Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens had a slow start to the season due to injury. As he played he moved into the award picture. In mid-November I picked him as the Vezina Trophy leader. Less than a week later he became my Hart Trophy leader. Price has been passed in both of those races.
Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild is playing better than Price is. Dubnyk has a .946 saves percentage and a 1.65 GAA. Both are numbers better than Price has. Dubnyk has done so facing more shots than Price has.
In 2015, Price and Dubnyk were both contenders for these awards. Price won them both. Dubnyk was a Vezina nominee and finished fourth in the Hart Trophy voting. For Dubnyk this was seen as the likely high point in his career. The season had been a comeback year after he had nearly played himself out of the NHL with Edmonton and Nashville. Last year he had a more average season so this season is a bit of a surprise. It isn't clear if Dubnyk can continue the season at this level. The best guess is he will regress toward his established levels. However right now he is the top goalie and most valuable player in the NHL so far this season.
The most improved team in the NHL this is the Columbus Blue Jackets. Last season they finished second last in the East Conference with 76 points. So far this year they are one point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division with games in hand. They have a 15-9 record with four regulation tie points. This is good for 34 points. How has this team improved so much?
The answer is largely due to goaltending and offence. In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky has proven to be a top level goalie when he is healthy but doesn't always have successful healthy stretches. Last season he put up a .908 saves percentage and a 2.75 goals against average. Those numbers have improved tremendously this year. He is posting a .930 saves percentage and a 2.03 GAA. This is an improvement of over 26% percent in his goals against average.
Offensively there were no significant scorers on the Blue Jackets. Brandon Saad and Cam Atkinson tied for the team lead in points with only 53 points. This season there are six Blue Jackets on pace to better that mark. They are Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad, Sam Gagner and Zach Werenski. Gagner and Werenski are both newcomers to the team. Werenski is a rookie and Gagner is a free agent signee from the Philadelphia Flyers. Of the other players making significant offensive improvements, only Wennberg is young enough that he might be making a sustainable jump. He is 22 years old.
We have our first partial results in the fan voting for the 2017 NHL All Star Game. The NHL is listing the leaders in the voting with no vote totals. That is a rollback in the information they are giving to fans.
This comes after last year when John Scott was voted into the All Star Game by fans because he had no All Star credentials but went on to win the All Star Game MVP. The NHL tried to keep Scott out of the game. He was traded to Montreal and sent to the minors before the game occurred. However they could not avoid the backlash of fans and let Scott play and become the story of the game.
This year they announced that players who get votes must be "bonafide NHLers" and will not allow votes for players in the minor leagues or on injured lists. Nevertheless, Jack Eichel is listed as the fourth highest vote getter in the Atlantic Division when he spent some of the voting period so far on the injured list. Effectively this appears to mean that the NHL will replace any player who they don't want in the All Star Game and they won't tell us how many votes anyone has so they can manipulate this without fans being aware how large a margin of support existed for the player they pulled from the voting.
This is a pattern with the NHL. They refuse to give fans information that they want such as salary cap information because it could make the NHL look bad. All Star Game votes are one more facet of the game that the NHL has decided fans do not need to know.
The team leading the NHL in attempted shots at 5 on 5 is the Boston Bruins. They are +180 so far this season. Their record of 15-11 with one regulation tie point puts them in third place in the Atlantic Division. It is a good record, but not a league leading one.
They are a team that barely missed the playoffs last season. Probably they were good enough that they should have made them last year. Has Boston significantly improved since last year? Their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak has been a very dominant line controlling the puck both offensively and defensively. The vast majority of Boston's positive Corsi comes from that line alone. Marchand leads the league with a +154 personal Corsi. Boston's Corsi success is largely due to the one line.
Boston dominates the puck when their best line is on the ice and they manage to neutralize their opponents top line at the same time. Their problem is their other lines are not anything special when it comes to puck possession. When they get beaten it is the other lines that get beaten.
Boston is an improved team. In part their improvement is due to underachieving last year. They have the most successful puck possession line in the NHL driving their Corsi success. With a bit more depth this Boston team could make a Stanley Cup run.
Ten days ago, I wrote that the Carolina Hurricanes are the lowest paid team (by salary cap hit). This is a financial necessity for this team. They also have the lowest attendance in the NHL. They are averaging 10,969 per home game. This is almost 1500 people per game less than the second worst New York Islanders.
Carolina has problems. Peter Karmanos is 73 years old and his sons show no interest in running the team. In fact they have sued their father for over $100 million that he failed to put into their trusts. This is money that Karmanos has used largely to run the hockey team. As a result, Karmanos wants to sell the team and there is little appetite to keep the team in Carolina.
The NHL has not had a team that is a former Stanley Cup winner fold or move since the Great Depression. It looks like Carolina could break that record. They are the 2006 Stanley Cup champions. This was the first season after a season lost to a lockout. An artificially low salary cap prevented any really strong teams from existing. The Carolina team that won the 2006 Stanley Cup missed the playoffs in 2007. They were unable to gain any sustained momentum from their win.
