In mid-February I picked Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars as the Lady Byng Trophy leader. Until he went down with an Achilles injury it seemed like he might win the award. However since he has been injured, he has been passed in the Lady Byng race. Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames has become the new leader. Gaudreau has passed Seguin in the scoring race (75 points to 73) and they have an equal number of penalty minutes.
Gaudreau is a talented young player. In his second year in the NHL he is the sixth highest scorer in the NHL. If his career keeps going on this path he will be a Hall of Fame player before he is done. It is rare that a player this early in his career makes the impact that Gaudreau has. He may win the Lady Byng Trophy as an early reward in his career.
In the West Conference the eighth place team is the Minnesota Wild who are five points up on the ninth place Colorado Avalanche. With four and five games left for most teams this is probably an insurmountable lead. Thus the eight playoff teams in the West Conference are essentially determined. The only playoff race is left in the East Conference. There are three teams fighting for two playoff berths.
The Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings are in this race. Right now Philadelphia is in the last wild card spot with 89 points. Boston holds down the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division with 88 points. Detroit is in ninth place trying to chase the other two teams with 87 points. As an Atlantic Division team Detroit could catch either of the two teams directly ahead of them to grab a playoff berth. Philadelphia is only in the wild card race since they are a Metropolitan Division team.
Philadelphia has six remaining games. Boston and Detroit have four games each. Thus Philadelphia is in a position that they can runaway with their playoff berth if they win their remaining games.
As the regular season is winding up and the playoffs are soon going to be underway it is important that teams peak right now. The Pittsburgh Penguins are hot now. They won their last four games and ten of their last 11 games. Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin are all scoring at as good rates as they have at any point this season. The only problem is that Evgeni Malkin is out with an injury.
Pittsburgh is a hot team right now. I wouldn't want to be the team that meets them in the first round of the playoffs. Right now it is looking like the New York Islanders will be that team. They cannot be too happy about how their first round playoff match-up is looking.
Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks is the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as last year's playoff MVP. He may be suspended for the beginning of the 2016 playoffs. On Tuesday night in a game versus the Minnesota Wild he was given a match penalty fo a stick swinging incident with Charlie Cole of the Wild. Minnesota won the game 4-1. Keith is automatically suspended following a match penalty. He has been offered an in person hearing by the NHL to determine the suspension length. This indicates that it may be more than five games in length. Chicago only has five games left in the regular season. Thus the indication is that the suspension may run into the playoffs.
Typically the NHL has been lenient about suspending key players during the playoffs. They don't want to be seen as the reason that a playoff series was decided. Perhaps in an early series the loss of a key player like Keith can be overcome so this is less of an issue.
Suspensions longer than five games can be appealed. Based on the Dennis Wideman precident do we expect an appeal to say he should have played in the playoffs to come right after Chicago is eliminated?
The season will soon be coming to a close. One trophy that I think is still undecided is the Vezina Trophy. I am currently picking Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks as the leader. Given that he is injured right now he isn't doing anything to further his case right now. The West Conference has been higher scoring than the East Conference this year so a West Conference goalie with top stats is having a very good year. Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning is posting slightly better numbers but with a few less shots faced and in an easier conference. Other goalies such as Braden Holtby, Henrik Lundqvist, Petr Mrazek and Roberto Luongo are also having some very good years and deserve some mention but their numbers are behind the leaders. However when we look at the overall league leaders we see Brian Elliott of the St Louis Blues is the overall leader.
Elliott has the best saves percentage in the league at .935 and the best goals against average at 1.92. The problem in his Vezina case is that he is about 20-25 games played below the other Vezina candidates. He hasn't played enough games to be the top goalie this year but his numbers are hard to ignore. Had Elliott played a full season with these numbers he would be the runaway Vezina favorite. The question is should Elliott appear on a Vezina ballot this year? I think it is hard to give him a first place vote without more games played but in a third place position he may be a sensible choice. If we imagine that in the few games he has left his numbers improve even more he will be hard to ignore.
Brian Elliott is a interesting case as a top goalie. He completely failed in Ottawa. When he got to St Louis he resurrected his career. He has been posting top numbers in St Louis. However he has been doing it largely as a backup goalie and as part of a goalie tandem. He hasn't been given a run as a number one goalie. He deserves it and will be given a run. it may not be in St Louis where Jake Allen is around. He will be a free agent next summer (2017) and I expect that he becomes a clear number one goalie at that point. Perhaps it will happen sooner. He is posting numbers that could win a Vezina Trophy if he got in a few more games.
