I finally return to my favorite feature column.

If I told you in September that

Teams:

  • on 2/12 there would be three teams in playoff spots, including the Canadiens, Senators, and Leafs with the Calgary Flames knocking on the door
  • the best penalty kill in the NHL would belong to the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • the Montreal Canadiens would be 2nd in times shorthanded, with 197 times through 57 games
  • the Dallas Stars would not only have a worse powerplay than the Boston Bruins but be in the bottom third of the league
  • the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the only team in February with zero shorthanded goals allowed.
  • three of the top five NHL teams in five on five goals for would be outside the the playoffs
  • nearly one quarter of the teams holding a playoff spot including the Saint Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators would have an even or negative goal differential.

Players

  • Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators would be tied for second in blocked shots per game.
  • Brayden Schenn would lead the NHL in powerplay goals
  • that Sidney Crosby would tied for 86th in powerplay assists
  • Jeff Carter would lead his team and the NHL in game winning goals, including one third of the tallies for the Kings
  • three of the top five rookies in the NHL in scoring would all play on one team: Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander
  • Peter Budaj would have his best career save percentage, the Kings in a playoff position, 26 wins, and the lead in shutouts.
  • two goalies would hold 30 win seasons, Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky, in less than 45 games played and also both be in the top 5 in total saves.

 

If I told you any of this in September would you have believed me?

Look for the next episode of Two Man Forecheck soon!

We’ll talk: Mike Illitch and his legacy, Claude Julien, expansion, the New York Islanders and more. Give my co-host @TheOffWing a follow and catch up on what he’s writing at TheOffWing.com .

Here’s a roundup of some of what’s going on in the hockey world:

I’m a bit surprised we haven’t seen this one from Patrick Kane or Alex Ovechkin.

General Manager Jim Benning is on record as saying the Canucks still need a top six winger. This is not a shock to anyone given that their second and third highest scoring wingers last season didn’t even hit 40 points. Not surprisingly they were second worst in goals for last season with a flaccid 186 goals for the season.

Kirk Luedeke has a look at the impact of undrafted free agents in the Boston Bruins system.

The Franchise To Be Named Later headed for Las Vegas is supposedly held up, in part by the London Knights, a junior team, located half a continent away. Maybe, just maybe for future NHL expansion prospective team owners should have a list of names to hand in with the rest of the paperwork. Personally if they can’t settle up with London, maybe go with Nevada Nighthawks. Seriously, the CFL had two teams with the same name, and somehow we can’t have an NHL team and a OHL team with the same name? How does that work for the Rangers?

It still looks like Vladimir Sobotka should be back in the NHL this fall. The gritty forward has had two solid years in the KHL. Last year he finished second on his team in scoring, up from fourth in his first year playing in Europe.

Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames gets some love, or at least respect out of Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks.

So who is the best Nashville Predator? For my money, I want to see a full season of Subban and Johansen before I make up my mind.

Good-bye Antoinne, and hello Dylan, or maybe Christian, watching the Coyotes off season just got a bit more interesting.

Since it doesn’t appear that Martin Brodeur is going to fade off into the sunset and enjoy the numerous accolades he so richly deserves just yet, the question becomes where can he go play?

We’ll start with some basic assumptions:

  1. He wants to play or a team who is going to win at least half their games as is.
  2. He wants to play for a team who might not have a legitimate number one goaltender.
  3. He wants to be penciled in for for 25-30 starts minimum to start the season.
  4. He wants to hit 700 wins, this year.
  5. A defensive system that favors goaltending is the ideal landing spot.

Those five points eliminate a lot of teams. Towards the top of the heap the Kings, Rangers, Bruins, and towards the bottom the Hurricanes, Panthers, Flames, Oilers and not a few more.

The one place where there is both a need and a fit is the Saint Louis Blues. Brian Elliott has done well splitting starts. Jake Allen has one strong AHL season under his belt. Neither has ever proven themselves to be the goaltender that can go out and play fifty five or sixty games and come out with a winning record and strong individual statistics.

If you look above ice level the need grows even more pronounced. General Manager Doug Armstrong and Head Coach Ken Hitchcock have been in place since 2010 and 2011 respectively, and have only made it out of the first round once, that was in the first year. That is not the upward trajectory that keeps people managers and coaches employed in the NHL. Two out of the three years of Hitchcocks tenure as coach they have finished in the bottom half of the playoff teams in goals against. In his career Brian Elliott has a playoff save percentage of .898 and a GAA of 2.55 in 18 games.

