The Minnesota Wild have had a strong defence this year. They are tied for third in goals against with 2.27 goals against per game. That strength has the Wild in tenth place in the West Conference with a 5-6 record (with two regulation tie points). In other words, Minnesota requires a strong defence in order to be successful and even with that defence they are in tough to make the playoffs.
Minnesota is overplaying the key members of their defence in order to have their defensive success so far. In terms of shifts per game, the top four Wild defencemen are among the six most overplayed in the league. Brent Burns leads the league with 33.7 shifts per game. Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon are fourth, fifth and sixth respectively in shifts per game in the league.
The New Jersey Devils are in last place in the NHL with a 3-10 record (with one regulation tie point). Their season has been marred by salary cap issues. They played two games with incomplete rosters because they could not afford injury replacements due to a lack of salary cap space after their signing of Ilya Kovalchuk this summer. Injuries have hurt their defence. Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov have been injured and this leaves the Devils very vulnerable. Rookie Matt Taormina leads their defensive core in scoring. Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder have been their top two defencemen in terms of playing time. Greene has struggled horribly with a league worst -11 +/- rating. Aside from pointless Colin White, New Jersey has no other defencemen who have significant NHL experience. This is a remarkably weak group.
While the NHL is the biggest league in North America, there is some very good hockey that goes on in the AHL and it is a good chance to look at the NHLers of tomorrow. In my first look at the AHL this year, I want to look at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. This is the farm affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the team that looks like the best of the AHL so far. They have played eight games and won them all. This makes them the only undefeated team in the league. They have 29 goals scored and only 15 allowed. That is a remarkable almost 2:1 ratio of goals for and against.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WBS) has succeeded mostly with strong goaltending and defence. They lack any outstanding scorers. Nick Johnson and Dustin Jeffrey both have scored at point per game rate. They have eight points in eight games. Both are doing well, but neither is among the AHL top scorers.
With October gone in the 2010/11 season, I am picking my first rookie of the year leader for the season. I am tracking award leaders throughout the season, in part to see how they change as time passes. With the Calder Trophy in particular, a rookie who establishes himself early in the year tends to do better than an equivalent rookie who establishes himself later in the year. The rookie of the year is an award where it is important to get out of the gate quickly.
So far this season, it is Michal Neuvirth of the Washington Capitals who is off to a fast start. He has appeared in every one of Washington`s 11 games so far this year. He is tied for the league lead with seven wins and posts a .926 saves percentage and a 2.15 GAA.
For several years, I have tracked the players that I think are leading for the NHL awards as the season progresses. This often has me picking several leaders as the season progresses and things change. It is interesting to see how things change as the season progresses and see how soon into the season the final award candidates present themselves. At this point, I think Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins is the early leader. He is tied for the league lead among defencemen in points with eight. His +8 +/- rating is second best in the league and leads his team.
I think Letang is one of the better young defencemen in the game. At age 23, he is making a jump to the top defencemen in the NHL. Last year, he appeared among the top players in the league by adjusted Corsi rating. This is all evidence that he is becoming a star. This is easily seen watching the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Carolina Hurricanes are the worst team in the faceoff circle so far this year. They have a 37.1% success rate in the faceoff circle, which is the league worst. It is more than 6% worse than any other team in the league. Last year, they were sixth worst in the league with a 48.1% faceoff success rate.
The main difference between this year and last is the retirement of Rod Brind’Amour. Brind’Amour was the third best faceoff man in the NHL last year with a 58.8% faceoff success rate. Despite this success, Brind’Amour was not particularly successful. He was only capable of scoring 19 points and had a -29 +/- rating, which was third worst in the league. Despite his faceoff success, Brind’Amour was a liability to his team last year.
This summer the San Jose Sharks starting goalie of the past several years Evgeni Nabokov jumped to the KHL. This was a salary cap driven move, as Nabokov could get a bigger contract in the KHL than any NHL team in the current climate of the league would offer. This forced San Jose to bring in a new goaltending pair. They signed free agent goalies Antero Niittymaki from Tampa Bay and Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi from Chicago. Although neither is as good as Nabokov, I think this pair will be a success at least in the regular season. San Jose has two goalies who are capable of playing well for stretches of a season Neither are stars who are likely to dominate for entire seasons, but as long as one is on his game most of the season, things will be fine. San Jose has enough talent elsewhere to do well.
A little over a week ago, I picked Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars as the early season MVP, as is usually the case, things change rapidly early in the season. Richards has clearly been overtaken by Steve Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Stamkos is the top scorer in the NHL with 15 points (nobody else has above 11 points). Stamkos is tied for the NHL lead with eight goals. He also has a team leading +8 +/- rating.
Steve Stamkos is quickly becoming one of the biggest stars in the NHL and at this rate could soon be a serious candidate in any debate for the best hockey player in the world. Last year, Stamkos’s second in the NHL, was his breakout year where he tied for the NHL goal scoring lead with 51 goals. This summer, I ranked Stamkos as the fifth best player in the NHL and third best forward and I think he is showing that ranking if it is incorrect is too low.
During the course of the season, I try to track the worst player who plays regularly in the NHL. Last year, I picked Raitis Ivanans then of the Los Angeles Kings. He dressed regularly as a Kings goon but failed to score at all this season. Ivanans is in Calgary this year and has only played one game so far thanks to injuries suffered in his fight with Steve MacIntyre of the Edmonton Oilers on opening day.
I think it is too early in the season to clearly pick a worst player so far this year, but one very good candidate has been Simon Gagne of the Tampa Bay Lightning. His poor start is surprising because Gagne is a proven NHL player who has twice represented Canada in the Olympics.
It is informative to track the leaders for the NHL awards throughout the season and see when the eventual winners take over as the leaders for the possible awards. In many cases, the early season leaders do not wind up winning the awards, but sometimes they do. The early Vezina Trophy leader is likely Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins. He has stopped 95 of 97 shots taken on him. He has a 0.67 goals against average and a .979 saves percentage. These are remarkable numbers that nobody can maintain over an entire season. However, it is quite reasonable to imagine Thomas will have a very good season. Thomas is the 2009 Vezina Trophy winner.
Last year, he lost his number one goaltending position in Boston to rookie Tuukka Rask. This is not because of poor play of Thomas but because Rask had a league leading saves percentage.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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