Each year we as 30 teams go careening through the grueling season hell bent on playing at least sixteen more when it is over, we have the chance to see the most difficult and most subtle position played by the good, the bad, the forgettable and the elite. Getting the Norris trophy (normally) means you are an elite defenseman. Here’s the guys to watch this year.

  • Shea Weber, he’s long overdue, his team has a shot at the playoffs with the improvements up front, and the return to health of Pekka Rinne.
  • Ryan McDonagh, a new name to watch, he’s got two solid tenders to play in front of, a decent squad even without Stepan or a few weeks, and his team is fresh off a deep playoff run.
  • Drew Doughty, I’d have been much happier to see him win last year than the guy who did, and I don’t expect his performance to dip this season, top level defenseman with the most Ray Bourque like mix of skill and skating of any player in the NHL.
  • Zdeno Chara, the elder statesmen of the top end defensemen in the NHL, he’s go one Norris, and the defense crew he plays with now just got younger and less experienced.
  • Alex Pietrangelo, this is one of the players who doesn’t get recognized because he doesn’t have one outstanding area of strength that’s easy to pin down, however he also doesn’t have any areas where he’s average or below average.
  • Ryan Suter, top shelf defenseman who was suffered mutual penalization with Shea Weber for playing together, now playing with a rather young mostly nameless defense.
  • Victor Hedman, consistent producer of points, while his actually defensive numbers don’t fall into the same league as the rest of he watchlist, he’s still more worthy than certain recent winners.

It is a truism in sports; football, and hockey most of all that defense wins championships. We’ve seen it year after year. This year it seems to be adding a wrinkle to itself. Powerplays are costing teams games. Not by failing to produce, but by favoring offense so heavily, they aren’t prepared to play responsibly.

The Dallas Stars in game two of their series with the Anaheim Ducks were down two to one in the third. They were on the powerplay. On the ice are Valeri Nichushkin, Sergei Gonchar, Colton Scevoir, Cody Eakin, and Trevor Daley. Gonchar at age 40 is not in any way the skater he was ten or fifteen years ago. Nichushkin is rookie who is not only in his first NHL season, but his first season playing hockey in North America. Facing them were Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Ben Lovejoy. Either Getzlaf or Fowler deserve watching, and if you fall asleep at the switch with both of them on the ice, you deserve what happens next. The Stars did.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead last night, they went on a powerplay, and lost it. All the momentum they had, and it was notable, the disorder of the Blue Jackets was equally notable. But the Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, the same man who was in charge of a very mushy team USA roster not long ago, puts out a PP of Malkin, Crosby, Niskanen, Kunitz an Neal against a team that had nine short handed goals in the regular season. The most defensively capable of that group is probably the 34 year old Chris Kunitz. As you know, the BlueJackets scored, the Penguins did not and the scramble began. Momentum was reversed, an the game ended ugly for Penguins fans.

In the first game of their series, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens.  The Bolts are up 2-1 on home ice, a raucous crowd is making the building shake. P.K. Subban is in the box for slashing.  Onto the ice storm Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, they are joined by Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and completing the unit is Valeri Filppula. We can argue about who the best defender in that group is, its probably Callahan, but it doesn’t matter. They got cute, and got beat by Brian Gionta setting up Lars Eller. To highlight how little offense the pair produced only seven more points than rookie Ondrej Palat, and neither actually surpassed Stamkos who was limited to 37 games and 40 points, while Gionta and Eller played 81 an 77 respectively. While the teams went back and forth scoring on a game that went to overtime, the Lightning never led again, and lost the game.

Last season was not the best year in the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was also not the worst. This year for the first time since the 1998-99 season the Lightning will be without Vincent Lecavalier. The former 100 point man, part of the team’s only Cup win, was bought out. Regardless of who is named captain in his void, the player that will be matched in most minds with the is Steven Stamkos. To be successful this year, the team needs more from everyone who isn’t named Martin Saint Louis. Matt Taormina will have to contribute more than he did for the New Jersey Devils, Victor Hedman will again have to justify his 2nd overall selection in the 2009 NHL draft. Sami Salo, and Mattias Ohlund will have to not just roll the clock back but impart what they know about the NHL game to younger players.

While Jonathan Drouin is the crown jewel of their off season, what success the team has this year will come from other sources. Two of those are Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. Without at least one of these goalies stepping up and delivering 45 or so games of .920 sv% goaltending this team has little chance of making the playoffs. Ryan Malone, Eric Brewer and Valterri Filppula are all valuable veterans, and they need to take the game to their opponents end this season and keep it there.