Martin Brodeur has almost as many playoff games played as Elliott does regular season games, and stands up wit a career .919 sv% and 2.02 GAA, his last playoff appearance was the New Jersey Devils run to Stanley Cup Finals 24 games played .917sv%.

This is a textbook case of when to bring in a ringer to make a deep run, possibly even a cup win. Brodeur is a good mentor, he’s won the Stanley Cup before. He knows his time is very, very, limited and given the current roster and how much more some of them will need to be paid in two years, the teams window isn’t much wider. If Brodeur signs for about a million for one season, this could be a marriage made in heaven, if if its just for one year.

The Central division is the toughest in the NHL. Last season five teams from the division made it into the playoffs something no other division in hockey matched. In the division you’ve got dynamic goal scorers Norris quality defensemen, top flight goalies and not a lot of mutual love.

Top Shelf

Chicago Blackhawks

They got edged for a trip to the Finals, and will likely be trading someone pretty soon. Two of their core forwards Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning, but they are probably the best balanced team in the conference. They’ve got got great forwards, strong defense and adequate goaltending.

St Louis Blues

This team is likely to take a half to a full step back this year. Elliot has never thrived as a number-one goalie, and Jake Allen is still an unknown quantity. That said, they may have the best top three for defense in Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, and Bouwmeester. They downgrade slightly going with Steve Ott over Vlad Sobotka, but did add Paul Stastny. Jaden Schwartz remains unsigned and doubtless need to do some catching up when he gets back into the fold.

Wild Cards

Minnesota Wild

Mikko Koivu led the team to the playoffs where he, Ryan Suter and the rest waged a fierce battle in the second round with the Blackhawks. Out are Clayton Stoner and Dany Heatley. Goaltending remains as unsteady as ever, but that doesn’t distract this team. Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and the rest will have to dig deep and pull in some more offense, but this team is capable of laying anyone out.

Colorado Avalanche

The advanced stats and the eyeball test said this team should not have been as dangerous as they proved to be in the regular season last year. It took until the playoffs to prove it. They did lose long time contributor Paul Stastny, and replaced him with the notably older Jarome Iginla. I don’t expect them to fall out of the playoffs, but 112 points again is not that likely. It will be interesting to see how older players like Briere and Iginla adjust to playing at altitude.

The Rest

The Dallas Stars

Finally a return to the playoffs last year. This year among other moves was punting the push and passion of Alex Chaisson for Jason Spezza’s finesse and offense. Anders Lindback will be this years backup in the crease. With a full season under his belt Valeri Nichushkin should be crossing the 20 goal mark this year. Given the changes in the roster, and the injury history of some players, this team a not a lock for the playoffs, but I don’t see them in the lottery.

Nashville Predators

In the off season the Predator made several moves that collectively add up to some big question marks. James Neal an elite sniper was added at the expense of Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Stalberg and Derek Roy were brought in to rearrange the forward group. I have no idea what these players will look like this season, and I don’t think anyone else does either. On the plus side, Pekka Rinne will have a full summer of health under his belt, Seth Jones and the other youngsters have played through the worst of things and the light is indeed brighter this year. Whatever else, the Predators have Shea Weber, and their opponents do not.

Winnipeg Jets

The weak sister of the division, the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in years. Ownership needs to decide if they are building or breaking down, because what they are doing isn’t going to get them a Stanley Cup. They have a lot of talent in Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien. When you look at the talent level at the top, and an average to above average middle of the roster, you have to wonder if it isn’t either the environment or the players themselves. Without reinforcement, and a strong on ice system, this team is not making the playoffs.

With the bulk of the NHL’s best free agents signed, its time to look at who did best.

Metropolitan Division

Winners

Washington Capitals:

They were 21st in goals against last year. What did they do about it? They picked up two 21+ minute a night guys. One who averaged almost 3 minutes a night shorthanded, the other who specializes in lugging the puck out of the defensive zone. Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are at least for the next two to three seasons good gets.

New York Islanders:

Signing up Grabovski long term and sliding him in behind Tavares gives them a smart, two way center who plays with passion. Chad Johnson gives them a pretty solid backup goaltender as well. Are the Islanders suddenly cup favorites? No. Are they are probably eight or ten points better than last season just based on those moves.

