For the second year in a row, the Metropolitan is the weakest division in hockey and it isn’t even close. Some teams are better than last year, others are worse, and anyone who tells you what the others will do is just a bit out of their mind.

Top shelf:

New York Rangers

The Rangers are a safe bet for the playoffs and likely for the division title as well. Lundqvist will be entering the season with a quality backup, and most of the key players in front of him healthy. Despite an injury to top center Stepan that will keep him until around Halloween, the Rangers have otherwise good health up and down the lineup, McDonaugh, Staal, Girardi on the backend, St. Louis, Nash, Brassard and Hagelin up front will do the heavy lifting for the team again.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Like the Rangers, the Blue Jackets have a high quality goalie, this one who just happens to be in a contract year. They also have an underrated defense group. Jack Johnson, Ryan Murphy, James Wisniewski and the rest will contribute at both ends of the ice. The forward group is unheralded as well, Brandon Dubinsky rarely gets the recognition he deserves, Scott Hartnell is a legitimate scoring threat who should be entering the season with something to prove. If Johansen can be signed, and retained, and Horton can have a healthy season, this team is going to be more than a handful.

Wild Cards

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have a lot of chaos factors to contend with this year. A new coach is one. Their putative number one goaltender is on an expiring contract and unlike Crosby, Malkin, and Letang was not extended early. They lost two of their top four defensemen from last year. Matt Niskanen was their top points producer and Brooks Orpik led the team in short handed time on ice. To replace them they brought in Christian Ehrhoff. Aside from the top 3-4 names, it would be hard for an observer to guess where the rest of the forward group sits as most of them look a lot like bottom line players.

New York Islanders

The Islanders actually made some smart moves this summer. They picked up and locked up Grabovski giving them a compelling one two punch at center. Their defense is a whole lot of young and learning with Visnovsky and Carkner for contrast. On the backend they have two goalies new to the system, the up, then down, then sideways Jaroslav Halak and the surprising Chad Johnson. I will be equally unsurprised if this team is in the playoffs, or in the bottom five in the league.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals are the east coast equivalent of the San Jose Sharks. On paper they’ve had the talent to win the Cup at lest once in the last decade, on ice, not so much. They too have a new coach, and possibly more importantly they have a coach who recognizes what he’s dealing with. Barry Trotz did what was probably the smartest thing a Capitals coach has done in several years and put Ovechkin back on left wing where he is most comfortable and had several pretty good seasons. The defense could shake out into pairings of Carlson-Greene, Niskanen-Orpik, and Alzner-Erskine, which as top six defense units go, is better than many can boast.

The Rest

Philadelphia Flyers

Even allowing for the Pronger/Timonen money once the season starts and he can be placed on LTIR, the Flyers are still in cap trouble. The roster genuinely looks like the team is trying to tank but just doesn’t know how. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Jacob Voracek are all top end players, the rest of the forward group and much of the rest of the roster feels like the punchline to an inside joke that you’re not quite inside enough for. That said, this is largely the group that managed to make the playoffs last year.

New Jersey Devils

On the plus side the added Mike Cammalleri and finally admitted who their number one goaltender is. On the other side of the balance they added Martin Havlat who is generally good for one bizarre injury and twenty or more man games lost. The defense is rather bland, no one makes over Zajac’s $5.75m and yet they are still only three million from the cap, all without their seeming to have found a backup goalie.

Carolina Hurricanes

The season will kickoff on a sour note with Jordan Staal down-checked for an unknown amount of time with a broken leg. Even assuming Jordan Staal and he rest of the top six forwards were healthy and productive all season, Caniacs were still in for a long slog. The teams defense has high water marks that are merely average followed up by players who are at historical drought levels of talent. It would not be a surprise to see this team draft in the top three next June. The only real hope in season for this team is for the coach with the enthusiastic backing of management to go with whichever goalie is playing better and not with the one they’ve been trying to pass off a a franchise goalie for half a decade.

It’s not a secret that I despise diving. I’ve written the odd piece on the subject, once or twice (ok so its actually an enormous bugaboo that I prattle on about pretty often ) and I’m pretty happy with the NHL finally taking steps to control the dippy soccer like behavior of some players and franchises.

