The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the most disappointing team in the NHL every year since they won the cup in the entire eastern conference. The Sharks arguably are worse, but then San Jose never actually won offering up the proof that they could, the Penguins did. Why is the new broom needed?

The problem isn’t lack of talent. Whatever else can be said of Crosby, Letang, and Fleury, they have not covered themselves with glory in the playoffs. When they did win the cup, Malkin was the Conn-Smyth winner, Fleury allowed more goals than any other goaltender in that post season. Crosby now has seventeen post season games with just one goal. In this years post season he generated zero points in six games. Letang was scoreless in ten games. In his case, he is coming back from a stroke and a lot of time off, but since being drafted he’s only crossed 75 games in one regular season. Whatever good Letang may do a team offensively, and that’s undeniable, defensively he leaves room for notable improvement.

If anyone needs explained to them why Marc-Andre Fleury needs to be ousted from the Pittsburgh crease, I really can’t help you. He’s a living blooper reel of post season gaffes. His ability to track the puck in pressure situations in almost non-existent. This years .915 sv% is by far his highest in five post seasons, last year he lost the starting job to a man who hadn’t played in the playoffs in about a decade.

Dan Bylsma has failed to keep this team focused in the playoffs every year since his first full season. Five playoff runs, all ending with him looking befuddled on his way to the handshake line after no visible attempts to camp the troubled waters on his bench in the previous several games. The last two years they’ve gotten through their first rounds not because they deserved to win based on the way they played, but because neither the Islanders nor Blue Jackets possessed any measure of playoff experience. This year with America’s best hockey players on his roster for the Olympics he did nothing. The team failed to medal because he is a one trick pony; put the two best offensive players together and pray. That’s it.

Ray Shero has been hunting a white whale for years. Year in, year out he goes out and looks for “someone to play with Crosby”, he brings someone in, they don’t gel, and that person gets shuffled to Malkin’s line where they normally produce at least at the level they did before arriving there. But the subtext to what Shero has done the past half decade is even more alarming when you realize who most of the players brought in were. Last year it was Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, both former team captains, in the past almost everyone brought in has worn a letter. Why? Whether he is willing to admit it or not, some part of him recognized the lack of leadership at ice level. And yet, he kept doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

For Pittsburgh to improve the changes need to be wholesale; Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma need to be given their walking papers. Sidney Crosby and at least one of Marc-Andre Fleury or Kris Letang need to go as well. Without changing the supposed leadership, and the actual faces of the team you can’t change its direction, mental composition or yearly fate.

The Nashville Predators cut ties with the NHL’s longest tenured head coach. They did it in the nicest possible, way of course but not renewing a contract is only different from firing in semantics. Barry Trotz who was the only head coach the Preds, their fans, and the world had known is soon to be merely the first head coach in team history. The issues with finding a replacement however are complex enough that his replacement is not only sure to be there less time, but significantly less time.

The main issues are:

  1. Nashville is not a major market.
  2. General Manager David Polie has to be on ice as thin as any general manager.
  3. The Predators have no history of success.
  4. The direction ownership and management wants to go in will severely limit the potential pool.

On the first point there is no arguing. On the third point there is even less. The team has won less than one playoff game a year sine its inception. The franchise has won exactly two playoff rounds in its history, not in the same year. The hero of one of those series was Joel Ward. A solid player, but not the guy who should be carrying a team.

David Polie had the opportunity to thicken the solid water on which he stands this year in selecting the American Olympic roster and coaching staff. He had every American player in the NHL, SHL, AHL, KHL, USHL, College, and CHL to choose from. No coach would say no. No healthy player would decline. The American program four years ago rocked the hockey world by beating Canada in a pre-medal game, and taking the eventual gold medal winners to overtime.

This years squad did nothing. Literally nothing. They flopped. The flailled about in the medal round and lost to Finland int he Bronze medal round, a game where they failed to bounce back from a loss to Canada. When the games mattered, the coach, hand picked by Polie couldn’t keep them focused. The squad he picked with no need to budget minded, no limitations on when they can talk to free agents, and no worries about how they’d adjust long term to a pretty small city and its dearth of entertainments.

