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.

The eastern conference is deeper than the west this year, and I can’t really see any of the top six in the east falling out. Carolina and Atlanta may have a dog fight until game 82 is in the books, and the New York Rangers just need to stay healthy. The new wild card will be the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Malkin likely out for six month they could buy, sell, or do nothing. Any of the three could set off an avalanche of movement.

Carolina Hurricanes, they have a bit of a history of movement around the deadline. With the most goals allowed of any team currently in the eastern conferences top 8, it’s a no brainier what they should add. Where they are going to add a solid blueliner is a mystery, but one they probably need to solve. With Staal, Skinner, and Ward pulling the train they are unlikely to to get embarrassed in the playoffs. With less than a handful of others making an impact it’s hard to see them getting to the promised land.  Sending off one or two of their forward prospects for an NHL roster defenseman might be the best way to tighten up the back end and provide a mentor for Jamie Mcbain.

Atlanta Thrashers, despite their improvements on defense, their defense is still worrisome with 178 goals allowed, only the last place Edmonton Oilers have allowed more goals. It is highly unlikely they can somehow morph into the best defense in the league through any possible combination of trades and promotions between now and the playoffs. The good news is that with the tenth best offense in the NHL they probably don’t need to. With even a slight upgrade and the firm ministrations of coach Craig Ramsay, a better defense is more than just possible it’s highly likely.  The other area the team is lacking is in commitment. People just aren’t in it to win it. This can probably be traced back to a game against the Bruins in which they had their mojo broken over their heads. They need to get it fixed or see if they order some on Amazon or Ebay.

Despite the disappointing year for Ryan Miller and company they are just five points out of 8th place, and have four games in hand on Atlanta, and two on Carolina.  With new ownership, a ton of cap space and a great goaltender anything is possible. Trading Connolly to say Pittsburgh or Calgary or another team needing a center for the post season might be a good thing long term. If it could bring them back a solid pick, if a trade and sign deal could be worked a deal that exchanged him for Ottawa’s Karlsson might serve both teams well. This may just be the most interesting team to watch over the next three and a half weeks. Tweaking either their offense or defense a little probably gets them over the hump and in but not very deep, so it becomes a question of long term vs short term strategy.

I bet you didn’t know the Florida Panthers were 11th best in goals against right now. If you did, see the man at the door for a gold star. Sadly they are also 19th in goals for. The question of what this team does is anyone’s guess. Dale Tallon has shown a willingness to make moves that could lead just about anywhere. Maybe he swings a deal to send Vokoun out west to the San Jose Sharks, or goes digging for some former BlackHawks in Atlanta or Toronto. It’s even conceivable a team with enough injuries might decide they need Denis Wideman.  The team hasn’t made the playoffs in a very long time and was conversely widely criticized for holding on to Bouwmeester too long when his contract was ready to expire just a short time back. With little to offer but prospects and depth forwards, trades might be pretty hard to come by.  A little judicious movement could see the team slide back into the lottery where they could land next years Jeff Skinner or Kevin Shattenkirk.

New York Rangers need only stay and get healthy to stay in a nice spot. The with Fedetenko set to be back before the deadline, and Christensen having just climbed off the IR, they could be movers at the dead line upgrading here and there. With 3 million and cap space and a few movable assets, the blue shirts are in a position at least a dozen NHL teams would like to be occupy. With the part-time demotion of Michael Del Zotto to the AHL, one can’t help but wondering if he’d be available to teams shopping for a mobile blueliner.