Here’s the rule chance directly from NHL.com

DivingThe fact that coaches will now be fined is now more than ok with me.

So which players are most likely to deserve a fine this season?

  • Jeff Skinner, on the rare occasions the former figure skating star is on the ice he’s clearly auditioning for a post-hockey career in soap operas.
  • Alexandre Burrows, with Tortorella still at the helm Burrows might be kept in check, Willie Desjardins is an unknown, unlike the duly esteemed Alexandre Burrow.
  • Dustin Brown, he does many, many things right and is most regards a model player, on the other hand it certainly appears to the impartial observer that his skates come complete with a great deal of helium.
  • Sidney Crosby, while he tends to be more subtle about it than some players on this list, there’s no doubt “The Next One” has embellished more than his share of slashes, trips, and the rest.
  • Brad Marchand, while he’s pound for pound one of the stronger players in the game, you can tell when the other team gets in his head because he starts falling down a lot.
  • Martin Brodeur, legend he may be but if he were as weak as he appears every time an opposing player makes contact or near contact with him he’d never be able to scramble like he does.
  • Mike Ribiero, (this space left intentionally blank.)
  • Henrik & Daniel Sedin, the Swedish Swan-divers are almost as good at falling down and finding each other on the ice.
  • Carl Hagelin, has the speed to avoid pretty much any player in the NHL, but can’t seem to avoid sticks and other impediments that aren’t even there.
  • P.K. Subban, a guy with all the talent in the world who has been known to take the express elevator to the ice on a pretty regular basis.

I’m sure there’s one or two I missed, who would you add?

With Jason Spezza already dealt the market has seen its first bellwether. We know what the trade value for a top level offensive center. At 31, there’s still a chance Spezza could sign long term and be a big part of the Dallas Star’s success in future. Who else will set the standard for guys like them?

Jarome Iginla, the only UFA who scored 30 goals last season. A first ballot hall of famer who proved that even in the playoffs he can produce without a center showing up for work.

Josh Gorges, the defensive defenseman is overdue for change (even if it is really difficult to imagine the Montreal Canadiens without him) entering next season with four years remaining at under four million, and 30 years old he’s a 2/3 defensemen in 25+ systems in the NHL.

Paul Stastny, a young, effective forward. One can ask if he’s a piece or a complimentary player, but there’s no denying when he’s dialed in he’s damned effective.

Brooks Orpik at 33, the clock is ticking if a Stanley Cup ring is in his future. Does he feel the Penguins are moving in the right direction? Can someone offer him a great ride on a top contender? Those are the factors that will weigh in on his choice.

Ryan Miller, hands down the best goalie in the batch. Would he be the perfect fit for the Minnesota Wild? He’s been healthy which none of their guys have, he’s played with several of the the key guys on the roster in the Olympics.

P.K. Subban, the top free agent of any kind this year is an RFA defenseman, he should receive offer sheets and arguably with Gorges likely departing he should sign one of them. Whatever price is set for him, whenever and wherever he signs will be the high water mark for defenseman for the next couple years.

Jaden Schwartz put up good offensive numbers on a defensive team, with 25 goals and 56 points, its going to be hard to argue what he signs for won’t impact other RFA forwards this summer.

Anton Stralman is a defenseman who made himself more valuable with his playoff run. Is he an elite #1 defeneman, no. But then there are only about four to six of those in the NHL right now. Based on his playoff run, there are some, starting with his agent who will argue he’s in that next group of defensemen.

A compilation of improbably stats and situations from the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.

 

Teams

  • Five games into the divisional finals, the Minnesota Wild have still not lost at home, the path here included a seven game series against a team coached by a Jack Adams finalist, and being the lower ranked team in both series.
  • The Ducks have played thee different goaltenders, including a 20 year old American, a 24 year old Dane, and 32 year old from Switzerland.
  • The Minnesota Wild are the only team not to have been shutout this post season.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks are the only team to have two players suspended this post season.
  • The Anaheim Ducks after being average in penalty minutes during the regular season at 10.9 minutes per game, are the most penalized team left in the playoffs at 20.4.
  • Of the three teams with more than one shutout during these playoffs, the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Minnesota Wild, the Wild have had two goalies produce one; Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgaloz
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins lead all remaining teams with three wins when trailing after the first period.

