith is there and that’s a genuine surprise, not based on talent, but just for the fact that he now 31 years old and never played a game of international hockey. Courtesy of the pipeline questions, Roberto Luongo, and Carey Price were invited, and given that the position is probably Crawford or Holtby’s to lose, inviting a younger goaltender like Jake Paterson, Malcolm Subban or one of the others who have competed at the World Junior Level for Canada.

At wing the included surprises include Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand. Both are high quality players who opponents disenjoy playing against, but Lucic even with his improvements in skating isn’t the fastest man in the NHL, even at left wing, Marchand occasionally looses his cool and takes dumb penalties. With their head coach on the staff, and Marchand’s usual center Bergeron a returning gold medalist I give both a higher chance of making the team than they otherwise might count.  While listed as a center in the NHL, Logan Couture has to be a bit of a surprise, as at center he’s not even in the top eight or nine, and the wing depth is strong, and contains players who have played with various centers likely to be on the final roster. Taylor Hall’s inclusion is a no surprise to anyone, but Rick Nash’s steadily declining productivity makes him worthy of at least a slightly raised eyebrow.

Jordan Staal is quite a valuable talent, but on the orientation roster he’s superfluous. Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Joe Thornton, and Mike Richards are all more than equipped to play a shutdown roll, as can Eric Staal. One assumes the people putting together the roster value his ability to play both center and wing, which still doesn’t make him unique. John Tavares is a bit of a surprise for two reasons. Number one is the depth at center on the team, you can argue up and down where he’d sit in that list, but with a double digit list of players who take faceoffs, he’s not going to be in the top four or five on a lot of people’s depth charts. Second is foot speed, John Tavares has enormous passing ability that places him in the top 10 to 15 passers in the NHL, but his ability to get to pucks doesn’t keep company that is nearly as heady.

On defense, there’s a whole bunch of talent and while it is hard to argue that any of the names should be in the discussion, there are a good half dozen names many would place ahead of Dan Hamhuis. Mike Green however talented he may be is horribly injury prone. For a short tournament like the Olympics where everyone is running out flat, it just doesn’t make sense to include a guy who has only once in his 8 season NHL career. Alex Pietrangelo has to be a little bit of a surprise, especially with 8 previous Olympians on the roster just on the blueline, but he’s got a lot of talent and some playoff polish.

The outright snubs will come soon.

The Canadian Orientation Camp Roster.

Kevin Bieksa has been around a long time. Eight NHL seasons, a lockout year lost, and six seasons playing in the NHL playoffs. He’s earned some respect. Let’s face it, the NHL officiating being awful in about 60% of games is the one thing you can get fans from all 30 NHL franchises to agree on. Individual calls are a bit harder to nail down, because therein lies the difference between the hometown devil and the foreign evil, but hell even the NHL can’t get that straight. We all know about the “Avery interpretation”. We’ve seen suspensions for clipping calls when the contact was to the hip, and we’ve seen hulking defensemen slam their opponents heads into the glass and get off scottfree.

So when he calls out two players in particular and doesn’t paint the enire locker room with the same brush, it should give you pause. Joe Thornton is big dude. He’s strong, he’s tougher than he’s given credit for, and yet his glove seemed to go down faster than a drink in Patrick Kanes hand as he shook it off to get a referees attention the other night. Logan Couture too is capable of soaking up big hits and playing on. And of all the things the Sedin’s are not, strong and physical lead the list. A stick that scrapes his chin should not to my admittedly limited knowledge of anatomy cause what looks like either a spinal spasm or what looks like the result of shock therapy and a collapse to the ice.

Further, Bieksa plays with some of the guys in the NHL who’s reputations for playing the game the right way are bullet proof. There just isn’t a player in the league who owns a reputation for integrity with more bite than Alexandre Burrows. Ryan Kesler too is someone who could fall on his sword and his integrity would protect him from any injury that last longer than it took for the referee to look away. Max Lappierre of course spent long enough in that university of fair, morally (and physically) upright play in Montreal to earn a PhD in playing the game the right way.

