The big news story of yesterday was that Chris Pronger will miss the remainder of the season due to post-concussion syndrome. Chris Pronger is a Philadelphia Flyer defenceman who is signed to a problematic contract. He is signed through the 2016/17 season with a salary cap hit of almost $5 million dollars a year. This is a 35+ contract which means that it stays on the Flyers books no matter what. If Pronger retires or is sent to the minors, this nearly $5 million salary cap stays with the Flyers. There is only one way out. Pronger has to be on the long term injured reserve.
The Philadelphia Flyers have a long history of placing essentially retired players on LTIR for years. Currently, Ian Laperriere and Blair Betts have been on the Flyers LTIR all season. Neither is expected to play in the NHL again. Laperriere missed all of last season on the LTIR as well. Darien Hatcher and Mike Rathje also spent significant time on LTIR when they were essentially retired. Rathje spent almost four years there.
One thing I try to figure out as I follow an NHL season is which player, who is earning a regular shift, has been the worst player so far this season. In the early parts of this season it has been a goalie; most recently Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets has this dishoner. He has had over a month to improve his case. He suffered a head injury in practise and went almost a month between starts. Curtis Sanford took over in goal for the Blue Jackets and did a pretty solid job. Eventually Mason would return. He played a strong game winning against Vancouver on Monday night. I think he has played well enough to remove himself from worst player in the league status, though he has not been having a strong season.
My current pick for worst regular so far this season is a depth player who regularly dresses and has not done anything positive in his playing time. By season’s end, this is usually the kind of player who is the worst regular in the season. My current pick is Chris Thorburn of the Winnipeg Jets.
A week ago I picked Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks as the Hart Trophy leader. Toews hasn’t scored in the past week and has slipped to eighth in the NHL scoring race.
We can look at the NHL scoring race for other candidates. Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been at or near the lead of the scoring race since the beginning of the season, but he isn’t so strong defensively and could be beaten for a more well-rounded player. Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers is the current top scorer in the league and is also out with a concussion.
If we look to the goaltenders, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins has been the best but he gets about a third of the games off since his backup Tuukka Rask is also an outstanding goalie.
Yesterday the Los Angeles Kings announced that they fired coach Terry Murray. It appears this move was pushed along by media reports (such as this one from Helene Elliott) that reported the firing was coming soon. The Kings do not appear to have their next coach in place yet and promoted assistant coach John Stevens to coach at least for the interim. It appears that Darryl Sutter is the likely replacement but he hasn’t been hired yet.
Terry Murray had been relatively successful as the Kings coach. He made the playoffs in the last two seasons of his three plus years as their coach. The Kings have been flat so far this season. They have a 13-16 record with four regulation tie points. This places the Kings in 12th in the West Conference. They are only two points out of eighth place and a playoff berth.
Just like the NHL there is parity in the AHL. It is has been hard to assess which team is the best in the league. I think one team is showing it is the best of the bunch. They are the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oiler affiliate). They have a record of 19 wins and 7 losses (1 in a shootout) for 39 points. They also have a +23 goal differential. This gives them only a one point lead in the standings over the Houston Aeros (Minnesota Wild affiliate), but the Barons have been a stronger team as shown by their better goal differential and lesser reliance on regulation tie points.
The Edmonton Oilers are a young improving team in the NHL. This level of success at the AHL shows that they have a deep group of potential NHLers. The Oklahoma City team is not dependent upon one or two star players. It has a deep group of offensive players. These include Ryan Keller, Philippe Cornet, Gilbert Brule, Mark Arcobello, Teemu Hartikainen, Josh Green and defenceman Alex Plante. Most of these players are likely to be given NHL shots in the future and several already have NHL experience.
In order to win big in today’s salary capped NHL it is necessary to have key players who play at a level to far exceed the price of their contracts. One common way to do this is with star players on entry level contracts. Recent examples of Stanley Cup winning stars who far exceeded the cost in their entry level contracts are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin. Thus it is valuable to keep players on entry level deals from making their NHL debuts before they are NHL ready if they are still teenagers. Teenaged players on entry level deals have the start dates on their entry level deals slide a year if they remain in junior.
Further a player becomes an unrestricted free agent at age 27 or seven years into their NHL career. If they enter the NHL at age 18, this happens at age 25. Thus it is in the best interests of teams to keep players on entry level deals out of the NHL when they are still junior aged unless they are 100% sure the player is NHL ready. Even if the player is NHL ready, it can make sense to keep the player in junior. In an extreme case, I argued that it would be reasonable if Edmonton sent Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back to junior.
Less than a week ago I picked Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings as the top goalie so far this season. He was the best of a crowded group of top goalies in part because of the high number of saves he has had to make with the Kings. Very quickly things have changed. Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins has emerged as the top goalie so far this season.
Thomas has a .941 saves percentage and 1.83 GAA. These are even better numbers than he had in either of his two previous Vezina Trophy seasons. The only goalie in the league who has comparable numbers is Brian Elliott of the St Louis Blues. He is nominally a backup goalie, though he has split the Blues goaltending work with Jaroslav Halak so far this season. Thomas has not played as many games as some other goalies either because Tuukka Rask is a solid backup in Boston.
One longterm question that I like to think about is which current NHL players will make the Hockey Hall of Fame and at which point in their career have they cemented that honor regardless of what happens in the remainder of their career. I think Daniel Alfredsson has recently surpassed this threshold.
Alfredsson is the first line right winger with the Ottawa Senators. He currently has a respectable 16 points in 23 games played at age 38 (two days before his 39th birthday). He is a good player well past his prime years. If the All Star voting ended today, he would be voted a starter in the game this year. That is not to say that he is one of the best three forwards who would deserve that position based on his current play, but based upon nostalgia he is a compelling pick.
It is rare that the lowest scoring team in the NHL would also be a playoff team but that is the case right now as the Los Angeles Kings have the lowest goals per game in the league at 2.26. The Kings would also be the eighth seed in the playoffs began today. Despite being the lowest scoring team in the league, the Kings have outscored their opponents by one goal.
The Kings defensive success comes from strong goaltending from Jonathan Quick as well as a top defence led by Drew Doughty. Their problem has been scoring. At this point only two players have ten or more goals. They are Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards. Richards is out with an upper body injury, so their offence could get even worse in the short term. The only other King with more than five goals is Simon Gagne. The Kings have a lack of significant goal scorers this season.
It was still October when I picked Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs as the early season MVP. While Kessel remains the top scorer in the league, he has not been the best player in the league so far this year. I would give that award to Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. Toews is three points behind Kessel but is a much better defensive player. Toews is a potential Selke Trophy winning defensive player. His defence more than makes up for those three points.
Jonathan Toews is developing into one of the best players in the game. If he continues to develop and the chips fall in the right places, he could be an all-time great. It is still early in his career and that is an optimistic statement for a 23 year old player who has yet to have a better than point per game season, but it is possible. Jonathan Toews has been the most valuable player in the league so far this year and he potentially could be among the most valuable players for the next many years.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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