A quick look at the standings shows that the Carolina Hurricanes have been the worst team in the league, by a significant margin, so far this season. They have a 7-23 record (with five regulation tie points). This leaves them in last place in the league by an eight point margin. This is a team that made a semi-final appearance last season. How did the Hurricanes fall so far so fast?
The Hurricanes have had no offensive stars so far this season. Ray Whitney leads the team in scoring with 20 points. This is the third lowest total for a top scorer on his team (Phoenix and St Louis have 19 point top scorers). Carolina has the lowest goals per game total in the league. They have dropped over half a goal per game from last season. Three players have shouldered a large portion of this drop. Eric Staal, Sergei Samsonov and Rod Brind’Amour have all had significant drops in their offensive output.
According to Murphy’s Law it was bound to happen someday. The Montreal Canadiens used an ineligible player Tuesday night versus the Ottawa Senators. Ryan White was in the line-up for the Habs, but they had failed to notify the league by the 5 PM league deadline that White had been recalled from the AHL. When this was noticed, White was pulled from the game and the Habs completed it one forward short. This is being treated as a big deal. Bob McKenzie reports that the Habs could face a fine in the six figure range. He also says that had it not been noticed that White was ineligible and he was pulled from the game, Montreal may have had to forfeit their 4-1 victory.
Many questions are raised by the incident. Why was this news story not widely reported until more than 36 hours after the game (Bob McKenzie’s story is dated at almost 10 AM ET the Thursday after the game - and I haven’t seen anything reported earlier)? Did the NHL attempt to suppress the story? This is an example of how the CBA has an unwieldy amount of regulation. What is the harm really? Montreal called up a player that they have called up before and failed to tell big brother about it. Why does big brother even care? Because they keep a complex salary calculation going all season and this kind of minutia is needed to be kept correct to keep the salary calculation correct.
The Frank J Selke Trophy for best defensive forward is usually a tough award to select. There is rarely a consensus as to who to nominate for the award. This year might be even worse than normal. When Jams Mirtle looked at the top defensive forwards in the league so far, he noted that a lot of new faces were on the list. It is also noteworthy that last year’s Selke nominees, Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Richards and Ryan Kesler are not on the list. This suggests there is a wide open field for the Selke Trophy and that somebody who has not been a contender in the past might win it.
I think the leader at this point is Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils. I scoffed at the fact that he received a sizable number of votes last season. I thought it was a recognition of his high +/- rating (+33 last year) than his skill level and the role he played with New Jersey. Afterall last season it was John Madden who was used as the number one defensive centre on the Devils. Madden led Devil forwards by a significant margin in penalty kill time (Zajac was 2nd but with about 50% less penalty kill time).
For the last several years, the West Conference has had a winning record versus the East Conference. So far this year, the West is 65-51 (with 15 losses credited as regulation ties). This is a better pace than the 141-129 (with 26 regulation tie points) record the West Conference put up last year. Does this mean that the West is becoming even more dominant over the East Conference this year, when compared to last year?
At least part of the early season improvement in the West Conference record against the East is a predictable travel effect. As the season progresses, travel wears on both conferences. The West Conference travels a further total distance. They lose more time that could be spent on practice, rest, injury rehab etc. to travel. After a few months of the season it weakens the West Conference relative to the East, allowing the East to win a few more inter-conference games later in the season. Thus, the early season pace that the West Conference holds in inter-division games is never maintained the full season.
It is far enough into the season to begin to look at the free agent signings made this summer. One stands out as being a complete failure so far. Martin Havlat left the Chicago Blackhawks to sign with the Minnesota Wild. He signed a six year contract worth $30 million. He was intended as a replacement for NHL goal scoring leader Marian Gaborik, who had jumped to the New York Rangers, but it has not worked out that way.
Havlat has not been a key to the Wild team. He has two goals and nine assists, for eleven points. This places him seventh on the Wild team in scoring. His -17+/- rating is a team worst ranking. It is second worst in the league. He has not been successful so far in Minnesota.