Of these points, as other places have proved, the second and fourth points are most important. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles all had major market attractions, solid enough fanbases to support a team, and resources. What they lacked were a general manager who had an unassailable position, and ownership committed to making the team a winner. The Nashville Predators are not as far gone as the Oakland Raiders or the Atlanta Thrashers were in terms of disaffected and negative affect ownership, but are not at the upper tier or even the middle.

To find a coach that gives them the chance of moving among the elite of NHL franchises, the ownership needs to decide which group they want to be in, make the right choices and the right man will become available.

 

Gary Lawless and other have decided that the Winnipeg Jets most recognizable defenseman, an All Star, Stanley Cup champion, and Olympian is just not good enough.

When you compare him to some of the defenseman who make a similar amount of money, you can see where some complaints about his defensive struggles can creep in.

  • Brent Seabrook is a consummate defensive defenseman often overlooked because he plays in Duncan Keith’s shadow.
  • Ryan McDonagh is quickly becoming one of the best known defensemen in the entire NHL. Part of that is playing for the New York Rangers, part of it is that he’s just that good.
  • Kevin Bieksa has some deficiencies, but has never been the focus of his team, he’s above average but not elite.

And then there are the players who make about the same who are not notably better than Byfuglien, and likely worse, or at least with questionable consistency and or frequent health issues.

  • Dennis Wideman, known for bobbling pucks at the blueline, and that’s perhaps the most noticeable consistency in his game, it should also be noted that no team with Wideman on it has ever made it out of the second round of the NHL playoffs.
  • Keith Yandle, probably the most comparable in on ice production. The biggest difference between the two is Yandle plays in a highly defensive system where there are several high end defensive forwards and good goaltending.
  • Paul Martin of the Pittsburgh Penguins would be lucky to named in the first ten by anyone not reading off the teams roster, and despite playing in front of a goalie with better stats than Big Buff, he’s got an on ice SV% that’s actually further below the #1 goalies Sv%.
  • Nicklas Kronwall is a bit better defensively, and again playing in front of better goaltending, but offensively? He’s played about 60 more games than the Jets blueliner, but has about half the goals.

No one burdened with glorious clue has ever called Dustin Byfuglien the best defenseman in the NHL. He is however one of he most recognizable due to his size, melanin level, skating ability and offensive prowess. He’s also hands down the most recognizable player on Winnipeg Jets. The same way people you used to say Joe Thornton could or should do more during the Boston Bruins 2000-01 season, there are upper ceilings on everyone’s talent and more importantly the fact that good player, great player or elite player they can only be in one place on the ice.

In the entire history of the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise, the team has never had any real depth. Their top six forwards after one and two, or very occasionally three have been a toss up. The top four in defense has largely been a matter of who had the endurance to play 22 or 26 minutes minutes and who didn’t. While Byfuglien can undoubtedly play better (possibly moving to right wing) he’s not the worst defenseman in the league, or even the worst in his pay bracket.  Whatever is wrong with Byfuglien’s play, and it does certainly have issues, Byfuglien isn’t even in the top 5 problems for the Winnipeg Jets.

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

 

Players:

  • Dion Phanuef at a staggering .956 would have the highest on ice sv% of any NHL defenseman with 30 or more games played.
  • that after leading the Ducks in scoring in the 2011-12 season, and finishing fifth in scoring last year, Teemu Selanne would be 12th in points this year.
  • of the top 10 players in PIMs one would be both a first round pick, and a teenager; Tom Wilson.
  • also among the top 10 players in PIMs Radko Gudas would be the only one playing more than 20 minutes per night.
  • US Olympian Cam Fowler would not only lead the Ducks in total ice time, but shorthanded TOI/G as well.
  • despite fewer games and trailing the overall points race Patrick Kane would lead the NHL in road points.
  • of the top to players in points at home, only two would appear in the top ten for road points: Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby.
  • Blake Wheeler would have the highest points total of any right wing against his division.