The Carolina Hurricanes will likely last as long as Peter Karmanos lasts running them. They have not been able to draw fans. There is little appetite for another owner to keep the team in the state. Likely they will move when he sells or when he dies and a sale is forced. Their low attendance and low payroll has put the team two points out of last place in the East Conference. There is little positive going on here.
Brendan Leipsic of the Toronto Marlies (Maple Leaf affiliate) was the AHL top scorer for the month of November. Now that we have moved into December, there is a new AHL top scorer in Brad Hunt of the Chicago Wolves (St Louis Blues affiliate). Brad Hunt has 26 points in 22 games. This is two points ahead of Leipsic and other players who are tied with him.
Hunt is a defenceman. It is rare that defencemen lead any league in scoring. He is 28 years old, which puts him on the old side of being an NHL prospect. He spent parts of three NHL seasons playing for the Edmonton Oilers scoring three points in 21 games but has largely been a minor pro player. Last year, he put up 41 points in 57 games with the Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oiler affiliate). He has never scored at point per game rate in his four complete AHL seasons with a 51 point career best. He never scored at point per game rate in his four college seasons at Bemidji State University or in his two seasons of tier two junior with the Burnaby Express of the BCJHL. It is unlikely that he suddenly became a top scorer at age 28 when he has never been one at any significant level in his life.
Hunt is signed with St Louis largely to give them veteran experience with their minor league affiliate, the Chicago Wolves. It was not expected that he would play in the NHL this season. However it was also not expected that he would lead the AHL in scoring. Thus an NHL call up is a possibility. With or without an NHL call up, Brad Hunt leading the AHL in scoring all season is unlikely he has no track record as a top scorer.
We are past the quarter pole in the season and it is interesting to look at the best and worst players at this point by some measures. One interesting measure of players is Corsi or attempted shots while a given player is on the ice in 5 on 5 situations. The worst Corsi so far this season is a -128 that belongs to Alex Goligoski of the Arizona Coyotes. Arizona is the worst team by team Corsi at -201. Since Corsi is a tam dependent statistic it isn't surprising that the worst player is on the worst team.
Goligoski is second in ice time on the Coyotes. The only player with more ice time is Oliver Ekman-Larsson. While Ekman-Larsson has the ability to drive puck possession in the other direction despite weak teammates, Goligoski doesn't.
Goligoski is not the weakest puck possession player in the league. On a strong team he would post okay puck possession numbers. In this case his worst Corsi shows the tough situation that he plays in. Goligoski isn't a good enough player to succeed with a lot of ice time on a team as weak as Arizona. Few players are. If Arizona had a few such players they wouldn't be as weak a team. His Corsi numbers show that Arizona is failing and Alex Goligoski is not a good enough player to turn the tide.
Erik Karlsson is the best offensive defenceman of the current generation. Nobody would make a serious argument that he is the best defensive defenceman of the current generation. Therefore his defence is a weakness. That is the simple-minded way some people judge him.
Erik Karlsson is a good defensive defenceman and that aspect of his game is continuously improving. He will never be the best defensive defenceman in the league. However I would argue that he is the best defensive defenceman on his team. Because his talents are better served playing an offensive role but when the chips are down he is the defenceman the Senators turn to in an important defensive situation. Ottawa isn't the only team in the league where Karlsson would be the best defensive defenceman.
People are noticing that Karlsson leads the NHL in blocked shots so far this season. That is evidence of defensive play. It is also evidence that Ottawa often plays without the puck as it is impossible to block a shot when your team has the puck. Karlsson is seen by many as a newfound success in shot blocking.
One player who is clearly rising as an offensive player is Brandon Saad of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Last season he had a career best 31 goals and 53 points and this season he is on pace to beat that easily. He has 17 points in his 21 games to date. What makes this number more impressive is the fact that he has scored all of those points at even strength. When he gets power play time, he plays on the second unit in Columbus.
Saad is the even strength scoring leader in Columbus. Only four players in the league have more even strength points so far this season. They are Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Mark Schiefele and Schiefele's linemate Nikolaj Ehlers. That is a lofty group for Saad to be behind.
It is only a matter of time before Columbus begins to give Saad more power play time and when that happens look for his point total to take off. Brandon Saad is clearly a scorer on the rise.
The Arizona Coyotes are supposed to be a team that is run by analytics guru John Chayka. He is their 27 year old GM who was hired last summer despite having no experience running a hockey team at any level. Despite that they have made a mistake that analytics would have easily predicted with analytics.
When you have a junior aged player in most cases it is best to leave him in junior. Putting him in the NHLonly tolls his contract. His entry year contract starts at an earlier age than necessary and he progresses toward unrestricted free agency at a younger age. A team that wins the Stanley Cup must have player who overachieve their contract value in a salary capped world. The most predictable class of players who overachieve their contract value is players on entry level contracts. This is more likely to occur if a player is older than younger.
There are two groups of players who should be treated as counter-examples to that statement. One is players who are clearly NHL ready such as Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine this year. Keeping them in the minors would hold them back and be counter-productive. The other is players on a Stanley Cup contending team that would benefit from that player in a Stanley Cup run. The 16th overall pick in the draft on the last place team in the West Conference is in neither of those groups. Jakob Chychrun is that player.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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