Players

  • Erik Haula leads all rookies in post season goals with 3.
  • Two rookies have shorthanded goals in this years playoffs, Ondrej Palat and Brian Gibbons.
  • Brad Richards leads all players in powerplay time on ice with 61:57, but has just 1 powerplay point.
  • Three defensemen are over a point per game in the playoffs; P.K. Subban 1.33, Brent Seabrook at 1.25, and Jack Johnson at 1.17.
  • With 11 even strength points in eleven games, Anze Kopitar leads all forwards in ESPPG.
  • Brothers Mikko Koivu 57.5% and Saku Koivu 56.9% rank 2nd and 3rd in faceoff winning percentage among players still active.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed more goals than any other goalie, as he did the year he and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
  • Jonathan Quick leads all goaltenders in penalty minutes with 4.
  • Sidney Crosby is 102nd in goal in the playoffs, well behind household names like Brendan Gallagher (4), Charlie Coyle (3), Nick Holden 3, Mathieu Perrault (2), and Raffi Torres (2).

The first round of the playoffs may have been the best opening round as a whole in years. The Columbus Blue Jackets traded blows and goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the Metropolitan division winners looking just a bit weak. The loss of David Backes due to a suspend-able hit by Brent Seabrook was clearly the tipping point of the series between the Saint Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. The San Jose Sharks went from unmitigated domination of the Los Angeles Kings to going into the night with a whimper.

The Philadelphia Flyers played a pretty even series with the New York Rangers that came down to a memorable game seven decided by one goal; the series was also the coming out party for Steve Mason who put up a stellar 1.97 GAA and .939 sv%. The Alex Goligoski and Shawn Horcoff led Dallas Stars put a two game scare into the Anaheim Ducks before succumbing to a focused and superior team. In the battle between snowy Montreal and snowbird heaven Tampa Bay, the Lightning went down in the opening rounds only sweep, minus Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop. In the opening round the Boston Bruins lost the opening game to their Original Six rivals, and then laid them in the dust in four straight wins.

Biggest surprises of the first round:

  • 169 players having more goals than Sidney Crosby, including Luke Schenn, Bryan Allen, Raffi Torres, Jordan Caron and Devante Smith-Pelly
  • How much Jonathan Quick struggled in the first few games, and that Sutter didn’t go to Jones full time.
  • Paul Stastny ending a playoff run with well deserved accolades like “heroic performance” being thrown his way, even around all the love for the shiny new rookie.
  • Paul Martin weighing in at over a point per game. Yes, that Paul Martin.
  • Alex Goligoski gaining zero attention while playing 28:30 a night, putting up 4 points and being a +7 in a six game losing series.
  • How well the very young Colorado Avalanche held together through some very tough games.

Top 3 series of the opening round:

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets vs Pittsburgh Penguins, the pure drama in this matchup was amazing to watch.
  2. Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche; There is so much young potential in this series it is staggering, Coyle, Neiderrietter, Brodin and Spurgeon we’ll see more of this year, MacKinnon, Landeskog, Hishon, and Duchene we’ll have ot wait until fall for more from.
  3. Chicago Blackhawks vs Saint Louis Blues, as far as the best hockey played game in and game out this series wins, but the drama level wasn’t quiet as high as the other two series.

The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are hear, and the best matchups are always the teams that are closest in talent, health, and drive. In the past that meant the four versus five matchup and the three versus six. With the changes in playoff format, the second and third place teams in each division will square off.

Metropolitan Division:

New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers

As pure dyed in the wool rivalries go, there isn’t another first round matchup that comes close to this. Both teams have a different coach than they did at this time last year, but nothing has changed about how these two teams go at each other.

The Rangers as the #2 team have home ice advantage, they are mostly healthy, with only Kreider out and McDonagh dinged, they have a roster full of men who want to be winning in June.