Teams:

  • the Phoenix Coyotes would be the only team without a shorthanded goal.
  • based on Capgeek.com rankings, the top 10 spending teams would all be in the playoffs, 2 of the bottom ten (Montreal, Colorado) would be in leaving just 4 playoff teams in the middle 10.
  • the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators would be the only teams without even one shootout win.
  • 40% of the Washington Capitals wins would come via the shootout, higher than any other team currently in a playoff spot.
  • the 26th place Florida Panthers would have as many wins in 41 games this season as in the 48 game lockout shortened season.
  • the Nashville Predators would be the only team to not allow a shorthanded goal.
  • the Calgary Flames would be the only NHL team to play three full games without a penalty, and all three would be in November: 3rd against the Blackhawks, 20th against the Blue Jackets, and 30th against the Ducks.
  • the Minnesota Wild would be the only team to make it to the new year without a bench penalty.
  • 4 of the 5 most teams with the most PIMS would be in a playoff position while only three of the five least penalized would be.

The Olympics are growing closer and closer as the NHL season is finally escaping the early season mire. Some teams are still playing at a level that no one predicted, others are about where the consensus pegged them. At this time of year it is easier to get a handle on where players will be in the rankings when it comes time for the NHL to dim the lights and the spotlight turns to a Russian city just north of Georgia on the Black Sea.

Alex Steen

While the Canadian team’s wealth at center is deep enough that they could fill all 12 forward positions with worthy centers, they likely to go for a more balanced approach. This is too bad because it means that Alex Steen who is tied for the NHL goal lead with that other Alex might be left off the final roster. 10 goals in 9 games is a tiny bit of a hot streak. Last year in 40 games he had just 8 goals, in a season that was anything but normal. Don’t be too surprised if the Winnipeg Alex is skating against the Moscow Alex in Sochi.

Ryan Miller

If dictionaries were updated on a weekly basis Websters would have a picture of Ryan Miller, his stats and the Buffalo Sabres record. The American goaltending picture for this year was supposed to be some combination of Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings and Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators. The third goalie might as well be an inflatable sheep since it was as likely to see action as whoever was behind those two. In the cold light of reality, Miller is outplaying Quick by such a wide margin it isn’t fair to Miller to compare them.

Let’s take a look:

American born NHL goaltender stats October 27 2013

American born NHL goaltender stats October 27 2013

 

 

And when considering the USA crease, while Quick has won a Stanley Cup, Miller has played in the pressure cooker that is the Olympic tournament and done very, very well.

Mark Giordano

Of the top six Canadian NHL defensemen in scoring which one plays more than 25 minutes a night, has played a season (plus playoffs) for Dynamo Moscow, and also has World Championship experience? If you guessed the Calgary Flames blueliner named Mark Giordano, you’re pretty good at this. Add in 18 blocked shots, and the fact that he plays over three minutes a night short handed and on the powerplay and you’ve got a compelling package. When you consider he’s in the upper echelon of scoring while on a poor team he’s taken over as captain of, you have to work hard to leave him off the roster.

Tomas Hertl

The soon to be 20 year old Czech made the jump from Europe to the NHL on his first attempt, is playing just below a point per game pace. Not may people outside his home nation and the Sharks offices had him on their radar coming into the year. He got off to a phenomenal start, caught some (worthless) criticism for showboating, and has leveled off since. There is still time to pull himself back on track, if he does, there’s a chance he’s sharing the ice with a lot of guys who grew up watching.

Torey Krug

The second year defenseman out of Michigan State is currently leading all American defensemen in goals scored. Three of his four have come on the powerplay helping his Boston Bruins improve enormously in that regard. With six points in ten games, the points pace he’s on is every bit as good as Ryan Suter, particularly when minutes played are factored in. Anyone who’s watched three minutes of Krug’s play should have no concerns about his ability to handle any sized ice sheet.

