For the last several years, the West Conference has had a winning record versus the East Conference. So far this year, the West is 65-51 (with 15 losses credited as regulation ties). This is a better pace than the 141-129 (with 26 regulation tie points) record the West Conference put up last year. Does this mean that the West is becoming even more dominant over the East Conference this year, when compared to last year?
At least part of the early season improvement in the West Conference record against the East is a predictable travel effect. As the season progresses, travel wears on both conferences. The West Conference travels a further total distance. They lose more time that could be spent on practice, rest, injury rehab etc. to travel. After a few months of the season it weakens the West Conference relative to the East, allowing the East to win a few more inter-conference games later in the season. Thus, the early season pace that the West Conference holds in inter-division games is never maintained the full season.
It is far enough into the season to begin to look at the free agent signings made this summer. One stands out as being a complete failure so far. Martin Havlat left the Chicago Blackhawks to sign with the Minnesota Wild. He signed a six year contract worth $30 million. He was intended as a replacement for NHL goal scoring leader Marian Gaborik, who had jumped to the New York Rangers, but it has not worked out that way.
Havlat has not been a key to the Wild team. He has two goals and nine assists, for eleven points. This places him seventh on the Wild team in scoring. His -17+/- rating is a team worst ranking. It is second worst in the league. He has not been successful so far in Minnesota.
There is a new goon sitting atop the NHL penalty minute totals. It is Zenon Konopka of the Tampa Bay Lightning has 113 penalty minutes so far this season. That gives him a significant lead over last year’s leader, Daniel Carcillo of the Philadelphia Flyers, who has 87, Konopka has always been a tough guy, but for a long time he was never pictured as a potential penalty minute leader in the NHL.
Konopka played in junior with the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. He was undrafted by the NHL. He managed to continue his hockey career when he got a job with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. He was an ECHL power forward scoring 70 points and adding 231 PIMs. He bounced around the AHL and ECHL for a few years. In the 2005/06 season he had his first NHL shot. He played 23 games with the Anaheim Ducks. He attempted to be an NHL power forward. He scored 7 points in 23 games and posted 48 penalty minutes.
With the Chicago Blackhawks recent resignings of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, we have a very good idea what the core of the team will look like for the next several years. With their length contracts that would be hard to move, we can assume that Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet will be part of the Blackhawk core as well. Anyone else will be hard to keep around for salary cap reasons. There is already speculation that Cam Barker, Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel are among the players on their way out.
Chicago is clearly a good team. Their 17-10 record (with three overtime loss points) places them in fifth place in the NHL. They haven’t won the Stanley Cup. Last year’s semi-final appearance is their first playoff berth since 2002 and we are already talking about which players the team will have to get rid of to stay below the salary cap.
One of the biggest surprises this season is that it took until December for a team to fire a coach. This makes faux rumors prediction that 25-50% of the coaches who started the 2009/10 season would be fired before game 82 look to be in doubt.
The first coach fired this season is John Stevens, who was fired by the Philadelphia Flyers. Stevens coached the Flyers for slightly over three seasons. He found himself coaching a team with a 13-12 record (with one loss counted as an overtime tie), that has his time in tenth place in the East Conference.
As the season progresses, I try to pick out the player who is playing the worst who is regularly getting dressed by an NHL team. It is frequently a hard working player who is well liked by coaches and teammates, but isn’t succeeding on the ice. In the middle of November, I picked Brad Richardson of the Los Angeles Kings as that player. He is a hard working player who was not having any success either offensively or defensively. He had a successful game against Anaheim this week where he scored his first two points (a goal and an assist) so far this season. That is enough to move him out of that position. In the NHL, there is generally a very small difference between the worst several players in the league. Each of the bottom players on a team’s roster are essentially interchangeable with another player who is outside the NHL. It is hard to find a significant difference in their effectiveness as players. It is hard to rank one as worse that another. Limited success for any player who might be considered the worst so far this season is enough to remove him from the race. Given how the worst players in the league are roughly interchangeable with players outside the league, it is interesting to see why some of the worst players continue to get NHL time. Often these players are goons who play limited minutes against weak opposition and still fail to score and prevent scoring. That is the case with my current selection for the worst regular so far this year in the NHL - Andrew Peters of the New Jersey Devils.