At each and every level of sports, from the smallest childrens league to the seniors tour on the PGA, there is no single word or concept that contributes more to the success and growth that league or the individuals within it like rivalry. About the only thing you can get the most rabid homers of the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens to agree on is that either team is far better than the Toronto Maple Leafs. The “I don’t break for Yankees Fans” bumper sticker was seen more often on the cars of Red Sox fans for years than snow tires in February. In basketball the pure and undiluted hatred between fans of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics has nearly transcended the sport and elevated many of them into knowledgeable basketball fans and not merely boosters of the hometown colors. In football the rivalries are wide and varied, the Dallas Cowboys, Redskins, and 49ers were always out for blood, the Patriots and Colts have rivalries up and down their rosters starting with their franchise cornerstones Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

With rivalries comes passion, and with passion comes attention, fans and revenue. In the first season out of the lockout the Boston Bruins averaged about 3000 more fans per game than the Carolina Hurricanes, despite having a wretched season where they finished 26th in the league. The Bruins renewed their rivalries with the Leafs, and the Canadiens. The entire Southeast division was still new enough to squeak, and still has yet to develop the bone deep hatred on the part of fan-bases and the instant intensity that typifies the Battle of Alberta, or the unlove between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils.

Anyone who’s has ever been to a game where two rivals are playing knows the difference in the stands, on the ice and even in the press box between that just another game.  We’ve just seen some of the first Californian players brought into the NHL, and other southern markets are making their attack. But in order for the sport to not just survive but flourish I think it’s time for the NHL to move away from the current balanced schedule to something that places a higher emphasis on divisional and conference play.  I eat, drink and sleep hockey and could watch six or seven games a day without getting tired of it, but lets face it, the games between two teams who only see each other once or twice a year and have never met in the playoffs are a bit less interesting.

Despite the excitement and drama of last nights Bruins vs Stars game or the Stanley Cup rematches with the Flyers and BlackHawks, inter-division games are generally low spirited games with little to recommend them. Watching the Islanders and Coyotes square off even if you can name twelve members of each roster without slowing down is nowhere near as entertaining as a Devils – Islanders or Coyotes – Kings tilt would be. Part of that rivalry is familiarity, and knowing the skills and skulduggery you’ll see on the ice. Devils fans look forward to games against the Rangers in part because they know Sean Avery will be in the lineup and up to his usual antics. A decade ago Bruins fans were continually frustrated by games against Hasek and the Sabres, but couldn’t not tune in because they knew the game would be intense and no matter how many times the good guys were stymied, the level of skill on display would be awesome.

Need further proof? Take a walk outside the Boston Garden on a Bruins game day, go look at the vendors on the street.  You’ll find all sorts of gear lauding Bruins past and present. Everything you can imagine from PJ Stock, Rick Middleton and Bobby Orr to Tyler Seguin, Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic. The things touting the local boys are only half the story. You’ll also find scores of masterpieces and lesser works that target the oppositions fans and players. A favorite of fans across the region last year was the Bruins own sign outside the Boston Garden that said “Never date a Flyers Fan, even if she shaves her mustache.” a t-shirt that reads “Habs suck and Carey swallows.” was so popular the vendor selling them blew through his entire inventory before well before the game started. I doubt its much different in any major market with a true rival. What you won’t find outside the Garden is single item that makes any reference to even despised players like Steve Ott from other conferences, nor will you find anything about superstars Lidstorm, Thornton or Sedin(s) because in the end unless it is a playoff meeting those teams and players just don’t matter.

For it’s long term growth the best thing the NHL could do would be to ditch the current schedule format. I love good hockey, but I don’t need to see the Bruins faceoff with the Kings in January or October. Seeing Vancouver and Florida cross swords is even less of a priority. Would I tune into a Calgary vs Edmonton game? Absolutely, even as rarely seen as those two teams are if there’s no short of passion in that rivalry, and if I can’t watch my home team, like any other sports fan I wanna know both teams are going to go after it with a will and a passion.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.
If I told you in September…