#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 last several weeks have seen quite an improvement in the hundred million dollar man, and his team. They are the hottest team in hockey right now and he’s having a respectable season all of a sudden.  Kovalchuck enters the day with a line of 21-21-41 -20. The last the biggest area of improvement.

On the blueline we find Kevin Shattenkirk with a new zip code and tied for points with Cam Fowler. Just behind the two in points andahead of them in +/- is das wundermouth PK Subban. Not to be overlooked is the Washington Capitals John Carlson. The  breakdown:

  • Shattenkirk, is playing as much as 2:30 minutes less a night than the three guys immediately behind him in scoring, has also played five less games than Fowler who has the same number of points, and seven less than Subban.
  • Fowler, while his -22 is startling, it should be noted over 55% of his points have come on the powerplay. May or may not be living up to his reputation for softeness with just 16 penalty minutes. A lot of people would call that disciplined.
  • Subban, with more than 50 more shots on goal than the second active shooter among rookie defensemen it appears Subban swings his stick almost as often as his jaw. Unlike Fowler and Shattenkirk, Subban also sees significant penalty kill time with over 2 minutes a night on average.
  • Carlson is clearly the most complete player of all the rookie defensemen. He plays in all situations, has a team leading +/- and is second to only the Bruins defensive stalwart Adam McQuaid in +/- for rookie blueliners. Useless fact: While he’s got less points on the road, his +/- is better away from home.

Forwards are an increasingly more interesting story. Some guys have bounced in and out of the statistical leaders, some have fought their way in, and one or two have been at or near the top all season. Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks and Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes look to take the race for the top of the heap from coast to coast. Michael Grabner, Brad Marchand, and Taylor Hall have worked their way to the top of the pile, while Derek Stepen and Tyler Ennis have bounced in and out of the top tier.

  • Ennis has earned his minutes on a weak Sabres squad with lots of speed and a willingness to shoot the puck.
  • Stepan is very, very quietly third in scoring on his team. That might be a more impressive stat if his team, the New York Rangers wasn’t 22nd in goals for. Their 25th ranked powerplay isn’t helping his stats either.
  • Hall hit the middle of the season and hit his stride, while third in scoring he is also playing more minutes than any other rookie forward.
  • Grabner is the sleeper for post season recognition. His speed is absurd, and the All Star weekend was something of a coming out party for him. On a team with a collective -32 his +9 is eye opening. Of his 25 goals, 17 have come since 1/1. Is second to Marchand in rookie shorthanded goals.
  • Couture, lots of goals from lots of shots on goals, with lots of time on ice would be less impressive if he weren’t maintaining a high +/- on a team in the bottom half of the NHL for goal differential.
  • Marchand, leads all rookies in shorthanded goals and points, leads all rookies in +/-, leads all the scoring leaders in short handed time on ice, has more hits than any of the top scorers is the most complete player of all the rookie forwards.
  • Skinner. Mr Consistent, has been the scoring leader for most of the season, is producing more points per minute than other top rookies. Has an impressive take away to turnover ratio.

Once clear as day, the rookie goalie landscape has been turned over several times.  Injuries, trades, the retrn of other goalies and cold spells have made this an interesting position to watch, but assured us the Calder Trophy winner won’t be coming from the crease unless something extraordinary happens over the next twenty games.

  • James Riemer hasn’t been in the NHL long, but he’s making it damned hard to ignore him. In just 17 games played he’s 1 win short of  team leader J.S. Giguere’s win total, and has a 2.24 GAA and .931 Sv% on a team that’s not worth much.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky, is still hanging around the top of the pack despite being shuffled into the background in Flyer country.  With more wins than any other rookie a 2.46 GAA and a .918 Sv% you can’t complain about much of his game and not sound like a moron.
  • Corey Crawford is the show stopper though, he’s just a couple wins behind Bobrovsky, with a slightly better Sv% at .923 and a much better GAA at 2.11, he leads rookies in both and does it behind a much weaker defense than Bobrovsky. He might just manage to drag his team into the playoffs too.