One of the best coaches in the NHL was fired, and his general manager‘s loss, could push another coach out the door. Peter Laviolette has won the Stanley Cup as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, and the AHL championship with the Providence Bruins. With him available, it is unlikely any coaches already in jeopardy will sleep any better.  Here are some coaches who might want to avoid signing any long term leases or lawn service deals.

Mike Yeo:

The Minnesota Wild head coach is currently sitting on an 0-2 record having been run over in the playoffs last spring. The roster is the best it has been in the franchises history, and if he can’t get the team into the hunt for a top 3 spot in the division, he might not be wild about his future.

Dan Bylsma:

The regular season hasn’t been a challenge for the Pittsburgh Penguins since before Bylsma took over. With his Olympic hockey distractions, any faltering of the team in the regular season might lead him out the door for a new voice in the locker room.

Michel Therrien

His  clashes with core players alone make him vulnerable. Add in the fact that he is a retread, who fans and media may not hold in high esteem and the theatrical bench boss of the Montreal Canadiens might find his second stay a bit shorter than his first.

Barry Trotz

Trotz is currently the longest tenured NHL coach, and the only coach in the franchises history. What he’s hasn’t done is get a (questionably constructed) team out of the second round. He’s only even gotten them there twice as is. If the no especially flexible coach can’t find it in himself to push for a more balanced approach to the game he may find himself relocated from behind the bench.

Even if all four of these coaches hold on to their jobs, it is hard to imagine Laviolette will one be the only coach fired this season, and two not be on the very short list to fill any vacancies.

October 1:

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens will get the headlines, but if you want the best game of the night, it isn’t this one. It isn’t The Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, it is the Washington Capitals taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, you’ve got a banner raising, the return of Russian Olympic torchbearer Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, John Carlson, Mikhail Grabovski, and Brooks Laich all ready healthy and ready to go.

The star power on both sides is great, goaltending is about equal. This may be the best game of the week.

October 2:

With just three games on the docket, another easy choice. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers both underwent huge roster turnover since last spring. One was a playoff team and may manage it again, the other needs to get into the playoffs or heads will roll. James Van Riemsdyk and Luke Schenn will faceoff against their old teams, and it least one of roster will sport a different goaltender than the last time these two teams met.

October 3:

This is an almost impossible night of coverage to choose from. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning always put on a good show, and this will be the first night on the ice for the Bolts new captain. The Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings should be a good tilt, the jilted former champions versus the rising power looking to wash away the stain of being pushed out of the playoffs so easily. The Saint Louis Blues and Nashville Predators will square off with what could be two of the best backends in the NHL.  But the game of the night will be the San Jose Sharks and their playoff feast the Vancouver Canucks. The changes in the Canucks lineup and coaching will make the game even more compelling.

October 4:

Friday night will be a smorgasbord of NHL action. The game of the night is easily the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres. These two division rivals will square off with both hoping to be in the top three in the new Atlantic division. With Boston and Montreal to compete with every point, every game, every shift counts and these teams know it. Ottawa was in the mix last year, but new captain Jason Spezza will want to bring the boys to the top of the standings from the starting pistol to the final horn.

October 5:

Saturday’s game of the night is easy: Original 6 action. The Boston Bruins host the Detroit Red Wings. Both the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins were laid low by the Chicago Blackhawks last June. With the Red Wings playing as an eastern conference team for the first time in a generation, both fan bases will have to work overtime to get this rivalry to something with a bit of hate in it. Kronwall and Lucic will provide devastating open ice hits, Bergeron and Datsyuk will be on display as three zone aces, Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard will be in the crease making their case for inclusion on their nation’s Olympic rosters for Sochi, and Zdeno Chara and Henrik Zetterberg will be captaining each ship in the first of five regular season battles.