The Lightning will open the season with a three game trip. First up are the Boston Bruins and their Stanley Cup finals opponents the Chicago BlackHawks. The final stop on the road is a 7:30 date with the Buffalo Sabres. When they get home their cross state rivals the Florida Panthers will greet them. Finishing up the opening gamut are the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is by no means an easy way to open the year, but there are winnable games.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities:  4

Best opponent: Chicago BlackHawks or Boston Bruins

Weakest Opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 2

Projected points: 4

If head coach John Cooper can get everyone playing well, the team will no doubt improve over last years 14th placing in the east.  The turnover in forwards and the introduction of Cooper’s style last year will no doubt help the transition, but the roster isn’t isn’t overwheming, but it isn’t among the NHL’s very best, but they won’t be a bottom five team if things go well. Developing the young players like Drouin and any other prospects who make the team should be priority one this year.

Day one was anything but boring. Trades of players. Trades of picks. Off the board picks. Players sliding. Oh what a night.

Of the trades the one that got the least attention but might prove the most impacting was announced early. Troy Brouwer, a big aggressive winger went from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Washington Capitals. With the improvements on defense the Capitals showed last season, adding a Cup winning forward to the mix who will play physically and knows how to win. He’s comfortable on both wings, and having him opposite Ovechkin should simplify the problems for whoever is playing center for them.

The once unmovable contract of Brian Campbell has been moved. It may not really count because the general manager who signed the deal originally, is the man who acquired him. The Florida Panthers sent Rostislav Olesz, and moved up four million dollars in the salary cap space.

Probably the most shocking trade to take place was the swapping of two players that looked to be cornerstones of their teams. The NHL Entry Draft host Minnesota Wild sent former first round pick of the fabled 2003 draft Brent Burns, and a second round pick to San Jose. They in turn sent the recently resigned Devon Setogouchi stud prospect Charlie Coyle and a first round pick to the state of hockey. While both teams got something they need, I’m not sure you can call this anything but a win for the Minnesota Wild.

My two favorite picks, of the first round were for Landeskog and Larrson. The Avalance get a type of attitude that is simply lacking. There’s while not quite a belligerence, certainly the type of drive and swagger that is seen in Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla that the denizens of Denver just plain lack. For Larrson, he’s just the right fit at the right time for a team rebuilding on the fly. Ideally both players would play in the NHL next year. The Devils can bring Larrson along slowly in a limited role. I did think it was odd to hear Larrson damned with the faint praise of having better hockey sense and more physicality than Victor Hedman.

Mark Scheifele is probably the single happiest man in hockey right now;. Taken seventh by the reborn Jets, as their first pick in their return to the market he could be this years Jeff Skinner. Appallingly happy to be taken, personable and photogenic. the Jets new GM was gushing in his interview. This was clearly a hockey pick, unlike a certain franchise than drafts locals for language, but long term if Scheifele pans out it could be the best PR pick made by an NHL team in years. I also like that the team went a bit off the radar without making a huge reach to take him.

 

We all saw game six. We know which break downs occurred, and we’ve all seen enough Bruins hockey to know that isn’t the top level of performance they can deliver. Hell, putting it halfway up the ladder for the teams effort and execution as a whole would be a gross injustice to the games in which they were merely bad a times. So let’s take a look at those reasons for home.

10: Thomas Kaberle looked comfortable and confident on the ice. This is perhaps the first time this series he as done so. In nearly twenty minutes of play not only was he not the worst player on the Bruins, he was an actively competent.

9: The powerplay worked. The boost in confidence for the players will likely carry over to other areas of the game.

8: In Boston, on home ice Julien will have the last change. This means the ability to put Seguin out there when Lecavalier, St Louis and Stamkos aren’t.

7: Mark Recchi by anyones standards had a bad game, and being the old warhorse that he is even if pride doesn’t intervene, habit probably will. You simply can’t play in the NHL as long as he has, climb as many record charts and not be in the habit of excelling.

6: The Bruins as a whole failed to exploit the three weakest defensemen on the Tampa Bay roster for goals. Only one of the Bruins goals was scored with Hedman, Lundin, or Bergeron on the ice. In games four and five, one of those three was on the ice when the Bruins scored four of their six goals.

5: In this post season Tim Thomas is 4-1 in games after he allowed four or more goals.

4: In this post season the Boston Bruins have not lost at home, after losing on the road.

3: Johnny Boychuck who was on the ice for all five goals against in game six had what is unquestionably the worst game of his career, and can’t conceivably turn in a worse performance. In two game sevens with Boston, Boychuck has a 1-1-2 +2 line with a powerplay assist.

2: Patrice Bergeron who had his first minus game of the series has not had two minus games in a row in 15 post season appearances.

1: Teddy Purcell, Martin St Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Steven Stamkos who all scored in game six, have not scored two games in a row in this series.

