A couple days ago I wrote about the NHL's +/- rating leader Dustin Penner of the Anaheim Ducks. He has been passed by Justin Braun of the San Jose Sharks. He is a player who is interesting for different reasons.
Braun leads the NHL with a +19 +/- rating. This gives him a two point lead over anyone else. He has eight points in 26 games played from defence so far. Braun is a player that I have viewed as approximately a replacement level defenceman for the last couple years. He has been a defensive role player in San Jose for a little over two years. He was sometimes a healthy scratch who was used in a shutdown role. This season he has earned a chance to play regularly - perhaps in the spot opened up when Brent Burns moved to forward.
Three weeks ago I picked Tom Sestito of the Vancouver Canucks as the worst player so far this season. He has scored two goals since that point to move him out of the cellar but he remains a player with poor puck possession numbers who rarely scores, yet nonetheless dresses every game despite only getting played a bit over five minutes per game.
I think a better pick as the worst regular player in the NHL this season is Mike Weber of the Buffalo Sabres. He has no points in his 15 games while posting a -15 +/- rating. He was a strong contender for this dishonor earlier in the year when he missed ten games with an upper body injury. Weber has come back from injury and been equally ineffective in his four games since coming back.
The current +/- leader in the NHL is Dustin Penner of the Anaheim Ducks. He has a +18 +/- rating with 21 games played. He has 20 points in those games and that is good for third offensively on the Ducks.
Penner is an interesting player. He looked like enough of a star player in his first run in Anaheim that he was given a large offer sheet by the Edmonton Oilers and signed as a free agent. His time in Edmonton was up and down. It included a career best 63 points in 2010, but his other seasons were not as impressive. He was traded to Los Angeles where he was largely seen as a failure. He was sometimes a healthy scratch and he never put up more than 17 points in a year in his two plus years in Anaheim. He signed as a free agent and returned to the Ducks. Here he has been back on his game and performing at a better level than he ever has in his career. The question is why Penner seems to do so much better in Anaheim than elsewhere.
The answer comes from looking at Penner's game. He is big and a slow skater who excels when he can get set-up in the slot. He can score well from in front of the net. He has clear limitations in his game. He is too slow to be relied upon in defensive situations. He cannot penalty kill. As long as he can be paired with a forward who will feed him the puck in front of the net he can succeed. In Anaheim in both of his stints he has been paired with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry quite often and these are players who compliment him well. They are both very capable to get the puck to the front of the net where Penner is most useful. Their skills mesh together well. In other cities, especially Los Angeles, he did not have the same talented wingers to play with and he failed.
The only trophy that I routinely make picks for that I have not made any picks this season so far is the Masterton Trophy. This trophy is officially for perseverance, dedication and sportsmanship but it doesn't hold that definition well. Several of the past winners are among the all-time career penalty minutes leaders - that isn't what you would expect from an award that is allegedly in part given for sportsmanship. I think the working definition for this award is to the player who overcomes the biggest hardship to continue his career and make the biggest impact in the season.
As I see it there are two clear candidates this season in Darren Helm of the Detroit Red Wings and Manny Malhotra of the Carolina Hurricanes. Both fought back from potentially career ending injuries to come back this season and are making impacts on their teams. Helm was out essentially for 19 months with a back injury. He was limited to one game last season. He has made a comeback this season and is playing quite well. He has 9 points in 13 games to date this season. Malhotra suffered a serious eye injury in 2011 where he lost a significant amount of sight in his left eye. He came back to play in the Stanley Cup finals but still struggled with his eyesight. After playing only 9 games in 2012/13, he was put on the longterm injured reserve by the Canucks. His contract expired and he signed a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes farm affiliate in Charlotte at the beginning of this season. He quickly played his way back into the NHL and has four points in 13 games. He is re-establishing himself as a solid defensive player.
Only ten days ago I picked Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the leading candidate so far in the season for the Norris Trophy. Since that time he has not had a big game. He is -4 with one assist in his last four games played. Thus I am making an updated Norris Trophy pick - Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Keith won the 2010 Norris Trophy and has been established as one of the top defencemen in hockey for the last several years. He currently has 21 points in 26 games (which ties him for second in scoring among defencemen). He has a +10 +/- rating and has done this while playing against Chicago's top opposition. Keith is the top defensive player among the top handful of defenceman scorers in the NHL and that is why he is my leading candidate for the Norris Trophy.
