With an 8-1 record and a six game winning streak, the Pittsburgh Penguins have established themselves as the early leader in the NHL standings. The defending Stanley Cup champions have 33 goals scored to only 19 allowed. Offensively their attack has been led by Evgeni Malkin with 11 points and the more well-rounded skills of Sidney Crosby (who has contributed 8 points). Tyler Kennedy’s five goals make him the team’s leader in goals scored. On defence, Sergei Gonchar leads the way offensively with eight points. He is followed closely by Alex Goligoski, with seven points and a +9 +/- rating. Jay McKee has been a useful addition for his stay home play. In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury won all eight games and sports a .926 saves percentage and a 1.96 GAA. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a team that is performing at the top of their ability throughout the early season. They look like a championship team. However, it is not uncommon that October’s championship team is nowhere to be seen come the Stanley Cup finals. The true test of the 2009/10 Pittsburgh Penguins is not how they look a few weeks into October. It is how they will look when they run into some problems in the stretch. Will they recover quickly or will they fall back into the pack?
The Edmonton Oilers blogs include some of the better sabermetrics blogs out there. There is mudcrutch hockey, irreverent Oiler fans, copper n blue and battle of Alberta. Each have a strong interest in sabermetrics and have written some interesting posts on the subjects. With the high quality of the Oiler blogosphere it is hard for the mainstream media to keep up. However, Dave Staples at Cult of Hockey does a good job. He writes many interesting pieces about the Edmonton Oilers and hockey in general. These are not just the leftover articles that do not get published in the newspaper (as some weaker media blogs tend to do). He regularly publishes some very good information on the internet.
However, one of his recurring themes (that seems to be in protest to the independent Oiler bloggers with strong sabermetric backgrounds) is that hockey statistics are not very useful. This is a case he frequently overstates in his posts. Last year he wrote Why Plus/Minus is a rotten, useless, misleading and irrelevant stat for NHL players.
Like the NHL season, the AHL season is also underway. The AHL is a high quality league that often produces depth players (and sometimes stars) for the NHL. It is a high level hockey league and is important to watch to see the next wave of NHL players before they arrive in the NHL. The early season leader in the AHL is the San Antonio Rampage. They are the farm club of the Phoenix Coyotes. They have a 6-1-1 record (one overtime loss) which puts them in first place in the AHL. They have been the highest scoring team in the league. Four of the top twelve scorers in the AHL are San Antonio players. Sean Sullivan leads the way with 10 points. He is 25 and looks like he may be ready for his NHL debut. He is a Boston University graduate, who has been rapidly improving in his AHL tenure. One point behind is Kyle Turris. Turris is a highly regarded prospect who was the third overall pick in 2007. He spent last year in the NHL, but did not appear ready for that level of competition. He may be a future NHL star and is learning to play at a high level against adult competition. Kevin Porter is the third highest scorer in San Antonio. He spent last year shuttling between the AHL and NHL and may soon be ready to grad an NHL job permanently. The final of the four top scorers from San Antonio is Brett MacLean. He was the Coyotes 2nd round pick in 2007 and has a good chance at a significant NHL career.
The Phoenix Coyotes have a good pipeline of young players in their system. This makes their AHL affiliate in San Antonio a top team. This makes their future look promising, assuming competent ownership takes over the team. The Coyotes have the talent that they could be a good team for years into the future, but uncertainty in ownership could derail it all before it begins.
I like to watch the NHL awards as the season progresses. I like to pick candidates for the awards as they emerge early in the season and monitor those choices as the season progresses, in part to see how far into the season it is before the eventual winner emerges. Today, there is a leader for the Vezina Trophy as best goalie. It is Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes. Bryzgalov has been the bright spot on the Phoenix Coyotes. Phoenix has a 5-2 record which gives them the Pacific Division lead. This is despite a lacklustre offence that has only scored 2.43 goals per game (tying them with Tampa Bay for 20th in the league). Their success is largely due to goaltending. The Phoenix team has allowed a league leading 1.43 goals per game. Bryzgalov is the man who is primarily responsible for that. He has played in six of the seven games and has a .953 saves percentage and a 1.14 GAA. These are tremendous numbers that are unsustainable over the season. However, a very good season from Bryzgalov (as we have seen so far) could make Phoenix a contender. He is the primary reason that the team has a good record so far and for that is the early Vezina Trophy leader.