 

Like game four, this two was a tale of two games. The opening fifteen minutes of the first fifteen minutes the Bruins looked like they were waiting for someone to put gel on the paddles and shock them back to life. The last five minutes of the opening period were a much closer affair with the Bruins holding the edge in intensity. While this was hardly a perfect game,. the Bruins got out of it the only thing that matters. The win.

Faceoffs were a decidedly different affair tonight, the Bruins clearly dominated this stat. Patrice Bergeron with 15 and David Krejci with 14, combined for just one less faceoff win than the entire Lightning roster. Peverley, Krejci, Bergeron and Kelly were all over 50% on the dot tonight and that speaks to effort. Lucic made a beautiful pass to set up Hortons goal. Not only did this breakup a slump by Horton it was redemption for the two penalties he took playing overzealously in the early stages of the game. Adam McQuaid probably deserved the 3rd star in tonights game, being paired with Kaberle most of the night and then adjusting to playing with Ference after Boychucks injury, but you can absolutely make a case for six or seven guys making it into the three stars.  Marchand got sent to the sin bin for diving while Hedman sat next door for an interference call.  Late in the second Patrice Bergeron would pass the puck from the far boards to the crease rushing MArchand and the rookie would fire his way into the scoring column getting the eventual game winner.

The third period was text book playoff game with effort from all parties and intensity in all areas of the ice. The referees ended the parade to the box, and the players never stopped moving and scrambling. The only part that marred it was the very predictable, uncontrollable Steve Downie taking a stupid penalty. This type of play is bad for hockey, bad for his team and yes bad for Johnny Boychuck who was injured on the play and never returned. The scrap, pushing and shoving after the game was both predictable and acceptable. It adds spice, and because everyone knows its coming nobody on the ice is surprised by it or sucker punched.

While the Bruins still couldn’t make the powerplay click, they tried at least one new look including having Chara in the crease and slot area. The screen this presents and the reach he has not to mention the difficulty of moving him is something the Bruins should try every third or fourth powerplay. St Louis, Lecavalier, and Hedman were all kept off the score sheet. While the media, and some fans will focus on the fact the Bruins are just one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, they are equally two losses away from the golf course.

This was clearly a tale of two games. One of twenty minutes. One of forty minutes. It’s not surprising that the team that played better over the larger amount of team was smiling when they left the ice.  The Bruins played twenty masterful minutes to open the game with Patrice Bergeron rolling and raping the Lightning for two unassisted goals. One a short handed goal in which he picked off a Stamkos pass and skates two thirds of the length of the ice and leaving Roloson floundering.  The first was a Kaberle-level brainfart by Clark and Hedman that yielded the game opener.

After Roloson took himself to purgatory at the end of the Lightning bench the Bruins never seemed to exhibit the swagger and drive. Later in the game Recchi was shown with a big grin on his face, even though the Bruins had not shown up. At this point in a game he’s usually all business and about business. Kaberle after a disorienting ascension to  the dizzying heights of competence was back to his now familiar subterranean skill set, a pathetic shot block, then a screen on Thomas that was picture perfect from Guy Boucher’s perspective led to the go ahead goal. Thomas and Chara combined for a horrid turnover in that can be blamed at least in part on the forwards leaving the ice who started coasting to the bench from about the tops of the defensive circle. This left Thomas and Chara to deal with five opposing players all deep in the zone. Thomas could have frozen the puck, Chara could have taken it to the boards but this level of failure requires a committee and they were just two members of it.

Gagne got a goal that counted, but again the story of the off season for the Tampa Bay Lightning wasn’t the big guns. Purcell had a pair of goals just sixty three seconds apart. Bergenhiem continued his assault on the stat sheet. St Louis got a meaningless empty netter. Aside from St Louis goal, the big three for Tampa Bay was kept quiet or exposed. Lecavalier managed an assist. Stamkos had the Bergeron turnover on the powerplay, no points and just one shot on goal in over 18 minutes of play.

God awful effort after about eighteen minutes in the first period for the Bruins. Krejci was a -3, never got a shot on goal and might as well have forfeited his faceoffs winning just three of twelve. Sadly, Krejci’s effort was probably equal to Kelly and Campbell’s put together. They combined to go 4 of 15 in faceoffs, neither recorded a hit or a blocked shot and both were nearly invisible when not screwing up.

While the impact was minimal it should be pointed out that the call on Marchand for interference was just as good as the team effort after the first, and the non call on Smith for tripping was even worse.

There’s no excuse for a game like this. No team has gotten to the Conference finals without coming back from behind a few times. No team with four guys who have passed forty or more goals on their resume is out of a game when only down three. Complacency kills.

