For much of the season Keith Aucoin of the Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals affiliate) has led the AHL in scoring. This changed when Aucoin was called up to the NHL for a big part of February so far (though he is back in the AHL now). Aucoin was given very little opportunity in the NHL. He played slightly over nine minutes a game in five games without scoring any points.
While Aucoin has been in the NHL, he has been caught in the AHL scoring race by teammate Chris Bourque. Both Bourque and Aucoin have 70 points so far this season. They are well ahead of the rest of the league in scoring.
The Southeast Division has been the NHL’s weakest for several years. Although they won two Stanley Cups in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning and 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes, they have never had more than two teams in the division make the playoffs in the same season.
This season the division is somewhat changed as the Atlanta Thrashers have moved to Winnipeg. That isn’t a move that helps the division. It merely adds more travel for all of its teams.
At this point no team in the division has more wins than losses. Florida may be in first place but they do so with a league leading 11 regulation tie points. Florida has 11 points in games that they lost. Without that they would not be as high in the standings. They have 27 wins and 29 losses.
The Chicago Blackhawks were in first place in the NHL as recently as mid-November. They are a team with a good young core built around Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook. They also have talented older players in Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. This is a team that won the Stanley Cup as recently as 2009 and a team that could win with a few lucky bounces this year. They have a problem with their goaltending which could potentially be solved at the trade deadline or if an existing goalie gets hot (Corey Crawford having a strong playoff is more plausible than Michael Leighton getting hot for a playoff run and that happened in 2009).
The problem is Chicago has not won any of their last nine games. Their highest offensive output in any game during the slump is four goals against Edmonton (they allowed eight goals). They have allowed at least three goals in each of the games.
For much of the season Eric Staal has had the worst +/- rating in the league. He no longer is the league worst. He appears to be going in the right direction finally. This leaves behind Milan Jurcina of the New York Islanders with the worst +/- in the league. He is stuck at -23.
Jurcina is not an offensive power. He has only six points so far this season. He has never scored more than 17 points in a single season. He is mostly used in a defensive role. He plays one of the tougher defensive roles on the lowly Islanders. This is a situation where a player would be unlikely to get a good +/- rating, but it does not explain why Jurcina is the league worst.
The NHL has never been a perfect league in its ability to find all of the best talent in the world to play in it. Many NHL capable talents never have significant NHL careers. One prime example of that is Yann Danis. He currently is a star goalie with the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL. Danis leads the AHL in saves percentage (.938) and goals against average (1.94). He has had a few trials as an NHL goalie and although they have gone pretty well they never led to a regular job. He has succeeded in the minor leagues and in Europe.
Danis is 30 years old and is signed to a one year contract in the Edmonton Oiler organization. He is playing very well in the AHL and waiting for an NHL shot. If Nikolai Khabibulin or Devan Dubnyk get injured between now and the end of the season he should get an NHL tryout. Otherwise he is likely to leave the Oiler organization without playing any NHL games for them. I am sure he is an NHL capable goalie who with another set of luck would have had a relatively long NHL career.
One of the players who is rumored to be on the trade block at this year`s deadline is Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks. Vancouver has two strong goalies in Schneider and Roberto Luongo and both would like to be the team`s clear number one goalie. Luongo is signed until 2022 with a $5.33 million salary cap hit. That contract is prohibitive to move. Schneider is signed for $900,000 this season and he becomes a restricted free agent. His contract would be far easier for another team to fit into their salary structure.
The Vancouver Canucks are a top team who have a very good shot at the Stanley Cup. The Sedin brothers are 31 and might begin to show decline as they age. The Vancouver Canucks will have trouble keeping their core together into the future under a salary capped system. Thus this might be the season where the Canucks have the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup in the foreseeable future, so they should take their best run at it.
Every season I pick a team that could be a much better Stanley Cup contender if they added a top goalie. My choice last year was the Tampa Bay Lightning. It proved to be a pretty good selection as they added Dwayne Roloson in a trade and then went to the semi-finals in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tampa has not maintained that level of play as Roloson has struggled this season. Given his age (42) it is likely a final age related decline that will end his career. While Tampa Bay again needs a goalie, I think there is a better candidate for a team that would significantly improve their Stanley Cup chances by adding a goalie. They are the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago is the probable playoff team with the worst goaltending this season. Corey Crawford has been their starting goalie and he is posting a .898 saves percentage and a 2.99 GAA. Ray Emery, their backup, has a .901 saves percentage and a 2.80 GAA. Neither has been very good.
It takes a good coach to be able to find a new strategy that nobody else has ever used that is a successful strategy that helps your team win. Alain Vigneault, the coach of the Vancouver Canucks, has developed one such strategy over the last couple of years. While many coaches match lines with the opposition, Vigneault does not do that. Vigneault matches lines to the position of the puck on the ice. Whenever a shift starts in the offensive zone, Vigneault will get his top offensive forward line on the ice as much as possible. This is the line of Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Alexandre Burrows. Whenever a shift starts in the defensive zone, Vigneault will get his top defensive forward line on the ice as much as possible. This is the line of Manny Malhotra, Maxim Lapierre and Dale Wiese. In fact if you look at the NHL players sorted by zone start percentage, you find that these are the top three and bottom three players in the league.
The NHL trade deadline is February 27th. It is two and a half weeks away. One of the big name players who is likely to be moved is Ales Hemsky of the Edmonton Oilers. The Edmonton media is writing pieces to prepare their fans for this inevitability. This is likely not such a smart move. Tyler Dellow writes two intelligent pieces on this situation here and here.
Hemsky has been a good player for the Oilers. In his best years he was ranked in the lower part of a top 50 player rankings list. In a 30 team NHL that should make him the second best player on his team, however on a weak Oiler team he was their top player. He has in his third straight lacklustre season below that level. This has been largely brought on by injury issues. Hemsky has never had as low a value in his NHL career as he does now.
The CHL Top Prospects Game was played last week. Team Orr (coached by Pat Quinn) defeated Team Cherry (coached by Mark Recchi) by a 2-1 score. Here are the rosters from the game. This game is essentially an All Star Game for 2012 draft eligible players in the CHL, but it isn’t a poorly played no defence game like the NHL All Star Game. Players want to make an impact in the game because it may improve their draft position and potentially increase the value of their first contract in the NHL and potentially their chances of making it to the big leagues. Despite the desire to play in the game, some players get injured and cannot play. Nail Yakupov of the Sarnia Sting is one such player.
Yakupov is the probable top pick in the 2012 Entry Draft. He was the CHL Rookie of the Year last season with 101 points scored in 65 games. So far this season he has 55 points in 29 games. He has missed significant time due to injury.
About The Puck Stops Here
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