I think we are far enough into the season to conclude that the Chicago Blackhawks have the best team defence. Chicago has held opposition to an amazing 22.7 shots per game so far. This is 3.5 shots per game better than any other team (Los Angeles is second). The Blackhawks have a solid 8-6 record (with one regulation tie) but have not been able to capitalize on this top defence so far because of lacklustre goaltending. Cristobal Huet has put up a .895 saves percentage and a 2.36 goals against average. The GAA looks acceptable, but when you consider how few shots he has faced, it is not so good. So far rookie Antii Niemi has done a little better that Huet in goal, but he is largely untested. His first of four starts was a shutout against Florida and that one start alone (which may be a bit of a fluke) makes up the difference between Huet and his numbers.
There is an incredible offensive performance underway in the AHL. Alexandre Giroux of the Hershey Bears (the Washington Capitals affiliate) is tied for the league lead in scoring with 17 points. He is tied with Corey Locke of the Hartford Wolf Pack (the New York Rangers affiliate). Giroux’s performance so far is impressive because he has done it in only eight games played. He has scored more than two points per game in the AHL so far this season. By comparison, Locke has 12 games played. Giroux was called up to the NHL for a short time. He played three games with the Washington Capitals scoring a goal. This has limited his AHL games played.
Giroux is no stranger to being an AHL top scorer. Last year he won the John B Sollenberger Trophy as the top scorer in the league as well as the Les Cunningham Award for MVP. Giroux is an AHL superstar and he appears to be getting even better as time passes. So why is he not an NHLer?
The NHLPA is in a shambles. The NHL is using this weakness to launch an attack on the NHLPA, as the NHLPA is not in a position to defend itself well. This summer, Dany Heatley, then an Ottawa Senator, demanded a trade. Heatley then declined to be traded to the Edmonton Oilers, as he had a no movement clause in his contract. This allowed him to deny any trades (despite the fact he requested one). Ottawa spent most of the summer dealing with the Heatley drama until they finally traded him to the San Jose Sharks. Heatley and a fifth round pick were traded to San Jose in exchange for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a second round pick. So far, this trade has favored San Jose as Heatley has 17 points by himself and Michalek and Cheechoo have combined for ten points in Ottawa.
One of my biggest concerns with the NHL of today is that is hard (impossible?) to build a team that is as good as used to win Stanley Cups. This is a direct consequence of the salary cap and rapid expansion. A team cannot afford to hold onto all of the talent it produces if it drafts well and there are more other teams to gobble it up when it comes available on the open market. Teams cannot get as strong as they did in the past. For the most part, we do not see any more elite teams.
Puck Daddy began their retrospective of the decade today by listing the nine best teams of the decade. This is a ranking of all of the nine teams that won Stanley Cups in the years 2000-2009. This is an unscientific listing, where the criteria to rank teams is unclear. That said, the results of their rankings more or less agree with my opinions (and likely those of most impartial observers). The top three teams are the 2002 Detroit Red Wings, 2001 Colorado Avalanche and the 2000 New Jersey Devils. The top teams are pre-lockout.
Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets won the Calder trophy as the best rookie in the NHL last season. He finished second in the Vezina voting for best goaltender (behind Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins). He looked like an NHL star in the making. He was invited to the Canadian Olympic Team summer camp. However, this season has not gone nearly as well so far. Mason currently has a .882 saves percentage - which is the worst of any goalie who has been a clear number one with his team. He has a 3.53 goals against average and six wins in 11 starts. These are not the numbers of a future star.
Last season, Mason did not have a consistent season. He joined the Blue Jackets in early November. For about six weeks in December and January he played some spectacular hockey. This is a large part of what secured his awards. By the end of January, Mason missed time with mononucleosis and did not look like the same goalie when he returned. From the beginning of February to the end of the season, Mason posted a .899 saves percentage. Given that he posted a .916 saves percentage over the whole season, this was a noticeable drop.
After making the semi-finals in the 2009 playoffs, it appeared that the Carolina Hurricanes would have a strong 2009/10 season. So far that hasn’t been the case. The Hurricanes had a solid start winning two of their first four games, including a 7-2 victory over the Florida Panthers, but they haven’t won any games since. This gives Carolina a league leading eight game losing streak. That has dropped them into 29th place in a 30 team league with a 2-10 record (three losses count as overtime ties).
Carolina has scored fewer goals than any other team in the NHL - with 27 goals scored. No player on the team has more than eight points right now (Ray Whitney and Jussi Jokinen are tied for the team lead with eight points). Offensive stars Eric Staal and Ray Whitney should be counted upon to have significantly more points than this. Staal has only five points so far this year.
Early in the season it is not uncommon that a surprise player gets off to a good start and becomes the early leader for a major NHL award. Most of the time as the season progresses, the player slips back into the pack and the winner is a more usual suspect. Sometimes, especially when it is a young player with significant upside, they may stay in the race or even win the award.
At this early point in the season, Alex Goligoski of the Pittsburgh Penguins has been the best defenceman in the NHL. Goligoski has 12 points, which places him third among defencemen in the NHL. He has a +13 +/- rating which is good for first place in the league. On a Pittsburgh team that suffered a blow to their defence when Sergei Gonchar suffered a broken wrist, Goligoski has done a wonderful job. The Penguins struggled without Gonchar last year, but with Goligoski in his place have not missed a beat this year.
The NHLPA is in bad shape. Is that even news anymore? Over the years I have written posts entitled NHLPA in bad shape, NHLPA problems, NHLPA in shambles, NHLPA shoots itself in the foot and others. The continuing story is that the NHLPA is always in bad shape. It is never strong. It doesn’t seem that the players are capable of creating a strong NHLPA.
Just when it looked like things were on the upswing under Paul Kelly, the players inexplicably fired him. No reasonable cause has been released for his firing. It doesn’t seem that one exists. The players don’t even seem to know what happened. This is shown by the four player committee set up to investigate what happened.
EDIT: A couple hours after this post, Ian Penny resigned from his NHLPA post. It is yet another case of somebody who did wrong being subtracted, but when there seems to be an unending group of such people, can it really be sited as yet another point where the NHLPA is trying to right itself?
Earlier this season I picked Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes as the best goalie in the early season. Bryzgalov is continuing to play well, although his numbers are regressing a bit from his incredible start. There is another goalie who is continuing his incredible start further into the season. Craig Anderson of the Colorado Avalanche has been the top goalie in the season so far. Anderson is a big reason the Colorado Avalanche are in first place in the NHL. Anderson sports a .940 saves percentage and a 1.97 GAA. These are very strong numbers. These numbers have been posted when Anderson is facing over 35 shots per 60 minutes of play (which is a very high number).
Anderson had posted some good numbers as the Florida Panthers backup goalie (but always in limited starts). It is on the strength of those numbers that Anderson has been given a chance to start with the Colorado Avalanche. It is unclear how well he will handle the increased workload and the increased attention scouts give to his game.
I would never have predicted that twelve games into the 2009/10 season, the Colorado Avalanche would be in first place in the NHL. I picked the Avs to finish second last in the West Conference and my prediction was not out of line with most common opinions.
Colorado has a 9-3 record (with 2 losses counted as overtime ties). That is a very good record, but it is the overtime ties that propel Colorado into first. Without them, they would be near the top, but below Pittsburgh in the standings.
For the most part, Colorado has been outshot pretty badly while winning. They average 26.6 shots per game and allow 33.2. This almost seven shot per game deficit is more typical of a weaker team (for example Anaheim has three wins in ten games and has an eight shot per game deficit). Colorado has won largely due to goaltending. Craig Anderson has been outstanding.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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