Goaltending is a position that can have a tremendous effect on a team. A team with a top goalie can significantly exceed expectations. Likewise, a team with poor goaltending will fail to live up to expectation. Short term predictions based on goaltending are hard because it is a very streaky position. It is not uncommon for a goalie who has not had much recent success to suddenly have a very hot streak and become nearly unbeatable and it is not uncommon for a top goalie to have a cold streak.
Two goalies who were largely overlooked in the free agent market who are off to good starts this year are Antero Niittymaki of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Andrew Raycroft of the Vancouver Canucks.
I like to try to pinpoint the time in a player’s career when he cements himself as Hall of Fame player. This is the point where his Hall of Fame credentials are strong enough that anything that does or does not happen in the remainder of his career cannot threaten his value as a Hall of Famer. Today, I believe that Joe Thornton has made it to this level.
With the year 2010 less than two months away, it is natural to start looking at the results over the decade 2000-2009 (some might chose decades as 2001-2010 or to correspond with the start and end of NHL seasons but the results remain about the same). It is clear that Joe Thornton will be the highest scorer in the NHL over the 2000-2009 decade. He has 783 regular season points so far. This puts him ahead of a Jarome Iginla and Daniel Alfredsson tie for second place with 712 points. Jaromir Jagr is fourth with 671 points and is no longer playing in the NHL. It is clear that Thornton will be the top scorer in this (2000-2009) decade and extremely likely that he will be the top scorer in the 2001-2010 decade (he currently has an 80 point lead).
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?
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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