The Flyers are equally healthy, and have a coach who didn’t even get a training camp. They have a star in Claude Giroux who predicted they would make the second season, an a guy in Steve Mason who has his mojo back.

Best Players:

NYR: Ryan McDonagh and Martin St Louis have to be the guys to carry the mail. St Louis is a first ballot hall of famer with a lot of games left in him. McDonagh is the guy who makes their rather talented backend work and pushes things at both ends of the ice.

PHI: Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds are the men of the hour in Philadelphia. Simmonds for his part needs to play a slightly better two way game, Giroux needs to stay healthy and focused.

Series X Factor: Coaching.

Neither of these coaches has won much. Neither has any professional hockey championship wins. Vigneault has spent more time coaching in the NHL with several playoff runs. Berube played over 1000 NHL games, and 89 playoff games. Whichever coach can control the locker room and bench will win the series.

The trade deadline always has surprises. Sometimes it is who doesn’t gets traded, sometimes it is how lopsided a trade appears to be. Right now all eyes are on Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers, Ryan Kesler the Selkie winning Vancouver Canucks defenseman and of course the healthy goalie void for the Minnesota Wild. Drawing their own buzz are Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza, future first ballot hall of famer Martin Brodeur, and Matt Moulson the three time thirty goal scorer currently taking line rushes for the Buffalo Sabres.

Some names that could be moved who aren’t getting the attention:

Bryce Salvador:

With one more year left on his contract he’s more than a rental, and given that he’s going to be 39 before his contract expires that might give some teams reasons to hesitate. On the other hand he’s a very savvy stay at home defender who has more than once in his NHL career met or exceeded his regular season goal total in the playoffs. Teams that are looking to add a defenseman before the playoffs could do much, much worse than the Brandon Manitoba native.

Brooks Laich:

The soon to be 31 year old forward for the Washington Capitals has seen better seasons than his last two in the nations capital. The three time 20+ goal man has not cracked that mark since 2009-10 season, and it is curious why that is. The Capitals trail all teams in the playoff structure in ROW and not surprisingly sit third in the eastern wild card race. A team looking for a 2nd or third line scorer might roll the dice on a player who has all the markings of a guy in need of a change of scenery.

Evander Kane:

It has been consistently rumored that the pugnacious winger is unhappy in Winnipeg. The young 30 goal scorer might not be a player you want to trade, but the depth brought back from that sort of trade could be exactly what is needed to right the ship for the Jets. If Kesler’s asking price is a roster player, a first round pick and solid prospect despite greater age and an extensive injury history, what could the return for a younger, grittier player with four years left on his deal be?

Kevin Bieksa:

With all eyes on a potential Kesler deal, it is easy to overlook Bieksa. Both have no trade clauses, and two years remaining on their contracts, both made an impression on fans around the world in their run to the Stanley Cup finals a few years ago as being the only Canucks skaters to put up a fight in game seven of the the finals against the Bruins while the rest of the team just laid down on the job. While he’s lost a noticeable amount of games to injuries, he’s still had solid offensive production throughout his NHL career.  If the Canucks brain trust decide to turn the page on the rosters core group, Bieksa could be asked where he wants to go.

Brad Boyes:

Last year when he put up 35 points in 48 games in the regular season it was assumed that most of the revival of Brad Boyes was due to playing next to John Tavares. This year however he’s playing in Florida on a team much less well structured or talented than last years Islanders and has put up 17 goals in not a great deal of ice time giving him the team lead in goals. He’s second in scoring on the sons of Sunrise, and earlier this year picked up his first shorthanded goal since the 2006-07 season. As a rental or a player with potential to play someplace for two or three years, Boyes is solid option.

