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.

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.

The Winnipeg Jets are in a tough position when it comes to their restricted free agents. On one hand they just were not a playoff team in the Eastern Conference even with everyone of them in uniform. On the other hand some of them were pretty productive last season, one even having a career year. On the third hand with the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets promoted to the Eastern Conference the west is likely to be a lot easier sailing than they had it last season. And on the gripping hand, with the cap coming down and uncertainty about how well the market will support the team in this its third season in town with the team finishing out side the playoffs each of the previous two years spending a lot might not be wise. Of the 21 players to elect salary arbitration this summer, a quarter of them were Jets, and two have now reached a deal prior to their hearing.

Of the remaining three, we have Blake Wheeler who has been second and then first on the team in scoring over the last two seasons. Bryan Little an average center, Zach Bogosian a solid defenseman. All three were first round picks. Bogosian and Little are home grown products for the transplanted Atlanta Thrashers. Blake Wheeler declined to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes and upon completing his college career at the University of Minnesota was signed as a free agent and sent to the then Thrashers with Mark Stuart as part of the deal that sent Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik to Boston. Last year after a brief stop in Europe during the lockout Wheeler turned in his best career numbers with a .854 ppg. His career number is notably at .623 which includes his time with the much more defensive minded Bruins where he received less ice time. In the two years he and the team have been in Winnipeg his ppg is .820, over the same period of time Matt Duchene was a .676 per game, barely higher than Wheeler’s career number and far lower than the comparative time. Duchene’s new deal was five years at six million.

For Bogosian, the numbers that matter are pretty plain to see. He’s averaged over 23 minutes a night for the last three seasons. On any team in the league that’s a top two or three defenseman slot. Over the last three seasons he’s been able to finish in the offensive zone at least as often as he finished there. Essentially he both gets the puck out of his zone, and keeps it move forward. Better still, there’s been a solid progression. In the 2010-11 season he started and finished in the offensive zone the same percentage of the time, during the 2011-12 campaign he was a best among all regulars with the second highest increase in offensive zone finishes over starts.  The 2012-13 adventure saw him double the previous years gains, and again finish behind only Ron Hainsey.

A quick look at his On Ice Save Percentage might lead you to believe he’s a defensive liability, but keep in mind he plays as much as three minutes of shorthanded ice time a night, and the teams goaltending isn’t spectacular. Some of the players who play a similar amount of time shorthanded are Bryan Allen formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes and now of the Anahiem Ducks, Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers, Johnny Boychuk of the Boston Bruins, the Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber, and Vancouver Canuck Kevin Bieksa. When look at last season’s points totals, Bogosion kept company with Matt Niskanen Lubomir Vishnovski, and Dan Girardi while playing less games than any of them.

Over the past three seasons, Bryan Little has finished above fifty percent in faceoffs just once. That pleasant occurrence was this past season. Among NHL Centers he finished tied for the bottom of the top 30 with Vincent Lecavalier, and Mike Richards. Not elite company offensively, but not the bottom of the barrel by any stretch of the imagination. In terms of Time On Ice Little did play a huge number of minutes, finishing 10th among NHL centers playing well more than better known names like Sedin, Toews, Thornton, and Krejci. His powerplay time puts him in the top half of the NHL’s centers, but the teams powerplay finished an embarrassing 30th. For the “fancy stats” he does finish in the offensive zone more than he starts there by a very solid margin of almost 9%, he takes very few penalties and draws them better than most of his Winnipeg Jets forward teammates.

 Salary wise nailing down where any of these guys lands is difficult. Little plays top end minutes and can get the puck to where it is supposed to be, Bogosian’s stats are murky to interpret, and Wheeler has clearly found his game in Winnipeg. At 25 years old heading into the season Little has accumulated six seasons and 404 regular season games of experience. He’s about he same age David Krejci was when his current deal was signed, Duchene at 22 signed a deal that will kick in when he’s 23 for $6m per, Tyler Bozak who is two years older and a bit less productive inked for $4.2 a year under the current CBA. A fair range for Little is $4.5-5.6 average annual value depending on length of deal, signing bonuses, and things like no trade or no movement clauses.