Losers

Pittsburgh Penguins:

Greiss is a good pickup, but Ehrhoff is going to cost them one way or another, he’s not good defensively, and if he puts up offensive numbers on his one year contract he’s either bolting for more money elsewhere next year or is going to demand a contract on par with Letang’s. The rest of their pickups were spare change.

Pacific Division

Winners

Dallas Stars:

With the addition of Spezza  (via trade) to the free agent signings the team can look forward to offensive balance for the first time in a decade.

Losers

Arizona Coyotes:

Last year the franchise was on the outside looking in and while Devon Dubnyk is well suited to their needs, I’m not convinced he’s enough to get them into the playoffs.

Central Division

Winners

Chicago Blackhawks:

They found a motivated guy who can play in the 2nd pivot slot and it didn’t cost them much.

Saint Louis Blues:

Taking one of the veteran leaders of a conference rival is always a good get, adding a guy with preexisting good chemistry with some of your top players just makes it even better.

Losers

Vancouver Canucks:

Despite the addition of a good goalie, they are no closer to playoff contention than they were at this time last week.

Atlantic Division

Winners

Tampa Bay Lightning

Adding Anton Stralman to the rest of an underrated cast makes this one of the most credible defensive units in the East heading into the season.

Florida Panthers

They added lots of highly competitive veterans, the skilled Jussi Jokinen, to wrap around their core of young players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. They are a very long shot to make the playoffs, but the pieces they added were priced appropriately (and in Jokinen’s case low) and unlike other teams they haven’t crowded other young talent off the roster allowing for young players to come in and win a roster spot and NHL experience for the future.

Losers

Boston Bruins

A laundry list of miscues means that the players signed by this team since noon on July 1 and the departures of a very solid backup and hall of fame forward leave the team worse off than they have been in years. Realistically, I doubt any Bruins fan had even heard of either guy, and its not a stretch to say their agents probably have trouble picking them out of a crowd.

Detroit Red Wings

What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Red Wings didn’t add any talent via free agency, and history tells us any of their draft picks this year are four or more years from the NHL.

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.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The revamped central division is almost impossible to predict. The teams in the current configuration came from the defunct southeast division, the old central,  and even the former pacific division. There are new coaches, radically reconfigured teams, and a whole new attitude in some places.

St Louis Blues:

Good news: The offense has been bolstered for the the first time in recent memmory with an offensive minded center in Derek Roy.

Bad news: Even if they get the contributions they hope from Roy, Tarasenko, and others, they are going to need  a lighter hand at the reigns in the offensive zone to move into the top ten teams in scoring in the NHL.

Nashville Predators:

Good news: No one is paying any attention to them this season, even with Seth Jones part of the squad. No pressure from outside gives them underdog status all year.

Bad news: Management fell on its face in failing to upgrade the offense at all in the off season.

Minnesota Wild:

Good news: The team is well balanced on paper with both solid defense and offense. Mikko Koivu may even get noticed for the Selke he should own at least one of by now.

Bad news: How well they do on the ice will depend on how well coached they are, and how healthy they are. At least one of those is a major concern.

Dallas Stars:

Good news: They have better skill at center than they did last year. Jamie Benn, Alex Goligoski, and the crew are very, very hungry.

Bad news: Still not a lot of depth. Chemistry might take a while to develop.

Chicago Blackhawks:

Good news: Still the 700lb gorilla in the division. Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Jimmy Hayes and Brent Seabrook are all good reasons they’ll be hard to beat.

Bad news: They can’t count on the luck with health they had last year, and it is almost impossible they will be as hungry so soon after winning.

Winnipeg Jets:

Good news: Frolik and Scheifele bring talent to the center position. Jacob Trouba has looked solid on the blueline, and Dustin Byfuglien might just have his best year to date, and is on pace for 246 points.

Bad news: People in the Jets front office still think Olli Jokinen is a top center.

Colorado Avalanche:

Good news: No one ever, anywhere will ever misunderstand how important anything is to their Patrick Roy. Gabriel Landeskog is back to lead his young team upwards.

Bad news: The roster has several very talented players, but how good of a team they are is a complete unknown.

Top three teams:

Chicago Blackhawks, St Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild.

The Blackhawks lead b a wide margin, the Blues have such a strong system and talented blueline it is almost impossible for them not to make it back. Having gotten to the playoffs once, the Wild are practiced and hungry to erace last years drubbing at the hands of the BlackHawks from the memories of their fans.