This may be the best first round matchup for hockey. The Kings have won a cup recently, as have have the Ducks. The Sharks spent half a decade as the favorites to win it and still haven’t. A first round meeting of two California teams where the winner will quite likely play the third California team is likely to catapult the youth hockey enrollment numbers. And yes, seeing guys like Carter and Richards go toe to toe with Thornton and Pavelski will be more than a bit fun to watch too.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks a very interesting mix of household names and guys no ones ever heard of. They have arguably the deepest six defensemen in the NHL, without having a guy currently at an elite level back there. Thornton and Marleau will get most of the media attention, but Vlasic, Pavelski, and Couture have worn out some boots this season getting them here.

Best Players

While Joe Thornton is still the best pure passer in the NHL, he’s not getting any younger, Joe Pavelski is a different case. They younger Joe is clearly at, or possibly just reaching the height of his powers, and Marleau just keeps trucking along.

X-Factor

Do they want it? This team has not ever reached its potential. Some years they went into the playoffs very damaged, others they got hurt early, and some years they just showed up and expected to win. This year they need to go attack the ice like it is their last chance at glory and their only hope at salvation, because it just well may be.

Los Angeles Kings

Same story, different year. The Kings enter the playoffs this year with bottom tier scoring and top end defense. The backup goalie could be a starter on many teams, and the late season trade piece (in this case Gaborik) are expected to scare up offense for the whole team. If you’re looking at recent history, that was what happened their Cup year. Can it happen now? Who knows?

Best players:

Jonathan Quick is having a solid, if not spectacular year, Drew Doughty is still improving in his own zone, and Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are the only two players who managed to break 20 goals this season. For the team to make a deep run, they are going to need help from all over the roster.

X-Factor

Goaltending. If Quick can regain his cup winning form, or Martin Jones goes in and makes people look as foolish as he did in the regular season, the Kings will likely be playing in May. They will still need to score goals however and that has been a problem in LA for at least half a decade.

This is a playoff pairing we haven’t seen much of. Neither team has been all that impressive over the last half decade. In the first meeting between the two back in 2003, the Wild prevailed in the first round meeting. In the more recent meeting in 2008, the Avalanche prevailed. Not many players are left from either squad. The Avalanche were the surprise of the season. Wild were plagued by injury at all the worst possible times, to all the worst possible players. The Avs chased down the division title, and the Wild fended off the Stars and Coyotes, which brings us here.

Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche surprised everyone this year with new head coach Patrick Roy getting superb offense and adequate defense out of a rather lopsided roster. In the previous season the defense was woeful, and the offense only pretty good. Led in scoring by Matt Duchene and in goals by Ryan O’Reilly, two even younger players in Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon were key in their success contributing 50 goals good for second and fourth in team scoring.

Best Players:

Semyon Varlamov has spent the last three seasons reminding his former team simply by playing what they gave up. No more so than this year when his .927 sv% brought the Avs to the playoffs while the goalie brigade in Washington brought them to the golf course early. Landeskog and Duchene are two guys who are going to be household names for a good long time up front.

X-Factor

We’re now in the playoffs, and this is still a very, very young team Duchene, Landeskog, O’Reilly, Mackinnon were the top four scorer’s for this team and their average age is about 21 and enough time to recover from an epic hangover. If their offense can’t get going, their defense isn’t up to saving them in a best of seven series.

Minnesota Wild

The Wild are a very odd team to quantify, they only had two player hit twenty goals this season. But they were 7th in goals against despite a brigade passing through the goalie crease as Darcy Kuemper, Ilya Bryzgalov and John Curry all spent time in net in place of Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis) and Niklas Backstrom (he’s Niklas Backstrom) spent significant time sidelined. They do have Matt Moulson and a few others that might be dangerous if played well by Yeo, but not many teams are going to be intimidated by the offense the Wild have historically put on the ice.

Best Players:

Ryan Suter is probably leaving Las Vegas with the Norris trophy. If he doesn’t, there should be damn good story around it. Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville both need to watched carefully, and Marco Scandella’s days of flying under the radar are overdue to come to an end.

