I think no team is over 50% likely to win the Stanley Cup this year. That means that most likely San Jose will not win the Stanley Cup this year even though they are the single team with the best chance at it.
What makes San Jose the most likely cup winner? They had a very good regular season winning the President’s Trophy. They did so despite travel issues that when accounted for would make their lead even bigger.
San Jose has the most talented team in the league with no clear weaknesses. They have a good goalie in Evgeni Nabokov. Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Christian Ehrhoff and Rob Blake give the Sharks one of the better defences in the NHL. They have a good group of forwards in Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Milan Michalek, Ryane Clowe and Jonathan Cheechoo. They have some good grinders and wily veterans to make up their depth including Travis Moen, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Grier and Claude Lemieux. This is a good team.
I have been supporting Jacques Lemaire as coach of the year for most of this season and while he has done an amazing job with a Minnesota Wild team I do not think he is the best candidate right now. Andy Murray in St Louis has done an even better job this season. He is my choice.
Murray has been a very good coach for years. This year he had a St Louis team that looked like it was on its way to a lottery pick in the draft. He made several key moves that changed their fortunes. He sent early season number one goalie Manny Legace to the minors and made Chris Mason the number one goalie. He gave young players including TJ Oshie and David Backes the lead role offensively. He kept things positive despite a poor start and despite longterm injuries to Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson, who were considered key components of the team. The Blues have now clinched a playoff berth and Murray deserves credit for transforming the team into a playoff team.
The NHL; has been actively trying to increase the number of goals per game. Since the lockout, the most successful method has likely been increasing the number and importance of power plays. An obstruction crackdown was launched when the league started back up after the lockout that led to an increase in penalties. An increase in penalties led to an increase in goals. Over time the number of penalties has began to drop, but the NHL added a rule this season that the opening faceoff after a penalty is in the defensive zone of the penalized team. That has continued the increase in power play goals. The average team scores 25-30% of their goals on the power play. It is hard to be successful in the NHL without a good power play.
The worst power play in the NHL belongs to the Columbus Blue Jackets and they have clinched a playoff berth.
One story that has not been adequately reported is the fact that the Calgary Flames, a team in a tight race for the Northwest Division, has been playing games with less than a full roster. The problem is that they have so little salary cap room that they have not been able to afford to dress a full lineup. Three defencemen, Robyn Regehr, Adrian Aucoin and Cory Sarich all suffered injuries, but none are serious enough to go on the long-term disabled list (especially given the fact this would keep them out of the beginning games of the Stanley Cup playoffs). The Calgary Flames have played their last three games with less than a full roster. They played last Friday’s game against Minnesota with only 16 skaters (instead of 18) and predictably lost 4-0. They played Monday and Tuesday’s games, against Los Angeles and Vancouver respectively, with 17 skaters. Amazingly they defeated Los Angeles 4-1, but lost to Vancouver also by a 4-1 score.
Dustin Boyd currently in the minors for salary cap reasons. Boyd has been a solid forward for the Flames with 22 points so far this season. He is somebody who can be sent to the minors without worrying about waivers, so he is their salary cap sacrifice. He is the final player the Flames would like to have in their line-up to dress a full roster.
Every year it seems one team makes that playoffs but is the weak first round opponent that everyone would like to face. Last year, that team was the Ottawa Senators. Given their slump over the last half of the year, it was no surprise when Pittsburgh beat them 4-0 in the first round. This year the team that best fits that role is the Montreal Canadiens. Since the beginning of 2009, the Canadiens have a 20—24 record (with four regulation tie points). That is 22nd overall in the league in that time period. It is the second worst among presumptive playoff teams (the New York Rangers have actually been worse).
The Montreal Canadiens problems are made worse by recent defensive injuries. This season’s team MVP Andrei Markov is expected to miss three weeks with a knee problem and Mathieu Schneider is out for the season with shoulder surgery. This is a big blow to the Montreal defence. Likely, by the time Markov is ready to play again, Montreal will have been eliminated from the playoffs.
One of the surprises this season has been the success of the Boston Bruins. Last season they finished eighth in the East Conference taking the last playoff spot. Most predictions had them finishing in the same territory this season.
Very early in the season in became clear that they would exceed expectation. Tim Thomas is having a Vezina quality season in goal. That was unexpected. While Zdeno Chara was expected to have a good season on defence, the development of Dennis Wideman was not expected. At forward, Marc Savard has continued to become a well-rounded player (his defence is much improved) and young players like David Krejci, Phil Kessel,, Blake Wheeler and Milan Lucic all took big steps forward. Boston has a talented (mostly) young core that took a huge step forward this season. It places them first overall in the East Conference and the favorite to win the East Conference in the playoffs.
When I last talked about the MVP race I supported Evgeni Malkin over Alexander Ovechkin. I did this in part because Malkin has a significant lead in the points race. He doesn’t anymore. Malkin’s lead has shrunk to two points. Ovechkin has a huge lead in goals and it would take a minor miracle for him to not win the Rocket Richard Trophy. Since goals are a more significant measure of offensive status of a player than assists, I support Alexander Ovechkin as the current Hart Trophy leader.
There are a few other fringe candidates that might obtain support in some circles including Zach Parise, Pavel Datsyuk, Steve Mason, Sidney Crosby and Tim Thomas but none are likely to seriously impact the Hart Trophy race. It is between Ovechkin and Malkin and Ovechkin has recently pulled into the lead.
One question I decided to look at is the importance of being a tough team to winning hockey games. As a marker for toughness we will take the team’s total penalty minutes per game and plot it against their points so far this season.
While looking at the relative divisional strengths this season, I mentioned that the Central Division is helped by travel. While West Conference teams lead the league in distance travelled in a season, they are the further west teams in the conference. This allows the Central Division teams to play a lot of games against travel tired teams. This is something that has been well-established in some work by Tom Benjamin that was done in the 1990s. Most of it is no longer available on the internet. Some readers here (particularly Hockey in HD) had not seen this work and were skeptical.
I cannot re-create all of this work in a short period of time. In order to show how travel does affect the westernmost teams and get a rough estimate of how many points it costs them in a season, I did some work. There is a lot more evidence that can be presented, but it will probably have to wait until the off-season.
There are two CBA related controversies which the NHL has merged into one that are creating some odd precedents for the league. Both involve the Tampa Bay Lightning’s fourth round pick in 2009. Last summer, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Jonas Frogren. Frogren’s signing created a bit of a CBA mess. The CBA problems a bit complex, but the biggest thing that bothered the NHL is that Frogren was paying a buyout to his previous Swedish team (Farjestads BK Karlstad) with an increased first year salary. The NHL had forbidden teams to negotiate transfers of players individually (it would drive up transfer costs). Technically, the Leafs did not negotiate Frogren’s transfer. Jonas Frogren did it himself. The Leafs paid him enough money to do it himself. It was a creative solution to a problem that probably should not have existed in the first place.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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