Blake Wheeler is harder to nail down. Yes last year was a career year and he did indeed finish ninth overall in scoring for right wings on a team that was 16th in scoring for the year. A lot of the guys he finished ahead of are or should be household names, Jordan Eberle, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, and Bobby Ryan. Two seasons ago he finished 15th among right wings, meaning he might have the staying power to finish in the top 15-20 right wings in scoring for the next several years. Comparable contracts of players in that range are Jason Pominville, Bobby Ryan, Nathan Horton and Jakub Voracek. Again we’re looking at a range of $4.5-5.6 AAV.

Bogosion is probably the guy who will have the most brutal arbitration session if it comes to that. Hammering out the stats you can make a case in a certain light that he’s an elite defenseman, you can equally make the case he’s a liability, the truth per usual, likes somewhere between those two. Defensemen who bring a similar toolkit to the rink include Johhny Boychuk, Kevin Bieksa, and Brent Seabrook. When you weigh in all the stats and the eyeball test you come to a range of anything from $4.4m as a low ball figure to a $5.8 as a long term deal if you expect him to keep progressing.

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.

Despite the short duration, the Coyotes and Kings put on one of the best shows of this post season. This is what division mates are supposed to look like. The pace was great. The action, physical, crisp , relentless and for the most part clean.

While it will offend some folks in tinsel town, Mike Smith was the better goalie in this series. Smith had to face almost twice as many shots and still ended up with truly impressive numbers. Quick was spectacular making the flashy and the routine saves night in and night out. This one series, he was merely the second best goalie on the ice.

The biggest impact on the outcome of the series was the fact that the Kings simply have everything going right for them. The two teams split the regular season series. The Coyotes finished above the Kings by only a couple points. Both teams skated well, both teams defended smartly and attacked the net.

When it came down to crunch time in game five the Kings best players stepped up. Drew Doughty played, and expressed his (well justified) opinions to the officials, and along the way got a goal and an assist in more than 30 minutes of ice time. Mike Richards had five shots, won twelve faceoffs, and got a goal. Anze Kopitar put in over thirty minutes of ice time, blocked a shot, got five on net and one in. Jeff Carter teed up two for teamates to put past Smith.  Jonathan Quick’s closest competition for the Conn-Smyth, Dustin Brown continued his What Can’t Brown Do For You? tour with ten attempted shots, one block and five hits.

That’s a hellacious amount of talent to try and contain. The Coyotes had to be beaten in overtime. You can’t help but wonder how deep the pockets of the new owners will be, and if they will try to keep this core together for another year or two and use their first few months at the reigns to go big game hunting and bring in a top forward or two to deepen the scoring.

The Kings are now faced with the unenviable task of facing the Stanley Cup finals as the avowed favorites, without the advantage of home ice. They will also be flying all the way across the country to start the series against a still unknown opponent. Of the teams staff, Dustin Penner and Rob Scuderi have hoisted the Cup. Penner as an Oiler, and Scuderi as part of the Penguins most recent win. While there has been no sign of folding under pressure in Coach Sutter’s squad to date, this is the big dance and with just three players over the age of thirty (Mitchell, Scuderi, Williams) on the entire roster there is a heightened chance for unhelpful emotional swings.

 

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

 

Teams:

  • none of the teams in last years conference finals would make it out of the first round, and one wouldn’t even make the playoffs
  • the Florida Panthers would not only make the playoffs but claim their first division title
  • the Phoenix Coyotes would also emerge from the regular season atop their division, and would go one further and make the second round
  • it would take until the fourth game of the second round for the St Louis Blues to get a goal from a defenseman (Shattenkirk)
  • the team that had the 29th best regular season offense in the regular season would have the best goal differential coming into action on 5/6/12 (LA Kings)
  • two teams in the second round, the Kings and the Flyers would be perfect when the other team scores first
  • the biggest question facing the Boston Bruins after a first round loss would be which UFA’s will be brought back
  • the Montreal Canadiens would pick a general manager the press didn’t hate

Players:

  • Andy McDonald would be the third leading scorer in the NHL playoffs going into play 5/6
  • in ten games with seven points Keith Yandle would lead all defensemen in scoring without a single goal.
  • of the 340 skaters to take a shift in the playoffs Zach Parise would lead the league in 1st goals
  • in the twenty (and counting) overtime games only one player would have more than one OT goal, and he’d be Danish winger Mikkeal Boedker
  • that Mike Richards who had just three fights in the regular season would pick up a Gordie Howe hat trick
  • that Dan Girardi would be outscoring Drew Doughty through 5/6
  • that Mike Smith would enter the playoffs a Vezina snub, and continue the playoffs a Conn-Smythe favorite
  • Vladimir Sobotka would have more game winning goals (1) than Claude Giroux (0)

Another NHL regular season is closing. All 30 teams are in action. Some players are auditioning for parts next season in late call ups, some are just hoping to break out of a slump before the post season starts. Some two or three will never play in the NHL again. Retirement for some, permanent assignment back to the AHL for a few, and time overseas will take some of the players who make every season worth watching will be gone.