X-Factor

Mike Yeo doesn’t have much experience as an NHL head coach. This is his third season, and second playoff trip. He should know his players (most of them) better than his opposite number knows the Avalanche. If he can push the right buttons a the right time, the Wild do have a chance at the second round.

This series could be described as “A Tale of Two Cities In Freefall” by someone who particularly loved Dickens. That writer would no doubt treat their readers to a wordy, drawn out description of the teams records fillled with references to the a book most people never bothered to suffer through; that writer isn’t me. Neither the Blues who ended the season on a zero for six slide, nor the Blackhawks who played mediocre hockey have much to shout about coming into the post season.

Saint Louis Blues

The list of players dinged up over the last month of the regular season for the Blues reads like a who’s who of the team. David Backes spent time on the shelf, Olympic sharp shooter T.J. Oshie was down-checked, faceoff stud and defensive stalwart Valdimir Sobotka is down and out. Vladimir Taresenko hasn’t taken the ice since mid march, and both Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund found themselves in need of time to heal. Which makes it remarkable that the team was still within striking distance of the President’s Trophy until the final games of the regular season. This is a very talented team when healthy, who work hard and are coached well.

Best Players

On a team this deep, it is hard to winnow the list. Backes and Steen have gotten a lot of attention, but Oshie was second on the team in scoring. On the backend, it is hard to argue that the a more talented group has hit the ice for a playoff run since Bourque and Roy were in Colorado together. This team has three defensemen who could be considered number ones in Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk. In net they have Vezina winner and Olympic medalist Ryan Miller who is having one of his better years despite how much of the year he spent on the woeful Sabres.

X-Factor

This team has all the talent in the world, how well the execute and stay focused will determine how deep they go. Two years in a row they ran into the Kings and produced two brilliant, beautiful series which they lost. This year its the Chicago Blackhawks on the agenda.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

The defending champions had a very fast, very talented roster. Where the Blues thrive in games that are ultra physical and play a counter punch style many nights, the Blackhawks are quite happy to win on pure skill and determination. This team can make lots of great passes, the core group has been together a long time, and know each other very well. Of that core, Hossa, Toews, and Kane have all missed time due to injuries.

Best Players

Like the Blues, this is a pretty deep roster. Sharp led the team in scoring in the regular season, Seabrook is a very effective defensive-defenseman, Keith might be on the shortlist for the Norris, and not many GM’s would take too long thinking about a trade package coming their way that included Toews or Kane.

X-Factor

How much will fatigue and the physicality of the Blues affect this team? The Stanley Cup finals didn’t end until just before the draft in late June and most of this roster was part of that win, many of their top players played in the Olympics, and they do not have home ice advantage in this series.

The Pittsburgh Penguins enter the playoffs this year after being ignobly dumped in last years Eastern Conference Finals. The Columbus Blue Jackets missed the playoffs last year by the slimmest of margins and the city will see NHL playoff hockey for just the second time. The Penguins almost have to win the Stanley Cup this year to protect the jobs of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma. The Columbus Blue Jackets have had their bench and front office shuffled repeatedly since they were last in the playoffs, and advancing almost certainly means contract extensions not just in the suits but for ice level backbone Sergei Bobrovsky.

Pittsburgh Penguins:

If there is a NHL team or player that gets more attention on or off the ice than the Penguins and Crosby, I’m not sure I know who they might be. The Captain of the Penguins is Sidney Croby, Olympian, 1st overall pick, MVP winner and a regular part of the NHL scoring race, when healthy. Evgani Malkin is another highly talented forward who floats between wing and center for the Penguins, he’s expected to be back on the ice for game one. Which version of the team will we see when the puck drops? The composed heavyweight contender we see in the regular season or the strung-out jobber that has ended their season in chaos more years than not since they won the cup?

Best Players:

Crosby, Malkin and Neal will likely have to carry even more of the burden than normal. Kris Letang, will be in the lineup after recovering from his stroke, but at what percent? His timing will be off, and he’s never been known as a staunch defender.