This week Alex Ovechkin will take on the job of Olympic Torchbearer. It isn’t a job they give out randomly, you have to be the best, the best and the best known. You have to exude the essence of your sport. The Alex Ovechkin who fulfilled NHL fans dreams of a more exciting game coming out of the dead puck era was exactly that man. He dominated defenses and gouged goaltenders from day one. That is the man who was selected to be a torchbearer.

For the first five years of his career Alex Ovechkin was the torchbearer, the icon, the beacon of scoring prowess, love of game, and over powering exuberance. You couldn’t go a game without some jaw dropping display of hand eye coordination and athleticism. His goal celebrations were legend. More remarkable was how hard it was to know if he’d scored or a teammate, he just loved goals.

Two season back, he a wall. His goal production dropped twenty goals in just one year. Their were rumors, all sorts of rumors. Some of it was the usual anti-Russisan xenophobia so typical north of the 49th parallel. A closer look at the dip will reveal personal problems off the ice, and injuries to both himself and key pieces of the Washington Capitals offense. About the same time a coach ran out of tricks for motivating teams. A new coach came in, and he wasn’t that good.

This year we’ll see Alex Ovechkin playing under a hall of fame player turned coach. Better still, we’ll see him playing under a coach who respects him and understands offense as well anyone who has ever played the game. Backstrom is healthy. Green is healthy. Laich is healthy too. Grabovski has something to prove. The team is poised for 90+ points and another playoff appearance.

But will we see Alex Ovechkin regain the top rung? In recent years Stamkos among others have grabbed the headlines and bright lights. Can the 28 year old dynamo from Moscow compete with the fresh young (Canadian)  faces? With a healthy team, and a wide open division what is a good benchmark for success? Will 40 goals be good enough for the man who averaged over 53 goals a season his first five years? Does he need to eclipse the 50 goal mark? We know the great 8 will take up the Olympic torch in Greece, what we don’t know is if he can reignite the NHL torch and once more be its frontrunner.

The 2012-13 season had highs, lows and surprising blows. Sidney Crosby jumped out of the gate and pounced on the scoring lead. Then out of no where a puck breaks his jaw and puts him on the shelf. Elder statesmen Craig Adams and Chris Kunitz led the way appearing in all 48 games while Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Paul Martin and Kris Letang all missed extended stretches. When all was said and done, with their backup goaltender turning in better stats, the Penguins were the eastern conference champions when the final regular season game was played.

The playoffs saw the Penguins escape the New York Islanders in the first round, no thanks to Marc-Andre Fluery who allowed 17 goals in 5 games and turned in his second worst playoff performance. Thankfully, there was Tomas Vokoun. In eleven games, and making his first playoff appearance since his long ago days with the Nashville Predators, Vokoun won six games, carrying the team through the second round against a depleted Ottawa Senators squad and holding the fort in what would prove to be Daniel Alfredsson’s last game in a Senators jersey. Against the Boston Bruins, Vokoun was the most blameless of the teams top players as they were swept out.

Of the core components to start last season, all are returning. None of the playoff reinforcements remain, and a mistake that was made in years past was corrected, Rob Scuderi is back in Pittsburgh. The opening five games of the season represent a chance to jump out on top of their division against not very stiff competition. Not one of their first five games is against a team that made the playoffs last year. The only set of back to backs is the last pair of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. All five of their opening games are also in the eastern time zone.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils

Weakest opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7+

There are several big questions looming over the team despite their undeniable collective talent. Will the Sochi Olympics cost the team any players lost to injury or fatigue? How much of a distraction will head coach Dan Bylsma’s Olympic coaching duties distract from his job as behind the bench in Pittsburgh? Will the teams official player leaders develop their leadership to a point where Ray Shero won’t feel the urge to bring in two other teams captains to help right the ship for the playoffs? And of course, when the playoffs start, will the team remember how to play in both ends of the ice? Getting to the playoffs is almost a given, even with two more playoff quality teams in the East is almost a given, but recent playoff failures raise the question of their exact nature of their mental fortitude.