I like to watch the NHL awards as the season progresses. I like to pick candidates for the awards as they emerge early in the season and monitor those choices as the season progresses, in part to see how far into the season it is before the eventual winner emerges. Today, there is a leader for the Vezina Trophy as best goalie. It is Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes. Bryzgalov has been the bright spot on the Phoenix Coyotes. Phoenix has a 5-2 record which gives them the Pacific Division lead. This is despite a lacklustre offence that has only scored 2.43 goals per game (tying them with Tampa Bay for 20th in the league). Their success is largely due to goaltending. The Phoenix team has allowed a league leading 1.43 goals per game. Bryzgalov is the man who is primarily responsible for that. He has played in six of the seven games and has a .953 saves percentage and a 1.14 GAA. These are tremendous numbers that are unsustainable over the season. However, a very good season from Bryzgalov (as we have seen so far) could make Phoenix a contender. He is the primary reason that the team has a good record so far and for that is the early Vezina Trophy leader.
After a summer spent in bankruptcy and litigation, the Phoenix Coyotes have returned to Phoenix for the 2009/10 season. They are back because courts found that nobody is suitable to buy the team, so they will continue to be propped up by the NHL until something changes. In the summer a lot of damage was done to the fanbase. It is clear that the Phoenix Coyotes will not remain in Phoenix in the long-term. Season ticket holders were unwilling to renew their tickets over the summer because they didn’t know it there would be a team for this season, thus killing the season ticket base. The Phoenix Coyotes are back, but their fans are not.
The official attendance for Thursday’s game against the St Louis Blues was 6899, with reports that only about 5000 people were present. This makes the official attendance the NHL has seen in several years and makes it look quite probable that the average attendance in Phoenix this season will be the lowest number the league has seen for a team in decades.
Goaltending is the most important position in the NHL. Top goaltending can make an average team look like a contender. Bad goaltending can make a good team look like an also ran. In the early days of the season, the two goalies who were expected to lead the league are off to poor stars. Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins is sporting a 4.00 GAA and a .868 saves percentage. As a result his Boston Bruins are 2-3. Probable Canadian Olympic Team starter Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks has a 3.33 GAA and a .879 saves percentage. Vancouver is also off to a 2-3 start. These are numbers that might have lesser goalies at risk of losing their starting jobs.
Neither team should be worried at this point, but if they cannot get top performances from their All Star goalies, they will not do as well as expected this season. Both Vancouver and Boston rely on goaltending for success and will need to get it to compete for the top positions in their conferences as many predicted.
Early in the season, it is interesting to watch the number of shifts and playing time of players on various teams. When a team is overplaying a handful of key players early in the season, it is quite likely that these players will fatigue and break down over the course of the year. This is a cause of concern. The team with the largest area of concern in this area is the Philadelphia Flyers defence. The three leading players in shifts per game, at this point in the season, are Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger. They have 35.4, 34.4 and 33.6 shifts per game played respectively. Pronger tends to play longer shifts - so he is their icetime leader despite fewer shifts.
This is a situation that will likely not be able to be kept up all season. These players will break down from overwork. This becomes even more likely when one considers that Pronger is 35 years old and Timonen is 34. Both are on the downsides of their careers where injuries become more likely.
Early season trends often do not last for the whole season, but one of the more surprising ones so far is that the New York Rangers are scoring. They have more goals than any other team in the NHL with 24. They have averaged four goals per game, which ties them for the league lead with the Atlanta Thrashers (who have fewer games played). This is a surprise because last season the Rangers scored the fifth fewest goals with 210. They had the least potent offence among teams that made the playoffs in 2009.
It looked like things would be worse this season as most of their top offensive players from last year are not returning. Nikolai Zherdev, Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund and Nik Antropov were among the highest scoring Rangers last year (among returning players only Chris Drury outscored some of those players) and all have moved on to other teams. The question of who was going to score goals for the Rangers was a big one. It was one I wrote about this summer.
As the NHL season progresses, I like to track the player who is getting regular ice time who has been the worst in the league. Last season, it was Riley Cote of the Philadelphia Flyers who “won” this award. He was a player who regularly dressed in Philadelphia, but played in limited ice time against weak competition and nevertheless rarely scored, while allowing opponents to control the play. His main “value” came from his ability to fight and draw penalties. On a team that has the team toughness of the Philadelphia Flyers; one must wonder if that adds anything to the line-up.
It is very common that the worst NHL regular by season’s end is a hard working guy who lacks talent. Coaching staffs and fans like him because he works so hard, but he cannot get the job done. Earlier in the season, it is much more common for a bigger name player to be the worst regular. The lesser players have not had as much ice time yet. One must be somewhat highly regarded to have already been given the chance to fail.
This year, the early season worst player has been Vesa Toskala of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
We are now a few games into the NHL season and it is possible to look at the results and try to determine very early leaders for the NHL Awards. At this point in the year, I think the leading MVP candidate is Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin is tied for the NHL lead with 10 points. His five goals are second in the league. His +5 +/- rating is top among forwards in the league. Ovechkin is off to a great start. This is not surprising given that he has won the Hart trophy the last two years running and is the NHL’s best player.
In order to conclude (for now) the off-season look at sabermetrics and hockey, I will complete the look at adjusted Corsi Numbers. I am adjusting for two effects as I discuss here. The Corsi Number is essentially a measure of puck possession. Players who help their team control the puck will direct more shots toward the goal than those who do not. I am attempting to remove zone start effects, as some players will tend to be on the ice more frequently in either defensive or offensive situations and this will be seen in their Corsi. I am also attempting to remove team effects, as a player on a good team will be more likely to have a good Corsi due to his teammates being good players regardless of his individual play.
Just before free agency opened up this year, I listed a UFA All Star Team. This was the best 23 man roster I thought could be made by signing unrestricted free agents. This is an exercise to see how good a team can become by investing heavily in free agency. It is usually a method to show that free agency is not as big a contributor to team success as building through younger players via drafts and trades. It shows that despite all the media attention that free agency gets, it doesn’t significantly change the playing field.
All 23 players on the 2009 UFA All Star Team have signed new contracts in the NHL this season. A couple signed slightly before they hit the market as unrestricted free agents (as I picked the team hours before the free agent market opened up).
Here is the 2009 UFA All Star Team listed with their new team, their new salary cap hit from their new contract and their old team.
As the final entry in my pre-season preview, I will look at the predicted standings in the East Conference. My West Conference predictions are here. The Northeast Division is here, the Atlantic Division is here and the Southest Division is here.
Here is my predicted standings for the East Conference:
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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