There is a new goon sitting atop the NHL penalty minute totals. It is Zenon Konopka of the Tampa Bay Lightning has 113 penalty minutes so far this season. That gives him a significant lead over last year’s leader, Daniel Carcillo of the Philadelphia Flyers, who has 87, Konopka has always been a tough guy, but for a long time he was never pictured as a potential penalty minute leader in the NHL.
Konopka played in junior with the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. He was undrafted by the NHL. He managed to continue his hockey career when he got a job with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL. He was an ECHL power forward scoring 70 points and adding 231 PIMs. He bounced around the AHL and ECHL for a few years. In the 2005/06 season he had his first NHL shot. He played 23 games with the Anaheim Ducks. He attempted to be an NHL power forward. He scored 7 points in 23 games and posted 48 penalty minutes.
With the Chicago Blackhawks recent resignings of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, we have a very good idea what the core of the team will look like for the next several years. With their length contracts that would be hard to move, we can assume that Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet will be part of the Blackhawk core as well. Anyone else will be hard to keep around for salary cap reasons. There is already speculation that Cam Barker, Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel are among the players on their way out.
Chicago is clearly a good team. Their 17-10 record (with three overtime loss points) places them in fifth place in the NHL. They haven’t won the Stanley Cup. Last year’s semi-final appearance is their first playoff berth since 2002 and we are already talking about which players the team will have to get rid of to stay below the salary cap.
One of the biggest surprises this season is that it took until December for a team to fire a coach. This makes faux rumors prediction that 25-50% of the coaches who started the 2009/10 season would be fired before game 82 look to be in doubt.
The first coach fired this season is John Stevens, who was fired by the Philadelphia Flyers. Stevens coached the Flyers for slightly over three seasons. He found himself coaching a team with a 13-12 record (with one loss counted as an overtime tie), that has his time in tenth place in the East Conference.
As the season progresses, I try to pick out the player who is playing the worst who is regularly getting dressed by an NHL team. It is frequently a hard working player who is well liked by coaches and teammates, but isn’t succeeding on the ice. In the middle of November, I picked Brad Richardson of the Los Angeles Kings as that player. He is a hard working player who was not having any success either offensively or defensively. He had a successful game against Anaheim this week where he scored his first two points (a goal and an assist) so far this season. That is enough to move him out of that position. In the NHL, there is generally a very small difference between the worst several players in the league. Each of the bottom players on a team’s roster are essentially interchangeable with another player who is outside the NHL. It is hard to find a significant difference in their effectiveness as players. It is hard to rank one as worse that another. Limited success for any player who might be considered the worst so far this season is enough to remove him from the race. Given how the worst players in the league are roughly interchangeable with players outside the league, it is interesting to see why some of the worst players continue to get NHL time. Often these players are goons who play limited minutes against weak opposition and still fail to score and prevent scoring. That is the case with my current selection for the worst regular so far this year in the NHL - Andrew Peters of the New Jersey Devils.
Brian Burke is one of the more active general managers in the NHL. When he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was clear that he wanted to make some trades to put his stamp on the team. This was not so easy to accomplish under the current NHL CBA. Trades are rare except around the NHL trade deadline (where players with expiring contracts are usually moved) and during the summer (when a team has not set its roster yet and thus has some flexibility). This scarcity of trade opportunities has frustrated Burke. He has suggested that the CBA be amended to allow trades where a team trades a portion of a salary cap hit. This idea is a non-starter without CBA amendment (which is not trivial) and it is not clear how it improves things for the fan (do a lack of trades have anything to do with the quality of hockey games? I don’t see how.).
Nevertheless, Burke has pushed (often unsuccessfully) to make trades. One of his priorities has been to make his team tougher. In order to do this he has been willing to trade a more talented player to get more toughness. When a GM gets desperate to push a trade through and is willing to give up the most talented player in a deal, they are ready to be taken advantage of and this is what happened to Brian Burke.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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