I am very interested in the question of how early in the season/playoffs an eventual award winner establishes himself as the frontrunner and as such I try to pick winners as soon as I can and update my selection as a new player takes the lead. Yesterday I picked Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals as the Conn Smythe leader based on his first two games of the playoffs. His third game was not as strong. He allowed four goals on thirty shots in Washington's 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers. This knocks him out of the Conn Smythe lead but with a playoff leading 1.61 GAA and a .944 saves percentage he has to still be considered a contender if Washington makes a playoff run.
I think the new Conn Smythe leader is David Krejci of the Boston Bruins. He leads the playoffs with seven points and is tied for the lead with a +5 +/- rating. A lot of Boston's success against Toronto has come from their number one line and Krejci is its leader.
Krejci has a history of playoff success. He was the top scorer in the 2011 playoffs when his Boston team won the cup. If Boston makes a cup run this year, he would have to be a top contender. Will that happen?
It's still early in the playoffs but each team has played at least two games. It is probably too early to pick a meaningful MVP of the playoffs but I have always been interested in the question of when an award winner first emerges so it is helpful to make picks for awards early and see if those picks are still standing when the award is given out.
In most series the story has been how low scoring things have been. There have been four shutouts so far. No team has scored more than five goals in any given game. It is hard to pick an MVP because we are picking a best player from half a week of play. Nevertheless my pick right now is Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. Holtby has stopped 58 of 59 shots so far in two games with one going into overtime. While he hasn't really stolen either game his strong goaltending is a reason that Washington leads their series 2-0. It is hard to lose a series when you allow only one goal.
Holtby has a history of strong play in the first round of the playoffs. He played a strong first round series in 2012 beating then reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins. It looks like he could do the same against reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist this year. Will he last as playoff MVP? Probably not, but if Washington has a strong playoff run it isn't impossible.
The Vancouver Canucks have played two games against the San Jose Sharks in the playoffs so far and lost them both. The second game was an overtime loss. While there are many reasons to explain their losses - luck being a major one - one significant reason that I haven't seen discussed is the lack of faith the Canucks have in their fourth line. Of all players who have two games played in the playoffs Andrew Ebbett and Dale Weise have the least playing time. They are Canucks fourth liners.
Ebbett has averaged less than four and a half minutes a game and Weise less than six minutes. This shortened bench forces the rest of the Canuck forwards to increase their playing time and is hard on their stamina. A team with stamina issues typically allows more goals at the end of games and that usually causes them to lose those games. Yesterday they allowed a tying goal in the final minute of regulation and then lost in overtime. In game one they lost with three unanswered goals in the second half of the game (two in the third period). These are symptoms of stamina issues brought on by a needlessly shortened bench. The Vancouver Canucks would be well advised to play their fourth line more - perhaps using players they can trust in more situations then Ebbett and Weise. It is a simple strategic move that will counteract some of the problems they have seen in the first two games of the series.
It is kind of a backhanded compliment to be the best team that missed the playoffs (it's a lot like being the prettiest fat girl in school). Nevertheless as I watch the playoffs there are a few teams that look like they have been lucky to make the playoffs. They managed to fluke their way in after 48 games, but I doubt they would make playoffs in a full length 82 game season. I look out at the teams the missed the playoffs and see a few that would probably do better than some of the teams that did make the playoffs. The non-playoff team that I think would have been the toughest playoff team is the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The finished second last in the East Conference. They only won 18 out of 48 games but I think they would be the best of the non-playoff teams if they made playoffs. Offensively this team is led by the two highest scorers in the NHL. Martin St Louis won the scoring title and Steve Stamkos was second. Never before has a team that missed the playoffs had the top two scorers in the league. When you shorten the benches in the playoffs the value of talented offensive stars increases. Tampa doesn't have great offensive depth but they do have further valuable offensive players including Vincent LeCavalier and Ted Purcell. In fact Tampa was the third highest scoring team in the league this season.
One significant story I haven't written about yet that occurred at the end of the regular season is the change in general managers in Dallas. Joe Nieuwendyk was fired. He was hired in 2009 and never managed to qualify for the playoffs. He was a prime example of a star player who was rushed into a position above his qualifications and struggled there. In fact when he was hired I wrote:
Joe Nieuwendyk will be the next GM of the Dallas Stars. He has a relatively short resume, which is common for an NHL star who gets that position. It is also common for somebody who was on the fast track to become an NHL executive as an ex-NHL star to never become a great NHL GM. That would not be a good thing for the Dallas Stars if Nieuwendyk follows that likely path.