Brian Burke is one of the more active general managers in the NHL. When he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was clear that he wanted to make some trades to put his stamp on the team. This was not so easy to accomplish under the current NHL CBA. Trades are rare except around the NHL trade deadline (where players with expiring contracts are usually moved) and during the summer (when a team has not set its roster yet and thus has some flexibility). This scarcity of trade opportunities has frustrated Burke. He has suggested that the CBA be amended to allow trades where a team trades a portion of a salary cap hit. This idea is a non-starter without CBA amendment (which is not trivial) and it is not clear how it improves things for the fan (do a lack of trades have anything to do with the quality of hockey games? I don’t see how.).
Nevertheless, Burke has pushed (often unsuccessfully) to make trades. One of his priorities has been to make his team tougher. In order to do this he has been willing to trade a more talented player to get more toughness. When a GM gets desperate to push a trade through and is willing to give up the most talented player in a deal, they are ready to be taken advantage of and this is what happened to Brian Burke.
It looks like Alexander Ovechkin is finally going to be suspended. In October, he got away with a slew-foot on Rich Peverley of the Atlanta Thrashers. The NHL treated him as a first time offender and let him off without a suspension because they had overlooked a handful of other transgressions in the past. He got away with a knee on knee hit on Sergei Gonchar in last year’s playoffs. There had been a hit from behind on Jamie Heward (who has not played since) and a late hit on Daniel Briere. Last week, Ovechkin received a game misconduct and a major penalty for boarding Patrick Kaleta of the Buffalo Sabres, but once again was not suspended. Last night, he had a knee on knee hit on Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes. It was Ovechkin who took the worst of the hit and left the game without returning (Gleason did return), but it was clear that Ovechkin instigated the hit. Given the NHL’s recent suspensions, it is clear that they will have to suspend Ovechkin. They recently suspended Georges Laraque of the Montreal Canadiens for five games for a similar knee-on-knee hit on Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings. At this point, the NHL must suspend Ovechkin right?
EDIT: The suspension is for two games.
Many Edmonton Oiler fans appear ready to throw in the towel on the 2009/10 season now that Ales Hemsky is out for the season recovering from shoulder surgery. Hemsky has been the top scorer on the Oilers in every season since the lockout (he tied for the lead in 2006/07). Offensively he is very important to the Oilers. The Oilers currently have 10 wins in 27 games and sit in 14th place in the West Conference. Is the season effectively over?
While the Oilers look unlikely to make the playoffs, I think they will probably stay in the race until late in the season. They are a team with some talent. Dustin Penner is among the top 10 scorers in the NHL so far this year. They have some other offensive talent in Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner, Patrick O`Sullivan and Gilbert Brule. Most of those players are young enough that it is reasonable to expect they take a significant step forward in the remainder of the season.
The NHL has been slowly losing talented players to the KHL. The top eight scorers in the KHL are all ex-NHL players. All of them (Maxim Sushinsky, Alexei Yashin, Alexander Radulov, Sergei Zinovjev, Marcel Hossa, Mattias Weindhandl, Patrick Thoresen and Aleksey Morozov) are players who easily hold down NHL jobs. For the KHL to experience future growth, they must be able to attract top prospects to play in their league (and not the NHL) and they are doing this. Russian prospects who have not had instant success in the NHL are returning to the KHL. So far this season, Nikita Filatov of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Viktor Tikhonov of the Phoenix Coyotes have returned to play with CSKA Moscow. Both of these deals are officially player loans. These are unhappy NHL players who are missing their homeland and not making as fast progress in the league get a chance to go home. It is unclear when if ever these players will be returning to the NHL.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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