Cody Franson:

The 26 year old blueliner has seen a dip in per game production over last years grueling pace. If the Maple Leafs decide to make changes, this pending RFA blueliner might find himself playing in a different jersey real soon. Due largely to highly uneven goaltending, the Leafs have the fifth highest goals allowed per game. Franson might find himself moved for any number of reasons, from a crowded blueline, to the desire for someone better than average defensively to replace him in the lineup

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

 

Players:

  • that Joe Thornton would be in the top ten in the NHL in scoring when he last finished a season there in the 2009-10 season.
  • of the top five goal scores, Ovechkin, Steen, Perry, Kane and Kunitz, Ovechkin would have both overtime goals in the quintet.
  • the leagues three leaders in PIMS Derek Dorsett of the New York Rangers, Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators, and Antoine Roussel would combine for more penalty minutes (275) than the New Jersey Devils (251) or San Jose Sharks (271) and each be playing 11:35 a night or more.
  • Brandon Dubinsky would be the only player over 20 points and 60 PIMS, and have a 56.1 FO%.
  • Mike Santorelli of the Vancouver Canucks and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings would be tied for the NHL lead in overtime points.
  • last years Masterson Award winner Josh Harding would be dominating the league and have the best save percentage of any goalie with more than 1000 minutes on the season and be sitting pretty with a .938 sv% and a 16-5-3 record.
  • undrafted rookie goaltender Cam Talbot with ten games played would have a significantly better sv% (.934 vs .910) than teammate and the NHL’s highest paid netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

Teams:

  • a month after losing Steven Stamkos to injury, the Tampa Bay Lightning would still be holding a top 3 spot in the Atlantic division.
  • on December 13th the spread betwen the 1st and 8th place teams in the east and west would be 10 in the west with 3 teams tied for 8, and 13 in the east.
  • to date, no team in the east would have scored 100 goals.
  • Of the teams in the bottom five (tie for 5th) last year in the NHL, only two would currently be in that place.
  • the Buffalo Sabres who are dead last in the NHL in points would have allowed just one more goal than the Chicago Blackhawks who have the most points in the league.
  • the Edmonton Oilers would be the only team to allow more than 4 shorthanded goals.
  • there would be no apparent pattern to the four teams yet to score a shorthanded goal as to date the Coyotes, Penguins, Panthers and Sabres would all be on the outside looking in.
  • four teams in the west would have scored 100 or more goals.
  • under offensive minded coach Alain Vigneault the New York Rangers would be producing over half a goal per game less than under the blueshirt’s previous bench boss in prior two seasons.

It November 27th, one day before Thanksgiving in the United States of America and that’s about the time 80% or more of the playoff picture shakes out. Which teams will stay in the picture? Which are locks? Who’s most vulnerable to an injury or two that takes them out of the playoff picture?

Let’s take a look at the western conference first:

The interesting thing about the west is the amount of separation between the top seven or eight and everyone else. The Chicago Blackhawks have played one less game than the Vancouver Canucks and have nine more points. That’s their spread from sitting on the couch in April.

Western lock:

Saint Louis Blues, they’ve played just 23 games and have 8 points of separation on being on the outside looking in. Top to bottom they have the best defense in the NHL. They have the best team goal differential, and are one of just three teams to allow 50 or less goals today.

Most vulnerable:

The Colorado Avalanche, with the Varlemov situation on one hand, and the uncharacteristic play of most of the rest of the roster on the other, this is a team where one injury could result in a tailspin into mediocrity.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

Nashville Predators, with Pekka Rinne on the mend they will soon have a number one goalie to help out on the backend. That should in turn allow them to get a bit more offense out of their team.

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

The East:

There are more teams in the east, and more teams rebuilding, or very dependent on top line or top pairing talent.  The east is shamefully dominated by the Atlantic division with five of the eight playoff spots belonging to one of the teams in that division.

 

Eastern lock:

Boston Bruins, hands down the best team in the east, even if they haven’t played a full sixty minute game all season. They’re too deep and too good for even two or big injuries to drag them outside the playoff structure.

Most vulnerable:

New York Rangers, they don’t seem to know who they are. This isn’t surprising given the radical difference in coaching styles between the last coach and the current one.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

While the Carolina Hurricanes should be better, they’ve also not had good health in their key forwards. The team people should worry about is the Ottawa Senators. Craig Anderson can’t stay this bad this long, and the team will eventually start finding ways to win consistently.

 

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com