After a summer spent in bankruptcy and litigation, the Phoenix Coyotes have returned to Phoenix for the 2009/10 season. They are back because courts found that nobody is suitable to buy the team, so they will continue to be propped up by the NHL until something changes. In the summer a lot of damage was done to the fanbase. It is clear that the Phoenix Coyotes will not remain in Phoenix in the long-term. Season ticket holders were unwilling to renew their tickets over the summer because they didn’t know it there would be a team for this season, thus killing the season ticket base. The Phoenix Coyotes are back, but their fans are not.
The official attendance for Thursday’s game against the St Louis Blues was 6899, with reports that only about 5000 people were present. This makes the official attendance the NHL has seen in several years and makes it look quite probable that the average attendance in Phoenix this season will be the lowest number the league has seen for a team in decades.
Goaltending is the most important position in the NHL. Top goaltending can make an average team look like a contender. Bad goaltending can make a good team look like an also ran. In the early days of the season, the two goalies who were expected to lead the league are off to poor stars. Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins is sporting a 4.00 GAA and a .868 saves percentage. As a result his Boston Bruins are 2-3. Probable Canadian Olympic Team starter Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks has a 3.33 GAA and a .879 saves percentage. Vancouver is also off to a 2-3 start. These are numbers that might have lesser goalies at risk of losing their starting jobs.
Neither team should be worried at this point, but if they cannot get top performances from their All Star goalies, they will not do as well as expected this season. Both Vancouver and Boston rely on goaltending for success and will need to get it to compete for the top positions in their conferences as many predicted.
Early in the season, it is interesting to watch the number of shifts and playing time of players on various teams. When a team is overplaying a handful of key players early in the season, it is quite likely that these players will fatigue and break down over the course of the year. This is a cause of concern. The team with the largest area of concern in this area is the Philadelphia Flyers defence. The three leading players in shifts per game, at this point in the season, are Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger. They have 35.4, 34.4 and 33.6 shifts per game played respectively. Pronger tends to play longer shifts - so he is their icetime leader despite fewer shifts.
This is a situation that will likely not be able to be kept up all season. These players will break down from overwork. This becomes even more likely when one considers that Pronger is 35 years old and Timonen is 34. Both are on the downsides of their careers where injuries become more likely.
Early season trends often do not last for the whole season, but one of the more surprising ones so far is that the New York Rangers are scoring. They have more goals than any other team in the NHL with 24. They have averaged four goals per game, which ties them for the league lead with the Atlanta Thrashers (who have fewer games played). This is a surprise because last season the Rangers scored the fifth fewest goals with 210. They had the least potent offence among teams that made the playoffs in 2009.
It looked like things would be worse this season as most of their top offensive players from last year are not returning. Nikolai Zherdev, Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund and Nik Antropov were among the highest scoring Rangers last year (among returning players only Chris Drury outscored some of those players) and all have moved on to other teams. The question of who was going to score goals for the Rangers was a big one. It was one I wrote about this summer.
As the NHL season progresses, I like to track the player who is getting regular ice time who has been the worst in the league. Last season, it was Riley Cote of the Philadelphia Flyers who “won” this award. He was a player who regularly dressed in Philadelphia, but played in limited ice time against weak competition and nevertheless rarely scored, while allowing opponents to control the play. His main “value” came from his ability to fight and draw penalties. On a team that has the team toughness of the Philadelphia Flyers; one must wonder if that adds anything to the line-up.
It is very common that the worst NHL regular by season’s end is a hard working guy who lacks talent. Coaching staffs and fans like him because he works so hard, but he cannot get the job done. Earlier in the season, it is much more common for a bigger name player to be the worst regular. The lesser players have not had as much ice time yet. One must be somewhat highly regarded to have already been given the chance to fail.
This year, the early season worst player has been Vesa Toskala of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
We are now a few games into the NHL season and it is possible to look at the results and try to determine very early leaders for the NHL Awards. At this point in the year, I think the leading MVP candidate is Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin is tied for the NHL lead with 10 points. His five goals are second in the league. His +5 +/- rating is top among forwards in the league. Ovechkin is off to a great start. This is not surprising given that he has won the Hart trophy the last two years running and is the NHL’s best player.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???