Two men are standing head and shoulders above the competition this year in the NHL. No, I’m not talking about Zdeno Chara and Tyler Myers who can probably shake hands from opposing bluelines. I’m talking about two players simply dominating their positions and contributing to a revitalization of their team, and division. Both are chasing records, both have had their names on the tips of peoples tongues for the last year or so. I’m talking of course about budding hockey icon Steven Stamkos and the sixth oldest goalie in the NHL this season, Tim Thomas.

With a very hush-hush hip injury, and a broken hand that received better press, it’s safe to say Tim Thomas’s year last season might not have been very pleasant. Add to it the fact that everyone expected him to be the undisputed starter working fifty five to sixty games, and being in the hunt for a Vezina for a second straight year and you might get the idea that in the season he did have unpleasant moments were the highlights. Losing his confidence, his starting role and his dream of winning Gold at the Olympics there wasn’t much that didn’t go wrong for Thomas. Capping it off glued to the bench while his team crashed and burned in the playoffs probably means that despite stomping through the early goings of the season, he still hasn’t gotten the bad taste out of his mouth.

Knowing now how unhealthy Thomas was all last year, its hard to remember the form that took him to the Vezina trophy the season before. Well, hard unless you’ve seen him play this season. In that 2008-2009 season where he not only lead the league in goals against and save percentage, but improved both numbers through two playoff series he had just five shutouts.  In fifty four appearances he had a shutout about every ten games. He finished the regular season with a .933 Sv%, and a 2.10 GAA. He went eleven games in the postseason with .935GAA and 1.85 GAA. All impressive numbers. This seasons through 16 starts, he’s averaging a shutout about every three games. After stonewalling the highest scoring team in the eastern conference, the Philadelphia Flyers, he’s once again in the familiar position of being on top of the league in Sv%, with a .955, and GAA with a tiny 1.46.

If Tim Thomas were to keep at his pace, and play the same number of games as his Vezina season he’d have a staggering 16.875 shutouts. That number would be neat, and put him second on the single season NHL shutout chart.  A mere 13 shutouts would make him the most prolific producer of this stat since well before Jacobs bought the team, in fact you would have to go all the way back to the 1927-28 season to find a Bruins goaltender better when Hal Winkler was Boston’s backstop. If Thomas plays to his 66 game career high, at the current shutout pace he’d land at 20.625 shutouts, or 1.375 shutouts short of the all time NHL record held since1928-29 by George Hainsworth.

The hype and drama that has surrounded this Markham Ontario native is unrivaled by anyone since the lockout ended. Ovechkin, Malkin, and Crosby made huge waves as the NHL’s marketing department tried to wash away the stain of the lockout. No one since has had half as much attention. If Steven Stamkos manages to chase down the elusive 70 goal plateau, he’ll join the rarefied heights that only a handful of NHL players have ever reached. Steven Stamkos is chasing the opposite dream of Thomas. He’s chasing 70. The list of players to reach that level isn’t long; Gretzky (4 times), Lemieux (2 times), Hull (3 times), Kurri, Nichols, Esposito (the first to do it), and the last active player to do so, Teemu Selanne who scored 76 back in the 92-93 season. Selanne’s 76 goal season. 1993 is the year Stamkos turned three.  Some of the names not on the list of the 70 goal club are rather surprising: Iginla, Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Heatley, Nash, St Louis, all of whom are known for putting up league leading goal totals.

Right now Stamkos is on pace for 68.88 goals. This would incidentally top Ovechkins gaudy goal scoring best. With so many of his games in the Southeast division which doesn’t boast a single top ten defenseman, Stamkos has a damn good shot at seventy. When you factor in the supporting cast of Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St Louis, Ryan Malone, Victor Hedman and the occasionally healthy Simon Gagne, that’s a lot of talent (when present) to defend against, and even elite defenses can only be in so many lanes at once.

So, will either record happen? 23 or 70? If they both happen do these become the most sought after jersey’s in youth and beer leagues across North America? Or would it be 35 and 91? Can the NHL build up a useful marketing campaign on either of these chases? Probably not, they’ve been force feeding two men to the entire continent since before the lockout ended. This despite the fact that the jersey sales success of Milan Lucic, the still lingering PJ Stock tshirts, and the instant recognition Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Ryan Miller and others get even in places where hockey is just a rumor. Of the two, I have more hope for Stamkos’s chase, it won’t really require the NHL to change templates, just the name on it.

I think having both of these records broken in once season could be the best thing to happen to the NHL in a very long time. With a whole boatload of weak number two goalies holding down number one slots, and less than five fifty goal scorers in each of the last several season it’s time to revitalize both positions. For “the Bettman Ideal” of 80’s style OK Corral style games more snipers are needed. For teams in small markets, or places where high end talent is hard to retain, having a top  notch goalie is a powerful building block.  When it comes right down to it, both are in the NHL’s best interested if they want to remain the premier hockey league not just in North America, but the world.