The Boston Bruins have moved into first place in the NHL. They have a record of 52-23 with six regulation tie points. This gives them 110 points and a three point lead over anyone else in the league. They have been the hottest team in the NHL lately and haven't lost a game in regulation in their last sixteen starts. The question on my mind is could this be an elite team? The NHL hasn't seen any elite teams since the 2004 lockout.
I have a set of necessary, but not sufficient conditions for a team to be considered elite. Basically, it must have elite players. They must have a top NHL goalie and at least three players who are having Hall of Fame careers. Without elite players there can be no elite team. At the same time a collection of elite players is no more an elite team than a collection of bricks is a house.
Boston has one of the best goalies in the NHL in Tuukka Rask. Rask is my pick for the Vezina Trophy. Rask is on Hall of Fame track in his career. He needs to have a string of top seasons that are on the level he is having so far this year. That is a possibility, though it is a tough standard to meet.
The Colorado Avalanche are the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season who did not qualify for the playoffs last season. They haven't been a playoff team since 2010. The Avs has a 47-27 record with six regulation tie points. This puts them in fourth in the West Conference. Last year Colorado finished last in the West Conference. Why are they such an improved team?
The first answer is Colorado wasn't really as a bad as a traditional last place team. That was likely a fluke of a shortened lockout season.
Colorado has a good group of young players who have taken a big step forward. Most important on that list is goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Colorado is significantly improved in goal from last year.
Last season the New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs. I argued that they were a better team than their record showed as they had a very good team Corsi. In fact it was second best in the NHL. Many people looked at the Devils as a team that missed the playoffs and had their top offensive player in Ilya Kovalchuk leave on them and saw a poor season. Some even picked them to finish last in the East Conference. I bucked the trend and picked them to make the playoffs. That is starting to look unlikely. They are four points out of the playoffs right now and would have to pass at least two teams to get there. They only have nine games left to get there.
I still see the Devils as a team that has played better hockey than their record shows. They are the only team in the NHL that has not had a single win in a shootoutd. They have no wins in shootouts this season. Winning in shootouts is necessary to do well in today's NHL. The average team in a playoff spot as games began today has five or six shootouts wins. Had the Devils merely been average in this area they would be seventh in the East Conference. They would be in a playoff berth. New Jersey will again miss the playoffs, but again they have played well enough that they should be there.
One of the NHL awards that is often poorly decided is the coach of the year award. My pick right now is Bruce Boudreau. He has kept his Anaheim team playing over their heads most of the season. They are a team in the race for first place but they do not have the player personnel to be at that level. Boudreau has kept his teams playing above their talent levels for years. He is a top NHL coach.
Of course there is a multi-coach race for the award. Several coaches are considered candidates. The one that is least deserving is Jon Cooper in Tampa Bay. He is in his first full year coaching the Lightning and under him the team will make the playoffs. Last year they missed the playoffs by a significant margin. Tampa is the most improved team and coaches of the year are often coaches of the most improved team. Why is Tampa improved? Is it coaching? I think the biggest reason is goaltending. Ben Bishop is a Vezina Trophy candidate. Last year Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon were a below average pairing in goal. Improve goaltending by that big a margin and your team will improve. Jon Cooper is hardly the reason for an improvement in Tampa. He is in the right place at the right time. How close will that get him to the Adams Trophy this year?
It was the middle of February when I last looked at the AHL standings. Manchester (the LA Kings affiliate) looked like the might pull away with the league lead. They had a solid month in first place. They have now been tied by the Texas Stars (Dallas affiliate). Both teams have 92 points and a four point lead on the rest of the league. With time running out on the season, that might be enough to keep them in a two team race.
Manchester has the fewest goals allowed so far this season and Texas leads the league in goals scored. That makes this a classic match-up of a top scoring team and a top defensive team battling for the league title. Texas is the hottest team in the league on a six game winning streak. If that keeps up they will win the league. Manchester has been consistently strong all season. It will be a good stretch drive.
In January, I picked Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning as the Vezina Trophy leader. He surpassed Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins for that honor. Rask has taken the lead again. Rask is posting a .929 saves percentage and a 2.07 GAA. No goalie who is his team's number one this season has better numbers in either category.
Rask is a talented goalie and at age 27, he is in the prime of his career. Potentially Rask could be a Vezina candidate for years to come. He has been the best goalie so far this season.
The Boston Bruins have won their last 10 games in a row. That is quite a remarkable achievement. It clearly shows the Bruins to be top contenders for the Stanley Cup. The problem is it is still about a month until the playoffs begin. By that time, this streak will likely have passed. The Bruins may be a top contender when that happens but their status as the team to beat will be over.
One amazing thought is they made the worst trade of the off season when they sent Tyler Seguin to Dallas. Think how much better they would be if he was still in the fold. Will that deal be the move that keeps them from a Stanley Cup victory?
In the last few days Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins has taken over the NHL +/- lead. He is posting a +32, which is one point ahead of his nearest competitor. Bergeron is having a strong defensive season. He is my Selke Trophy leader at this point.
The amazing thing about Bergeron plays a tough defensive role. He plays against the toughest opposition that Boston faces and he starts more of his shifts in the defensive zone than in in the offensive zone and nevertheless he posts some of the best puck possession numbers in the league. Patrice Bergeron is an outstanding player. His offensive numbers though solid are not too spectacular. It is his puck possession numbers given the circumstances in which he plays that shows his outstanding value. Patrice Bergeron is the best defensive forward in the NHL and his +/- rating is a big part of the evidence for this.
The St Louis Blues have moved into first place in the NHL. They have a record of 45-21 with seven regulation tie points for 97 points. That gives them a two point lead over any other team in the NHL. Given the late point we are at in the NHL season, it is a reasonable possibility that they could win the Presidents Trophy.
I argue that the St Louis Blues are not the best team in the NHL. I would give that honor to the Chicago Blackhawks. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions and have learned not to over-extend themselves to win in the regular season when the playoffs are what counts.
I would also argue that the St Louis Blues are not an elite team by my definition of an elite team. It is necessary but not sufficient that an elite team has a top goalie and at least three players who are on Hall of Fame tracks. Elite teams must have elite players.
The Washington Capitals are happy to finally be bringing Evgeny Kuznetsov to the NHL. He has been often called the best young player outside the NHL. In 2010, they picked him with their first round draft pick 26th overall. He would have been picked much earlier than that but it was clear that he was going to stay in the KHL after being drafted.
Kuznetsov has been playing with Traktor Chelyabinsk since 2009. He has played in the KHL All Star Game. He has signed an entry level contract with the Washington Capitals. The KHL playoffs have begun and his team missed them. Kuznetsov is looking for a place to play and will join the Capitals for the stretch drive and the playoffs, if Washington makes them. It will be interesting to see if he is as good as promised in the NHL.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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