The current first place team in the NHL is the Chicago Blackhawks. They have a 17-8 record with four regulation tie points for 38 points. This gives them a one point lead over the St Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks. Chicago is the defending Stanley Cup champions. Usually a defending Stanley Cup champion team suffers from a "Stanley Cup hangover". This is a result of a shortened summer from their Stanley Cup run and the lack of meaningful games in the early NHL season. The fact that Chicago has avoided this shows how good the Hawks are.
Chicago has some significant depth. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp all are players who could legitimately be considered among the top fifty players in the NHL. No other NHL teams can offer seven players on their level. The weakness in Chicago is goaltending. Corey Crawford has never been a top NHL goalie. He has never been considered a top Vezina candidate. He has been good enough to win in Chicago, but this is largely a function of the players in front of him. Any moderately talented NHL starting goalie would likely have the same success on this team.
Chicago is a strong hockey team. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They are the first place team. They are clearly the team to beat in the NHL right now. It is tough to repeat as Stanley Cup champion in today's league, but Chicago has a solid chance at doing this.
The big news today is that ten ex-NHL players have filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in the District of Columbia alleging that the NHL has not done enough to protect players from concussions. After the NFL paid out $765 million to 4500 former players, it was just a matter of time before this happened. The players filing the lawsuit include former 50 goal scorers Rick Vaive and Gary Leeman, veteran defencemen Richie Dunn, Curt Bennett and Bob Manno, veteran forward Blair Stewart and journeymen Brad Aitken, Darren Banks, Warren Holmes and Morris Titanic. All of these players report multiple concussions and sub-concussion impacts that have negatively influenced their quality of life since their retirement. Many have suffered from memory loss, lack of concentration, headaches and dizziness. This is probably only the beginning of the NHL's problems with concussion related lawsuits.
It has been clear for several years that the West Conference has been a better group of teams than the East Conference. The western teams have had a better record in common games for many years. That fact has been forgotten somewhat since last season had no inter-conference games at all due to the lockout. This year, this fact is made more significant because there are more inter-conference games under the new alignment than there had been in the past.
This season we can look at the standings and see that the first place team in the East Conference Boston Bruins, with 32 points, would be tied for eighth (the last playoff spot) if they had that total in the West Conference. No other East teams would be in the playoffs at all.
Over a month ago I picked Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks as the rookie of the year leader. He remains the top scoring rookie so far this year but he hasn't been the top rookie so far this year. Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins has taken the lead. He is a defenceman tied for second in rookie scoring with 14 points. He is the top scoring defenceman on a solid Boston Bruins team. He is still developing his defensive game and has seen little action on the penalty kill but his offence has been strong. He has been the most valuable rookie so far this season.
Krug first made an NHL mark during the 2013 playoffs. He was a significant contributor to the Boston Bruins playoff run. He is an undrafted 22 year old who was signed out of Michigan State University. He has potential to develop into a power play quarterback but may be limited by his smaller size (5'9" 181 pounds). So far he has been the best of a rookie group. It is early to make such a pick. There will be a lot of time for other rookies to become comfortable in their NHL roles. Krug has a head start from last year's playoff run. I don't know if he will remain the top rookie at season's end, but he is the top rookie at this point in the season.
Nearly a month ago I picked PK Subban as the best defenceman so far in the season. Subban remains one of the top scoring defencemen in the league with 17 points. This places him second in scoring among defencemen. The problem is Subban is not as reliable defensively as some of the best defenders in the NHL. I think a better pick as top defenceman so far this season is Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes. He has one fewer point than Subban but is stronger defensively. He has a +12 +/- rating, which is the third highest among defencemen. He does this facing the toughest opposition that Phoenix faces.
Ekman-Larsson is only 22. He is in his fourth NHL season and quickly developing into one of the best defencemen in the game. The potential exists for him to go down in history as one of the best defencemen in hockey history. That success would be still to come, but he has the pedigree that it is possible.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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