In no particular order the five best rookies are:

Crawford, Skinner, Marchand, Carlson, and Subban.

It’s time once again for a look at how the best and most interesting of the NHL’s rookies match up against the 2,971,249,619.63 Ruble man.

Starting at the backend with the goalies, the once clear leader in this position has come back to the pack a little, but bursting onto the scene is James Reimer who has the dubious distinction of being the Toronto Maple Leafs newest rookie goalie.  In just eight games he’s become the teams leader in GAA and Sv%. With about one fourth as many starts at Giguere or Gustavsson he’s just two wins short of “The Monster”. Among rookies with more games, only Corey Crawford has a better GAA than Reimer’s 2.24, and no rookie net minder who has played more has a better Sv%.

The names to know:

  • Segei Bobrovsky with a .920 Sv% and 2.42 GAA “Bob” is what the rookie goaltending situation is like. With 21 wins in just 32 games for the Philadelphia Flyers the Russian is 11 in wins for NHL goaltenders and tied with Ryan Miller and Henrik Lundquist, but just 4 wins behind the league leader Jonas Hiller.
  • Corey Crawford of Chicago owns the GAA lead among rookies with at least fifteen starts and is .23 ahead of Bobrovsky, while only .001% behind Bobrovsky in Sv%.

If defense wins championships here are some future household names:

  • John Carlson of the Washington Capitals is leading all rookie defensemen in blocked shots and takeaways. He’s also third in scoring among freshmen blueliners.  Carlson is the leader among his class of defensemen in shorthanded tie on ice, leading the next comparable player PK Subban by 28 seconds per game.
  • Cam Fowler heard the Ducks call at the draft back in July having slid all the way down to twelfth after most scouts had him neck and neck with Hall and Seguin. Today, he sits atop the rookie defensemens scoring race, also taking top honors among the same group for powerplay points. Among all rookies he’s seventh in scoring.
  • Kevin Shattenkirk in 9 less games is just one point behind Fowler in scoring for the Colorado Avalanche, and has a +/- that is 8 better.

Among forwards, the race has been altered by the team dynamics. Brad Marchand of the Bruins is playing on a line with the Bruins leading scorer Patrice Bergeron and is having a blazing hot stretch that has seen him pocket 12 of his 23 points since January first, including a 4 point game in Colorado. Taylor Hall has seen his team winnowed by injuries and been moved from wing to center.

  • Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks is perhaps the only bright spot for a team that has spent quite a bit of time in the division basement and is outside the playoffs heading into the All Star break. He leads all rookies in goals, and is second in scoring. On the Sharks he is one of just 8 players with a positive +/- and leads the team with a +11, a five count ahead of his next nearest teammate.
  • Jeff Skinner leads all rookies in scoring, and is a +3 on a team whose total goal differential is -3 and is baying at the heels of the Atlanta Thrashers for the final playoff spot in the east. If the Hurricanes do indeed make it into the playoffs, win lose or draw this man needs to get a serious percentage of the votes for Calder.
  • Taylor Hall has scrambled his way into third in rookie scoring despite a lack of quality on his team for support. Third in goals, third in points, he leads his team in goals and is just one point off the team lead.
  • Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins has played more shorthanded time per game than any of the six forwards who have scored more with 1:33 of time per game with a man in the sin bin. He is tied for all NHL short handed points with five and leas the entire NHL in shorthanded goals. For rookies he’s seventh in hits, second in shooting percentage, first in +/-, all in a package (generously) listed at 5’9.

Assuming I were voting on the Calder Trophy race and it was due today my top five would be: 5th Bobrovsky 4th Couture 3) Marchand 2) Carlson 1) Skinner

Ilya Kovalchuk has a line of 14-15-29 -29 in 48 GP. This would make him 4th in rookie scoring. His -29 is worst in the NHL, 44.8% of his points have come on the powerplay.