For those going forward, players like Mike Richards and Jonathan Quick will face their opposite numbers on the San Jose roster tonight as both teams seek to decide their own fate. Nick Foligno of the Senators knows he’s headed for the playoffs for the third time in his career, while younger brother Marcus will attempt to finish the season with a little pride against the Boston Bruins. Joel Ward enters the playoffs for the first time in his career without an All Star quality goalie behind him, and with the certainty that next years squad will be very different if the team doesn’t make it deep.

Who will backup Tim Thomas is still a mystery wrapped in an enigma as Rask continues to recover, the true status of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is just as shrouded in darkness, Randy Cunneyworth has been the consummate professional dealing with the well stirred chaos that is the Montreal Canadiens and he probably has no idea if he’ll be coaching the team next season, or working anywhere in the NHL. Kevin Dineen on the other hand might just lockup the Southeast Division title and the Jack Adams award with a win, steering a team with only two 20 goal scorers, and with just two key players to have skated in every game is amazing, doing it with a roster that saw 35 skaters and 4 goalies take the ice is simply remarkable.

The New York Rangers last won the Stanley Cup when they won the Presidents Trophy. A win today will give them the Presidents Trophy. A win today would also lock in a first round matchup with today’s opponent the Washington Capitals who all things considered would probably rather play the Boston Bruins in the first round.

Jared Spurgen finishes his second NHL season today one point from doubling his rookie numbers, and while again he finds himself on the outside looking in the former Spokane Chief has the chance to play spoiler two years in a row, if he can rally the Wild over the Coyotes it’s likely the Phoenix team loses out on home ice in the first round. Phil Kessel has gone from hero and savior to scapegoat in a couple short years in Toronto and has only a game with the Canadiens in which he might extend his career high in goals.

So what’s left to play for today? Pride, position a new contract, hope for the future, and the chance to go home on a positive note.

Jeff Carter and the LA Kings

Carter finally got his first two goals as a member of Orange County’s best dressed gang. To the surprise of no one Mike Richards figured in on both goals. Equally surprising was that the goals came against a division rival who like the Kings are in the thick of the race for the second season. One of the best reasons for the trade deadline to stay when it is remains integrating players into the lineup in a way that lets them be effective. In the case of cross continent trades time zone adjustment also plays a role. Carter getting his groove back is a great thing for his and Kings fans, and not so good for their opponents.

Steve Kampfer In Motion

For those wondering why it is a promising young defensemen was shuffled out of Boston, the answer is simple. He lost confidence. I can’t blame him. In fact the blame for that lies squarely on Cam Neely, Peter Chiarelli, and Claude Julien. Last year about this time with Kampfer cycling in and out as injuries took more experienced players out of the line up the Bruins Brass decided to sign a player who hadn’t played a single NHL in over a year. Adding depth isn’t a bad thing, no one could legitimately criticize adding a player familiar with the team and coach. But to add a player with that long a layoff, with a well known knee issue on top of limited mobility and then insert them into the lineup for less than four minutes of play over someone who worked their tail off all season, and who matched up much better in mobility with an opponent? That sends entirely the wrong message. Add in the struggles of Corvo and other defensemen and he got into just ten games before being shipped off?

Good luck in Minnesota Steve!

NHL All Star Events

One of the things that I think was missing from this years All Star Weekend was the the Young Stars game. I can understand not wanting a second game of shinny  on the weekend but given the importance of the NHL Entry draft. How about adding a prospect game. If not another top prospect game, how about putting on a game for the players on NHL Scouting Central’s Watch List? The energy level would be high, and fans would get a predraft introduction to some of the players who could be picked outside the top ten.  Better still, coaches, scouts, general managers could get a look at these players and take them from “off the radar” to “important mid round selection”. Another possibility is a USHL vs CHL  All Star game.