With a 7-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings last night, the Washington Capitals are the only remaining team that has won all their games so far this season. They have a 7-0 record, which puts them first overall in the league. They have a +16 +/- so far this season, when no other team is better than +8. At this early point in the season, Washington looks like the strongest team in the league.
The Capitals won the East Conference last year and added a strong goalie in Tomas Vokoun in the off season. Vokoun has a very strong .944 saves percentage and a 1.80 GAA so far this season. Our Capitals blogger Matthew Tate tried to fan the flames of a goalie controversy when Michal Neuvirth played the first game of the season but it wasn’t to be. It appears to have been largely a media construct.
One of the big questions regarding Brendan Shanahan’s run as the NHL’s vice president who is in charge of player discipline is how he would handle suspensions for big name players. Yesterday he showed that he will likely be influenced by star power. On Thursday night Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators hit Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks from behind in the third period. He was given a two minute boarding penalty and two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. This was in Vancouver’s 5-1 victory.
This hit was not unlike other hits from behind that have been given two game suspensions, but Brendan Shanahan let him off with a $2500 fine. This compares best with Kris Letang’s recent two game suspension for boarding Alex Burmistrov of the Winnipeg Jets. Letang was given a two game suspension and Weber a token fine.
We are a few games into the season and all the teams in the league have at least one win except for the Columbus Blue Jackets. In six games their best result to date has been a 3-2 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Their other five games have been losses. Despite their last place record, none of the games have been embarrassments for the Blue Jackets. Their biggest loss has been by two goals.
Though this record is a sign of a poor team, it isn’t a sign of the worst team in the league. Other teams have a worse +/- than the Blue Jackets do.
Earlier this season I picked Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars as the early season MVP. While he remains the top goalie with a league leading win total and a goals against average and saves percentage among the top in the league with a very high number of shots against, he has been surpassed as league MVP by Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kessel is off to a very good start. He leads the league with 12 points in five games played. His seven goals is also league leading. His +7 +/- rating leads the NHL’s forwards. He is off to a very good start. Eleven teams in the league have 12 goals or less scored this season and Kessel by himself has been in on that many goals.
It is still early in the season, but I think it is reasonable to pick a worst player so far this season. As is the usual situation, early in the season the worst player in a name player who is off to a bad start. Since he is a well known player he is still given significant playing time despite poor results. Most likely this player will get his season on track as the season progresses and the worst player in the league will be a lesser known player. That is the pattern that has been established over the past several years.
So far this season, the worst player in the league has been Jaroslav Halak of the St Louis Blues. In five games so far he has posted a 3.47 GAA and a .835 saves percentage. His St Louis Blues team has allowed the fewest shots per game, with only 23.5 shots against. Despite that, they have only two wins in six games (and one of those wins came when Halak was not playing). So far, Halak has been an anchor who has slowed down the Blues.
One of the veteran players who has the widest range among various observers in his expectations this season is Roberto Luongo. Luongo has been the best goalie in the NHL in the past decade. Though he has not won the Vezina Trophy he has had several Vezina worthy season. As a result, he ranks very highly in the top seasons by goaltender point shares. However, the what have you done for me lately crowd watch him play poorly in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. In a few games, he didn`t look good enough to be an NHL starting goalie.
The observations of Luongo in the years of his career show he is a top goalie, even if he has had some recent problems. It is most reasonable to expect he will remain a top goalie into the future.
It`s very early in the season, but how has he done so far?
One of the biggest highlights of the upcoming season during the summer was the return of the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg has been very happy to see NHL hockey return, but the results on the ice have not been so good. The Jets are only three games into the season, but they are stuck in last place. They have lost all three of their outings so far. The Jets lost their season opener 5-1 against Montreal. Their closest game was a 4-3 loss to Chicago. Most recently they have lost 4-1 to Phoenix. All told, Winnipeg has allowed 13 goals and scored only five. This isn’t a good start and it will likely be a long season.
The Atlanta Thrashers were not a particularly good team before moving to Winnipeg. There were five teams who were worse than them in last year’s standings. This year’s team in Winnipeg will have a bigger problem with travel being stuck in the Southeast Division.
Creative accounting is a part of the NHL in its salary cap era. The Philadelphia Flyers have a method that is unique to them to exceed the salary cap. They do not buyout players. Instead they permanently transfer them to the longterm injury reserve. Any player who has had a lengthy NHL career has some kind of recurring injury problem that can be played up and turned into a longterm ailment. This allows the team to pay out the injured player’s salary to a new replacement player. If the player was bought out, there would be dead salary cap space that couldn’t be used.
Mike Rathje is the best example of this. He last played 18 games in the beginning of the 2006/07 season and remained on the Flyers injury reserve until 2010 when his contract ended. Derian Hatcher spent the entire 2008/09 season on the injured reserve until his contract ended. Both of these players never played again and provided needed salary cap relief with their injuries.
I liked to track the leaders for the NHL awards as the season progresses. It is interesting to see the progression of award leaders as the season progresses. At what point does the eventual winner become the front runner? At what point do the surprise players who were not expected to be in the race fade away?
In order to do this I must pick award leaders as soon as they become clear. With that in mind today I am picking the first Hart Trophy leader for 2011/12. He is Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars. Lehtonen has been the best player in the league so far this season. He leads the NHL with a .966 saves percentage and is second with a 1.30 GAA. This is despite the fact he has more saves than any other goalie in the league and he has three games played while a few other goalies have four.
The salary cap is a tool to keep team expenses down, as teams cannot exceed a certain payroll. Conversely a salary floor is a tool to keep team expenses up. The most significant flirt with the salary floor has been the Dallas Stars. The team is going through bankruptcy and is trying to keep expenses down. They had a bit of a crisis when Sean Avery was sent to the minors by the New York Rangers. The Rangers had claimed Avery from the Stars on re-entry waivers and as such the Stars had half of his salary cap hit ($1.9375 million) count toward them. With Avery in the minors his salary cap hit disappeared and Dallas was in salary floor difficulty. They got short term relief when Adam Pardy was injured. This allowed Philip Larsen onto their roster. The problem is Pardy is expected to come back soon.
The solution was to trade for Eric Nystrom from the Minnesota Wild, but to do it in the way to make his salary cap hit as big as possible.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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