Watching the rookie class to get a feel for the new players to the NHL is always interesting. It is fun and challenging to try to pick out the rookies who will have significant careers and those who are flashes in the pan who will soon disappear from the league. Often a rookie stands out as an interesting case who accomplishes something unusual for a player of his age. This makes him a player to watch because it is not so easy to find comparable players for his talents. It is those players who are most likely to become NHL stars, even if their rookie season does not put them in position to win the Calder Trophy.
One such rookie this season is Blake Wheeler of the Boston Bruins. He leads the NHL in +/- with a +32 ranking. That is quite impressive. Generally, the +/- leader is a player on a good team who is excelling in the role he plays on his team. Wheeler is no different. Boston is in first place in the NHL and Wheeler has been used in a protected role by the Bruins. He is tenth on the team among forwards in ice time per game (behind Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Phil Kessel, PJ Axelsson, Marco Sturm, Milan Lucic, Michael Ryder and Chuck Kobasew). Clearly he has been a success in that limited ice time.
It is important to keep in mind how much better the West Conference is than the East Conference. Tyler Dellow has a post that shows how this has been true over the last several years. He shows the winning percentage of the west in games against the east since 1999/2000 and shows that the West Conference has a significant winning record every year except 2003/04. This season, the west has a .559 record (treating games that are tied after 60 minutes as ties). That is the highest winning percentage for the west since 1999/2000. Western dominance is not going away. If anything it is getting bigger.
Given the level of player movement in the NHL, such a trend is surprising. With free agency, one would expect things to even out. If one conference was better at one time, it would quickly be evened out as free agents move throughout the league. This is not what has been observed. The west is better than the east and has been almost consistently for a decade.
Some years there is nobody who truly deserves to win a major award, but that isn’t what happens. A winner has to be found. It doesn’t matter if that winner would have been an also ran in almost every year in recent history. This year it looks like the Norris Trophy will be one such award.
There is a relatively large group of Norris Trophy candidates that include Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Dan Boyle, Andrei Markov, Duncan Keith and others. How do hockey pundits tend to handle such situations? They find a leading candidate not by looking at this season, but by looking at other recent seasons. Many have done that and are picking Nicklas Lidstrom as the Norris favorite. Lidstrom has basically owned the Norris Trophy having won it six times recently. The problem is at age 38 he is finally starting to slow down. He has struggled through injuries this season including tendonitis in his elbow and a broken nose and has not been nearly as dominant a player as we have seen in the past.
I think the biggest hockey-related decision (not to be confused with a business decision) left to be made this season will be made by the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have to decide whether to trade or keep Jay Bouwmeester. Bouwmeester is an All Star defenceman who leads the NHL in ice time. He is also an unrestricted free agent this summer. Last summer, it seemed clear that he wanted to leave Florida and fine a team to play for that would compete for a Stanley Cup. Florida had one last chance to show a skeptical Bouwmeester that they were capable of contention. Have the Panthers done this?
They are currently in ninth place in the East Conference. They are one point back of a playoff berth with one or two games in hand against most of the teams just above them. It is very possible that Florida will qualify for the playoffs this year. It would be Florida’s first playoff berth since 2000 and the first of Jay Bouwmeester’s career. Most likely they would lose in the first round, but they might be capable of a run. If Bouwmeester is looking for a team that contends, is this good enough? Florida has a young team and might be able to do better next year.
A while ago I wrote a post about the lack of top scorers in the NHL who are born in USA. I noted that given the percentage of American players in the league, there should be far more top scorers than currently exist. Given that American players make up 21.8% of the league, one would expect ten American scorers in the top 46 scorers league wide (this is the point where 10/46 = 21.8%). That is not what is seen, when I wrote the piece, it took 85 players before there were 10 Americans. That is well below expectation.
Tom Benjamin offers up a theory for why this is true. The problem comes from the way NCAA hockey is run. Most American players tend to be developed by the NCAA before they come to the NHL. As the quality of US high school (and USHL junior) hockey has increased, the NCAA has decided to preferentially give out scholarships to Americans. This has reduced the NCAA talent pool.
Periodically I like to take a look at what is happening in the AHL. It is great hockey and since most NHL players spend some time in the AHL in their careers it can directly affect the NHL, yet a large number of NHL fans do not pay attention to it.
This season, there is a two team race that has developed for first place overall in the league. The race is between the Manitoba Moose (Vancouver Canuck affiliate) and the Hershey Bears (Washington Capital affiliate). Currently Manitoba leads the league with 71 points, but Hershey is only one point behind with two games in hand.
Manitoba has done things so far by being a defensive power. Their 117 goals against is the least allowed in the league. Hershey has done things so far by being an offensive power. Their 190 goals lead the league.
In the history of the NHLPA one of the clear problems has been a lack of oversight for the head of the union. Alan Eagleson was embezzling money from the organization and Ted Saskin was spying on players email. This should not happen with any reasonable level of oversight. Even the non-corrupt NHLPA head Bob Goodenow was replaced because his hardline stance with the owners had lost support of the players. There has to be a route of oversight to have the player’s concerns heard by the union head.
The solution to this problem was to appoint an ombudman to oversee the NHLPA. Eric Lindros was chosen for this position. He has recently resigned from that position. He was not well received in that position by the rank and file of the union.
Historically in the NHL, right wing is a higher scoring position than left wing. The right winger is often seen as a sniper while the left winger is seen as a grinder. I don’t think there is any meaningful reason for this. There is no asymmetry built into the game of hockey that forces a strong difference between left and right. European systems have not followed suit. There have been a few top snipers who play left wing. Currently, the NHL has Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Thomas Vanek and others who are top snipers who were produced in Europe. Oddly, there is a lack of top scoring right wingers in the NHL this season. I don’t know that it is a meaningful trend, but it is a clear one from the scoring race.
Here are the top ten right wingers in the scoring race:
Yesterday the Ottawa Senators fired coach Craig Hartsburg. This does not come as much of a surprise because the Senators currently are the third worst team in the league. This move likely solves nothing. Ottawa is on their fourth coach in less than two seasons. If changing coaches from John Paddock to Bryan Murray and then from Bryan Murray to Craig Hartsburg does not turn the team around, then it is unlikely that changing coaches from Craig Hartsburg to Cory Clouston will turn the team around. It is pretty clear that the problem in Ottawa is not a coaching problem. But what is the problem?
In a nutshell, the Senators have a problem with depth. They have three really good players in Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza and nobody else who makes an impact. In fact, their fourth highest goal scorer this season (behind those three) is Mike Fisher who has seven goals. That won’t do. It allows the opposing team to put all their efforts shutting down the big three and ignore the rest of the team. The added defence against the big three reduce their scoring and nobody else is good enough too pick up the slack
The hottest team in the NHL right now is the New Jersey Devils. They have won their last eight games and are safely in first place in the Atlantic Division (they have a five point lead over the New York Rangers. This run is surprising because they have done it with Martin Brodeur, their superstar goalie injured. How have they done it?
They have had strong goaltending from Scott Clemmensen. He has done a surprisingly good job filling in for Brodeur. It will be interesting too see what becomes of him when Brodeur returns. Will he continue to play or will he become a seldom used backup?
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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