  • in All Star week, that Evgani Malkin would not only be not in the top ten league scorers, or on the All Star team, but behind Patrice Bergeron, rookie sensation Jeff Skinner, Dustin Byfugelien, Brandon Dubinski and Mikko Koivu… while sitting at #50
  • the Boston Bruins would have a rookie with a shot at catching Taylor Hall who’s name was not Maxime Suave, Joe Colborne, Jordan Caron, Jared Knight, Tyler Seguin, or Ryan Spooner, but Brad Marchand…
  • that the same rookie would lead the entire NHL in shorthanded goals ahead of players like Mike Richards, Pavel Datsyuk, and and other well known penalty kill game breakers.
  • the Boston Bruins would be #5 in goals for, with little help from Marc Savard.
  • the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres would all have better powerplay percentages on 1/24 than the Washington Capitals.
  • that Michael Ryder (7) and Mark Recchi (6) would combine for as many powerplay goals as Alexander Semin (6), Mike Green (5), and Alexander Ovechkin (2) at the end of January.
  • Kari Lehtonen and UFA to be Brad Richards would be leading their team to the second largest division lead in the NHL (5 points)…
  • the LA Kings would be staring down the barrel of the trade deadline with the third stingiest defense in the Western Conference, a goal differential of +13, and still sit four points out of the playoffs and nineteen points out of the division lead to a team with a goal differential of -7
  • that Ilya Kovalchuk would have the most goals on the New Jersey Devils, and the worst plus minus with 14 and -27.
  • that Peter Budja, Johan Hedberg, and Maple Leafs rookie James Riemer would have more wins than Tukka Rask
  • the Dallas Stars division lead, and +14 goal differential would be in spite of having the lowest ranked penalty kill of any playoff team.

If I told you all these things in September, how many would you believe?

Today the Boston Bruins faceoff with the Avalanche, in Denver.  Not only do they face a high powered Colorado team that is currently fourth in the NHL in goals for, they have to face their traditionally sloppy afternoon play. As a team they have been poor to awful in day games for years. Even the games they do win, it’s usually much more of a contest than it should be. This is something they will need to fix, especially if they are going to have a successful cup run. Games against Vancouver, Dallas, Pheonix or Anaheim played out west will be well off their normal 7pm ET starts.

Matt Duchene, David Jones, John Michael Liles and company will try and gain separation from Chicago and Minnesotta. With a win today, and a Ducks regulation loss the Avalanche would jump from 8th to sixth in the tightly packed west.  Duchene is just one goal from his twentieth of the season, and just a couple points below a point per game season.  Former Bruin Matt Hunwick knows his old team well enough to cause problems if no one keeps an eye on him.

For the Bruins, Patrice Bergeron will look to slide back into scoring form having been kept off the score sheet two games in a row. Milan Lucic might just be able to break loose and push the Bruins goal scoring pace a little harder than he has of late. Tim Thomas can climb into second place in wins today if all goes well, if it goes really well he can once more put Henrik Lundquist behind him in shutouts.

The Lost Nordiques and the Boston Bruins have a history of trades, the most memorable of which was the trade that sent hall of famer Ray Bourque to win a Stanley Cup. This trade idea is slightly less laden with all star and all time names, but could result in one or both teams making their own cup run again. This would be a three player trade that provided both teams with something they desperately need.

To Boston:

Chris Stewart,

Why: Goal scoring touch, feisty attitude, big body. Putting Stewart with Savard or Bergeron and you’re instantly upgrading size,  scoring depth and physicality. With the

To Colorado:

Daniel Paille, Blake Wheeler

Why:  Colorado’s defense and especially penalty kill are woeful. The have the 27th ranked penalty kill in the league, and not surprisingly they sit at the same place for goals against. Both Wheeler and Paille possess speed in the top 5-10% of the NHL, and even if they are a slight downgrade in goalscoring, between the two of them they can probably improve the penalty kill 5% minimum.  As the highest scoring team in the NHL, a five or six goals for over the course of the regular season are not going to spell disaster.The Avalanche are likely to be flowing into the post season for the second straight year, and a key to sticking around to see round two will be improving their penalty kill.