That pretty much captured Nieuwendyk's reign as GM. He wasn't a great GM and he didn't have any real success with the Dallas Stars. Perhaps it was a learning experience and Nieuwendyk is now qualified to be an NHL GM if he ever gets a second chance.
Dallas is likely on the right track now with the signing of their new GM Jim Nill.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us after a shortened season. The shortened season has been somewhat unpredictable. Random chance has shuffled the standings a bit from the way it probably should have been. Random chance is more significant than in normal seasons because it was only 48 games long. The first round of the playoffs will be over in four to seven games so it should be clear that random chance is even more significant now than it was in the regular season and it was clearly visible in the final regular season statistics.
Here are my predictions for the eight first round series:
Pittsburgh Penguins defeat New York Islanders. The Islanders are the playoff team that is most likely to be there. They are the only playoff team that had a losing record at home in the regular season. They don't have what it takes to be a successful playoffs team. Pittsburgh is the most likely team to win the Stanley Cup playoffs. This shouldn't be a close series. Pittsburgh's biggest question mark is the health of Sidney Crosby, their best player, but with or without his presence, the pens should win this series.
The regular season completed today with Ottawa's victory over Boston. Now I am going to post my traditional if I had an award ballot post, where I list who I would have voted for if I had a vote in the NHL Awards that most interest me.
Calder Trophy: 1. Jonathan Huberdeau Florida Panthers 2. Nail Yakupov Edmonton Oilers 3. Jonas Brodin Minnesota Wild. Here is where I picked Huberdeau for the award. He did very well in a bad situation with few talented teammates. This forced Huberdeau into a tough role and he still scored. I think the shortened season affected this trophy race and with a full length season it would probably look very different from the way it looks right now. The top rookies would have been scouted better by opposition and some would not hold up as well to the increased pressure that comes with it. Young players may have spent the first twenty or thirty games getting comfortable in their NHL role and now are ready to shine. I am not convinced this grouping of players will be the best threesome of this season's rookies but they are the ones who showed us the most in their first NHL season.
I have written a couple posts about teams that are having results that break from recent history by qualifying or not qualifying for the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs are an example of a team that made the playoffs that is a change from their recent past and the Philadelphia Flyers missing the playoffs are an example of a team that has regularly made playoffs recently. The biggest surprise playoff qualifier so far is likely the New York Islanders. They last qualified for the playoffs in 2007.
I think the Islanders are an example of a team that has benefitted from the shortened season. I do not see them as a team that could sustain this level of play in an 82 game season. They don't have the talent but they have improved from their worst days and are good enough to get hot for a while and thus make playoffs in a shortened season. The Isles qualified for playoffs with such a streak. In their first eleven games in April they did not lose any games in regulation. They had 8 wins and 3 regulation tie losses. A run of 19 points out of a possible 22 is very strong and that is what cemented their playoff berth. Unfortunately for the team they lost their final three games, so it looks like their hot streak has come to an end before the playoffs begin.
I try to monitor what time in a player's career he becomes a clear Hall of Famer. At what point is he a Hall of Fame player regardless of what happens in the rest of his career? I think Sergei Gonchar has passed that point.
Gonchar has been one of the better defencemen in the league for well over a decade. He has never been the best defenceman in the league but he was good enough to make the NHL Second Team All Star twice. Had he been stronger defensively he probably would have been a Norris Trophy winner at some point. His defensive play has improved over his career but it was a weakness fifteen years ago. His career numbers have reached the point that they are clear Hall of Fame numbers and this is remarkable given the fact that he played in a relatively low scoring era with the loss of 1.5 seasons due to lockouts (and possibly the 1994 lockout as that shortened his rookie season). In a different higher scoring era, a player of Gonchar's ability would have even more impressive career numbers.
Nine of the sixteen playoff spots this season have been clinched. The remainder will clinch over the next few days. I think we have found the most unlikely playoff team based upon recent history. The Toronto Maple Leafs have clinched their first playoff berth since 2004. This is the first time they will appear in the playoffs since the adoption of the salary cap. In part this happened in part because Toronto no longer was able to use their financial muscle to buy up enough free agents to keep their team barely at playoff level with little plan of how to build a stronger team. The salary cap forced them to build a legitimate contender and it is a long process.
Their process got underway properly when they hired Brian Burke. It took him the better part of four seasons to right the ship and as soon as they were ready to make the playoffs, he was fired. Burke's job wasn't over but it was on the right track and the new Leaf ownership wasn't smart enough to see it.
Dave Nonis is the new Leaf GM. He has most of his experience in Brian Burke systems in Vancouver and Toronto. Hopefully he has learned enough to follow Burke's process through fruition.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???