The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the NHL in man-games lost to injury. Despite that, they have won the Metropolitan Division quite easily. They currently lead the second place New York Rangers by 14 points. That is clearly a sign of a good deep team to succeed despite that adversity.
Pittsburgh's most significant two losses this season have probably been their top defenceman Kris Letang who suffered a stroke and goaltender Tomas Vokoun who has missed the entire season due to blood clots. Unfortunately these players may never fully recover from these medical issues. It is a significant loss to the Penguins. Significant players James Neal, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin and Pascal Dupuis have all missed large portions of the season.
Pittsburgh has done well despite the injuries because Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL. Chris Kunitz has had great chemistry with Crosby at left wing. Matt Niskanen has had a very good year on defence. Marc-Andre Fleury has been solid, though not spectacular, in goal. Pittsburgh has some very good depth. They probably would be a runaway first place team if they were healthy. The problem is two key players in Kris Letang and Tomas Vokoun are unlikely to regain full health. Pittsburgh has proven they can succeed without them, but they might have been the best team in the league if they could have full health.
Just like in the NHL, there are few games left in the AHL season. First place has not been sewn up yet. When I last looked at the standings, the Texas Stars (Dallas affiliate) had caught up to the Manchester Monarchs (LA Kings affiliate) who had been in first place. It looks like Texas may pull ahead. They currently have a one point lead and one game in hand. They have five games remaining to play this season and Manchester has four. Texas is extremely hot. They are on a nine game winning streak.
Texas is the team of the AHL's top scorer Travis Morin. They are the second highest scoring team in the league this season and are sixth in goals against. That makes them a well-rounded team but one that is better offensively than defensively. Any team as hot as Texas who has had as strong a season as they have will be a tough opponent for anyone in the playoffs and would have to be considered the favorite.
A little over a month ago, I picked Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars as the Lady Byng Trophy leader. He is having a remarkable breakthrough year. He currently stands fifth in scoring in the NHL. It is the sportsmanship side of the Lady Byng Trophy that knocks him from the lead. In the past month his penalty minute total has climbed from four to sixteen.
My current pick is Ryan O'Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche. O'Reilly has only two penalty minutes on the season. In the top 130 scorers in the league, only O'Reilly and Frans Nielsen of the New York Islanders have fewer than ten penalty minutes this season. Nielsen has four times as many penalty minutes as O'Reilly with eight. Ryan O'Reilly is not the top flight player that Tyler Seguin is. He is 40th in scoring in the NHL with 59 points. While that is good, it is probably not good enough for an All Star Game spot. It certainly doesn't make him the best player on his team - though on a few weaker teams it would. It is the remarkably low penalty minute total that is why he should be rewarded as Lady Byng Trophy winner.
David Krejci of the Boston Bruins has taken over the NHL +/- lead. He has a +37 rating, which is one point ahead of teammate Patrice Bergeron. I pick Bergeron as the Selke Trophy leader. He has a top +/- despite playing against the toughest opposition the Bruins face. Krejci has an easier job. He and Bergeron are usually the top line centremen in Boston, but if Bergeron faces the toughest opposition, this makes things easier for Krejci.
Krejci is a good player. He leads the Bruins with 63 points. He plays a solid two-way game. However I would argue that his offensive numbers are in part due to Bergeron facing the toughest talent so that he doesn't have to. A player like Patrice Bergeron makes his teammates better by taking the toughest minutes so they don't have to. A good player like Krejci will do very well in those minutes. It makes him the top scorer on his team.
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.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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