Cap consideration:

Annualized, this would save the Bruins about $400,000 this season,  and cost the Avalanche the same amount according to Capgeek.com. Both Wheeler and Stewart are RFA’s at the end of their deals according to NHLNumbers.com, with Wheelers expiring this year, and Stewart next season. Paille would be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2011-2012 season. Even with the cap expected to rise next year, long term the Avalanche are looking at some a some serious number crunching. The recently acquired Tomas Fleishmann is due a new contract at the end of the year, and he’s clicked quite well with Matt Duchene. Duchene’s entry level deal will end at as next season expires, and I can’t imagine him signing cheap. At 34 Milan Hejduk is still trucking along and is currently a more than point per game player through 28 games this season. Sooner or later the Avalanche will have to replace the aging Adam Foote who eats up a lot of time on their penalty kill, and it’s doubtful they can get anyone worth having at a cap hit as low as his. For the Bruins the cap savings might mean the ability to recall Caron, or Arniel and maybe take an extra player or two on road trips without taking a prohibitive cap penalty that will carry over into next year.

Lights. Camera. Action!

Some of the teams in the NHL would have you believe they star of their own summer action adventure flick. In some cases they’ve even been mowing down the opposition with a Rambo like pace. Despite what history says about teams who are in playoff position in December, being in the playoffs in, some teams are going to fall down the ladder, and some will fall out entirely.

Anaheim: They currently sit just five points behind the division leading Dallas Stars.  Seventh place in the west isn’t always a bad place to be, right now it shows how much they are over achieving, and how weak the conference is as a whole. The Ducks are 21st in both goals for and goals against, and their penalty kill is a dismal 24th.  About the only strength of the team is their ninth ranked power play. With all those weaknesses, its not surprising with the most games played in the NHL, as many as six more than other teams that they currently lead a few other teams.

Montreal: Yes, I am a Bruins fan, yes I think Price is at best the fourth best goalie in the division, but take at look at who they Habs have played and a few other stats, and you will be as unsurprised as I am to see them significantly lower in the standings than they are today when April rolls over the NHL. Almost half of their wins are within their division.  A 9-3-0 record in your division doesn’t do bad things for your points total, but when the division only has two teams worth naming this season, it can do bad things for your view of how talented you are. While they are scoring some wins, scoring is hardly their strength. At 18th in the league and seven spots behind the other team worth talking about this year in their division.  While Price is playing the best hockey of his career, its doubtful he can keep up quite this good for the 65-75 starts he’s likely to get at the current pace he’s on. His previous high is 52 games.

Tampa Bay: With Stamkos cooling off, and a goaltending tandem that is the worst in the NHL its awe-inspiring to see them in playoff position right now.  They are the highest ranked team in the NHL with a negative plus/minus.  To put it another way, they are currently tied with the 26th place Edmonton Oilers for most goals allowed. The Boston Bruins currently have the best goals against with 65 goals allowed, Stamkos, St Louis and the rest have allowed 108 goals. They are clearly rebuilding the right way, and the type of offense they have now, will probably be attractive to free agents this summer.

Call it a NFL strike, call it a lockout, call it a stoppage the NHL should call it a golden opportunity. Matt Jordan (@InfamousMJ) and I were discussing how the National Hockey League should respond to a non season by American sports rating juggernaut. The short and simple answer is aggressively. There are three key things they need to do. It’s arguable that they should do them regardless of what happens to the NFL, but inexcusable to do nothing in the even of a work stoppage.

Step one, secure a better national television deal.  Easier said than done, but with the popularity of the Winter Olympics, a lack of the NFL, and the success of the Winter Classic, easier now than five years ago, and probably easier than at any time since Gretzky was on the ice.  The deal should specifically include former NHL players as announcers and analysts. They should be low on bias, high on knowledge and above all engaging. We all know how deep the homerism runs in many of the regular announce guys, and while hearing the virtues of a certain number 87 or 8 or 91 extolled on a nightly basis work great when you are calling for the home squad in a regionally available game, doing the same when two other teams are on the ice is just inexcusable.

