Early this season I picked Jacques Lemaire of the New Jersey Devils as the coach of the year favorite. While he has done a good job with the Devils, who have had key injuries to their defence (Paul Martin) and have an aging superstar goalie in Martin Brodeur, who is no longer as good as he once was, the Devils are not on pace to gathering as many points this year as they did last year. I think a better coach of the year choice is Dave Tippett from the surprising Phoenix Coyotes.
It is easier to gage Tippett’s success with his team because of how badly things fell apart last year. When Phoenix Coyotes financial troubles began to make news, the team fell quickly from what looked like a playoff spot to 13th place in the West Conference. Previous coach Wayne Gretzky was entirely unable to stop the fall. Phoenix was clearly a good team who had failed because the coaching staff had failed to keep the team focused when the going got tough.
As teams in the NHL have ten games or less left this season, now is the important time for teams to get hot. The hottest team right now is the Cinderella team - the Phoenix Coyotes. They have won their last nine games straight. They are a team that has been through a bankruptcy and are being kept alive by NHL ownership this season.
They are a team that finished third from last in the West Conference last season. Last year at mid-season, Phoenix looked like a playoff team until the rumors of financial problems began. They derailed the season. Wayne Gretzky was not a strong enough coach to keep things on track, but Dave Tippett is.
One valuable sabermetric number that is often ignored is zone starts. For each player, the zone where faceoffs occur (offensive, neutral or defensive) with that player on the ice is recorded. Some players are used for many more defensive faceoffs than offensive ones. These players tend to be lower scoring and have worse +/- and Corsi ratings than players who are on for significantly more offensive faceoffs than defensive ones, but those differences in their numbers do not show that the defensive player is a weaker player. They have a tougher job and may more more important to their team`s success.
Last year, Evgeni Malkin was a player who had one of the easiest jobs last year in terms of zone starts. He was the top scorer in the NHL and one reason for his offensive success was that he was put on the ice for offensive situations and taken off in defensive ones. On a team with other offensive stars (most notably Sidney Crosby), it is a poor way for the Penguins to allocate their shifts. Thus it was a good prediction that Evgeni Malkin`s offensive totals would decline this year. Malkin has 70 points in 63 games. If he scored at last year`s pace he would have 87 points by now.
One team that made playoffs last year that is looking like they will miss them this year is the New York Rangers. The Rangers are currently tenth in the East Conference with a 31-40 record (with nine regulation tie points). They are three points back of eighth seed Boston.
In order for a playoff team from last year to miss playoffs this year, several things must go wrong. This season, the Rangers have allowed 0.12 more goals per game than they have scored. Last year, the Rangers allowed 0.14 more goals per game than they scored. Essentially the team’s +/- is the same this year as it was last year. The New York Rangers are scoring more than they did last year and allowing more goals as well. I think that is an adjustment to a new coach John Tortorella who allows his team to play a more offensive style than Tom Renney (who coached most of last year).
Veteran poolies know that now is a great time to find sleeper picks for next year’s hockey pool. A young player can have a poor start to the season and catch fire during the last couple months. Usually this is a sign that the player has found his NHL game and should perform at a high level next season. Anyone following that line of logic would likely have selected Steve Stamkos to their fantasy hockey team this year and as a result has a good chance at winning their league.
This year, the young player who best appears to have found his game in the second half of the season is Chris Stewart of the Colorado Avalanche. Stewart is a second year NHL player who has 58 points in 65 games so far this year. He has been the highest scorer in the league since the beginning of March (16 points in 9 games). In the 2009 portion of this season, Stewart has 25 points in 37 games. In 2010, he has had 33 points in 28 games. Stewart has been above point per game pace for the last two and a half months. That is evidence that he can maintain such a pace next season.
As we get closer to the playoffs, we can start to gage the chances the various playoff teams have of winning the Stanley Cup. Of the probable playoff teams, the Philadelphia Flyers look like they could be in very poor shape come playoff time. They have not had particularly strong goaltenders at any point this season.
The Flyers brought in a new goalie tandem of Ray Emery and Brian Boucher this season. It was a move to stay below the salary cap. They could not afford last year’s tandem of Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki. It was a case of poor salary cap management that forced the Flyers to have big question marks in goal. This problem was one of the major causes of the firing of coach John Stevens.
On Monday, I wrote about the pending Alexander Ovechkin suspension and how NHL senior vice president Colin Campbell was likely to embarrass himself with his ruling. Ovechkin received a two game suspension for his hit (push from behind) on Brian Campbell that wound up breaking Campbell’s collarbone. Some people are arguing this suspension is too long. Others argue that it is not long enough. That is a sign that the length is approximately right.
Despite getting one disciplinary call correct, Colin Campbell managed to embarrass himself on another call. On Sunday, Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning slew-footed Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins on the first shift of the game which Pittsburgh won 2-1. Crosby was not injured and managed to return to complete the game. Nevertheless, NHL precedent (should that mean anything) shows that slew-footing is worthy of a suspension as long as a superstar isn’t the one to be suspended.
Often when a player is presented as the most underrated in the NHL, it is a player that few people have heard of who is doing a good job for his team. That is not the case right now. Most people who have some interest in hockey have heard of Tomas Vokoun of the Florida Panthers. They have never thought of him as arguably the best goaltender in the NHL.
The case for Vokoun as a top goaltender is simple. He has been the best goalie statistically in the last several years. Fear the fin compiled saves percentage numbers since the lockout and finds Vokoun’s .923 saves percentage is four points higher than any other goalie on the list. In that time, Tomas Vokoun has had no Vezina Trophy nominations. The problem is that nobody has noticed him as he has toiled in obscure hockey markets of Nashville and Florida. He hasn’t been able to get wins while playing for these teams. These teams have had neither the offence nor the defence to make his job a success.
The NHL has had a poor suspension policy for years. One of its key problems has been that star players get treated much more leniently than fringe players for the same offence. The NHL hesitates to suspend players who drive ticket sales, while sometimes throwing the book at players who are of lesser importance.
The most recent embarrassment has been the lack of suspension the Matt Cooke for a headshot on Marc Savard, in the same week the NHL general managers agreed to a potential rule change to make headshots more suspendable.
When I summarized the trade deadline, I picked the Atlanta Thrashers as the team that had the biggest short-term drop as a result of their deadline deals. Trading away Ilya Kovalchuk, the best player in team history, and not getting any player of Kovalchuk`s level in return is bound to hurt the Thrashers for the remainder of the season.
Thrasher fans were quick to criticize my pick because the Thrashers had gone 4-3 (with two regulation ties) in their first seven games without Kovalchuk. Despite the problems of the small sample size (making the handful of game results not statistically significant), this series of games was supposed to show that Atlanta was better (or at least no worse) for having given up Ilya Kovlachuk. Their luck without Kovalchuk has not held up. Atlanta is not 4-8 (with their two regulation ties) after the trade.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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