It is quite a significant story that Jimmy Vesey is choosing to be a free agent this summer. Vesey was the Nashville Predators third round draft choice in 2012. He was selected 66th overall. He played college hockey at Harvard University. Last year in his junior year of college he was a nominee for the Hobey Baker Trophy as NCAA MVP which Jack Eichel who is currently a Buffalo Sabre won. This year he is a Hobey Baker candidate again.
This situation shows the problems that the NHL has with its Entry Draft. The draft was brought in before there was a strong NHLPA in order to achieve parity. It is legally problematic. Players entering the NHL do not have the right to select where they want to work. The NHL selects it for them. This doesn't happen in other lines of work. Eventually a player can play long enough to attain free agency and be able to chose where he works. Legally this framework is likely to fall apart at some point in the future.
Since 2016 began Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins has 51 points in 38 games played. This makes him the scoring leader so far in 2016. He is five points ahead of Joe Thornton is 2016 and 11 points ahead of any other player. In the 2015 portion of the 2015/16 season Crosby was not as dominant. He posted 27 points in 36 games. His scoring rate has nearly doubled with the change of the year.
The simplest explanation for this is that Crosby was stifled under coach Mike Johnston. Johnston was fired in mid-December and replaced by Mike Sullivan. Suddenly Crosby began scoring at the rates he had established earlier in his career. This is at best a partial answer. Crosby had a slow start for many reasons including luck and new linemates. It took a while for him to get going. He remains the best player in the NHL. A slow start will keep him from a serious Hart Trophy run but he is the clear MVP of 2016.
In the quest to find a "clutch team" people often look at scoring in the third period as the game is thought to be on the line at that time. Although a team can score at higher rates in the third period than they should based on their success in other periods and be declared a clutch team, this is usually a short term aberration. It is not a trend that can be maintained over any significant amount of time.
A recent case in point is the Calgary Flames. They were last year's clutch team. In the third period they scored 99 goals and allowed 68. The third period was their best offensive period and their worst defensive one. They performed better in the third period than anyone should have expected based upon any other statistic. If this clutch scoring was a real thing we would see it again this season. After all the Calgary Flames are roughly the same team in back to back years. This year in the third period Calgary has scored 57 goals and allowed 87. This year the third period is their lowest scoring period and the highest scoring for their opponents. So much for clutch.
Calgary has had a worse season this year than last. Last year they made playoffs and this year they will not. A big reason for it is "clutch scoring". Calgary was scoring in clutch times in the third period last year and has struggled in that situation this year. The explanation for that is clutch scoring is largely a meaningless thing. It doesn't last beyond shorter term statistical anomalies. People can celebrate these anomalies but they cannot count on them in the future. Calgary is a case study to help show this.
It is always interesting to watch the way different teams play games because sometimes you find that one team is doing something that nobody else is doing. We can try to gage how much that strategy leads to that team's success. The Nashville Predators are the most significant team when it comes to selecting a line for offensive zone starts and another for defensive ones. When a faceoff occurs in the offensive zone there is a line of Nashville forwards that is played more than any other in the league. The three players with the most offensive zone starts in the NHL are Mike Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg and Craig Smith. No other player in the league gets put on in offensive zone situation as much as any other player in the league. These are some of the best offensive players on the Predators. It increases their offensive production.
In order to have players who start shifts in the offensive zone so frequently, there must be players who take the defensive zone starts as well. Nashville has a group of players who have a role of defensive zone starts. Paul Gaustad and Austin Watson have more defensive zone starts than any other players in the NHL. Mikka Salomaki is their most usual third linemate and he is seventh in the league in defensive zone starts. These are the unsung heroes who take the tough defensive shifts so that the offensive players can start in the offensive zone.
The Dallas Stars are the first place team in the West Conference. They have a record of 44-31 with nine regulation tie points. This gives them 97 points and a two point lead over the St Louis Blues. Despite that they are not a team that looks likely to make a deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs. The problem is that goaltending is more important in the playoffs than in the regular season. With sudden death overtime played until a team finally scores a goal, a team with unbeatable goaltending will win the Stanley Cup. If their goaltending is truly unbeatable, they will play until they eventually score a goal against their opposition and win.
Dallas does not have good goaltending. This season they have split their netminding duties between Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. Niemi has a .901 saves percentage and a 2.78 goals against average. Lehtonen has a .905 saves percentage and a 2.83 goals against average. Those are weak numbers. In fact there is a no goalie who has played as many games as either of them with a worse saves percentage this season.
Dallas may have some good offensive talent, although it isn't clear that Tyler Seguin will be healthy when the playoffs begin. That is a further strike against Dallas. The Dallas Stars may be a strong enough team to win a first round series if they get matched up against a patsy, but they don't have strong enough goaltending to make a serious playoff run.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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