Step two, attack the NFL time slots. People who are football fans arrange their entire week around the game, tailgating, the game, pregame shows, post game shows and yet more games and coverage. Stacking Sunday with three high profile, high energy, and may play into traditional geographic rivalries of the NFL would be a huge boon. The first three weeks of the stoppage would be critical. Having a 1pm Boston Bruins – New York Rangers game, followed by a4pm Chicago Blackhawks – Detroit Red Wings tilt, and a 7pm Dallas Stars – Colorado Avalanche could draw huge ratings from traditional hockey fans and traditional sports fans alike. Following it the next week with a Stanley Cup Final rematch, and then the Capitals – Penguins,  and Sabres – Kings or something similar that drew on big name talents, and big markets. Monday night could be even more critical than the Sunday games though. Having a top flight on announce and studio team, a long enough time slot for pregame, and post game show and a good half hour of general NHL chatter to point to other interesting games on the weeks schedule. Ideally all of the Monday Night Hockey games would be playoff rematches or competitive rivalries from within divisions.  Realistically, their should be just one game Monday that everyone can talk about the next day.

Step three, don’t apologize. The shameless courting of soccer moms as the saving demographic for hockey is so nonsensical I won’t waste any more wordage on it. Mixed Martial Arts has blown up faster than Charles Barkley did after he hung up his sneakers.  Movie franchises like Saw, and the never ending series of vampire movies, books and television shows such as Underworld, True Blood and Twilight show that the American populace as a whole has no real aversion to blood or violence in its entertainment.  So when Shawn Thornton and Derek Boogard square off, the camera crews should not have been directed to pan the audience or get a nice shot of the ice girls, or the announce crew.

With even decent execution of these three things, the NHL could slide up the American sports ladder, and maybe, just maybe not only avoid contraction, but be able to expand in both America and Canada. If things were executed well, it’s not outside probability for the teams struggling in Tampa and Sunrise Flordia, and in Phoenix Arizona, or Columbus Ohio to grab enough new fans to take root and grow the sport hugely. Its conceivable that with a work stoppage, proper exploitation of it by the NHL and NHLPA that in ten or twelve years we could have a forty team NHL. New teams could be set down in places like Indianapolis, Houston, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Las Vegas, Seattle, and who knows, maybe the Toronto and Montreal areas could support second teams.  On top of the potential work stoppage by the NFL, the NBA collective bargaining agreement was made for six years back in 2005.

It’s game day, and the Bruin’s will resume what may be their fiercest non divisional rivalry. Over the decades,  the teams have exchanged hits, slashes and players. Recent history includes the concussions to Bruins star forward Patrice Bergeron, former Bruins defenseman Andrew Alberts, and the broken wrist of David Krejci. None of us will soon, if ever, forget the loss last spring of a series that seemed well in hand. The list of players responsible is longer than just Mike Richards and Tuukka Rask. David Krejci owns some of the blood guilt for not paying better attention to who was around him during a playoff series against one of the more physically aggressive teams in the NHL, management owns more than a little for hiding the extent of Thomas’s injury and not even considering bringing up another goalie for situations like we saw unfold.

Tonight will also be the first Bruins game after the trade of Matt Hunwick. Without Hunwick the Bruins have gotten slower, less agile and less experienced. While I’ve held some reservations about him, I think the loss of speed will show if not tonight, then soon. While McQuaid’s physicality will be welcome against the Flyers, he’s not get the same foot speed or offensive potential. With Marc Savard so close to his return, the angst and competition for roster space should have hit overdrive. It’s a given that Matt Hunwick will not be the last hometown hero we say good bye to this season, the question of who else goes is still up for debate, but it’s coming and sooner rather than later.

Today’s 5 questions:

  1. Who scores first? The Bruins are unbeaten when scoring the first goal, the Flyers are .714. the stats suggest this could be important.
  2. Who wins the battle of the premier defensemen? Pronger seems to get more press, and has a ring, Chara is a more impressive physical specimen and didn’t get mocked by the juvenile delinquents who hoisted the Cup this spring.
  3. Can anyone of the Bruins regular centers win more faceoffs than they lose, other than Bergeron?
  4. Will Patrice Bergeron finally bust his goal scoring slump? If so can he match his November goal total tonight?
  5. Which goalie steal the show tonight? There are three potential show stoppers on tap, Thomas, Rask, and Bobrovsky. Who steps up?