X-Factor

While pointing at Fleury would be accurate and easy, it isn’t going to be the biggest factor. The Penguins are used to scoring just about at will. When they don’t they come unglued, in this series they are facing one of the best goaltenders in the world with a very mobile defense in front of him. If they can’t solve Bobrovsky early and often and lose their composure they will be watching the second round and not playing it.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

It would be an overstatement to say they are just happy to be here, but; they are just happy to be here, at least until they hit the dressing room. For an organization without a lot of playoff experience, the roster has quite a bit. 155 games among their forwards alone led by the currently injured Nathan Horton who has a Stanley Cup run behind him, and RJ Umberger one of the teams best known veterans. More importantly there is some playoff experience on their backend with Fedor Tyutin a holdover from the Jacket’s only other playoff experience, Jack Johnson’s resume has been endorsed with some time from his Kings days, and Bobrovsky’s with his time as a Flyer.

Best Players:

Ryan Johansen, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Jack Johnson are the names that spring to mind, but this team could almost be called “starless” simply because of how little media attention the team gets.

X-Factor

Execution. The offensive and defensive stats of the the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t that far apart, just seven goals separated their goals for at even strength in the regular season. Defensively they were again very similar. Once you look at how much better the team did with Bobrovski in net over backup McElhinney, you realize the Blue Jackets aren’t as over matched as some might believe.

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

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 NHL has seen a lot of things in its time. Full fledged bench emptying brawls, skates that cut necks and knees, changes to the rules for icing, and even the glowing puck. Each of those has come and gone, and some will be seen again. The NHL and how it is perceived in the world have survived all of those things pretty well. I’m not sure the hockey world is ready to embrace Patrice Bergeron as a frequent flier in the church of sin.

Sure Bergeron plays on every inch of the ice doing whatever is needed to push the team along towards success. He’s killed penalties, played in all possible spots on the power play and skated with some highly questionable “N”HL talent some years. What he’s never done is be among the Bruins PIM leaders. Of the currently active Boston Bruins just three guys sit ahead of him, two of them got their with a combined seven fights, Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic, and Brad Marchand got their partly on reputation and partly because he’s Brad Marchand being Brad Marchand.

Any one who’s watched Bergeron play over the years has seen him frequently enter a battle along the boards or at the blue line, engage full force and walk away with the puck. What we haven’t seen him do is take many penalties. His career high for penalty minutes was during the 2009-10 season when he racked up just 28 over the course of 73 games. This season in a slim 36 games he’s already up to 25, including his first regular season NHL fight. A fight which came only a little over six months after a playoff bout with Evgeni Malkin.

The operative question is: Why? He hadWhen you add up with the number of penalty plays that can be laid at the feet of frustration in the last year or so, you have to ask what is causing this?

Possibility A:

  • He’s unhappy with the effort one or more of his teammates are bringing to the game night in and night out.

If so, he’s in theory trying to spark the team to more emotion, or maybe make himself trade able in the eyes of fans and management.

Possibility B:

  • He’s underwhelmed with the skill he’s been put between and wants to make sure the organization’s leadership sees it for themselves.

If so, he is simply lobbying for the team to spend to the caps that will coming along down the line and is hoping to see either more talent acquired for his line, or a reshuffling of the roster that allows him to play a more offensive part.

Possibility C:

  • He’s got one or more off ice issues that are eating at him.

If this is the case, much as Ovechkin’s slump when his grandfather died, it will work itself out, eventually.

Possibility D:

  • At the ripe old age of 28 he’s having some sort of midlife crisis.

Odd as it may sound, this could be true. He’s won at the WJC, won a Stanley Cup, won Olympic Gold, won Gold at the Spengler Cup, won gold at the World Championship, was an NHL Young Star his rookie season, won MVP & All Star at WJC, the Selke Award and the King Clancy award. Realistically, what else is there for him to do in the NHL or hockey in general?

Possibility E:

  • He’s sick to death of blatant calls not being made by officials and is simply more willing to defend himself now.

At one point Joe Thornton who is a likely hall of fame inductee almost retired because of the amount of nonsense he had to endure, Jumbo Joe is a whole lot bigger than Bergeron. The current crop of NHL officials is suspect on good days, and their aren’t many of those.

Whatever the reason(s) he’s getting more familiar with the penalty box, it is slightly disturbing. At his current pace he’ll likely finish the season around 60 PIMs. That’s more than double his previous high, and not something the Bruins can afford long term in their most valuable skater.

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