The San Jose Sharks leading the NHL in the regular season is not a new story. They finished first overall in the league last season. In the past, the story has had a downside where San Jose has not been able to make a significant playoff run. This year’s San Jose team looks to be the best one so far. They are first in the NHL standings by a significant margin (they have a five point lead over Washington). They are on pace to collect more points than they have ever had in a regular season in their history. Three of the top five scorers in the NHL are San Jose Sharks (Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau). They have one of the top scoring defencemen in Dan Boyle and one of the top goalies in Evgeni Nabokov. This looks like the team to beat in the NHL.
Of course, it is November. There are months to go before playoff time. Sometimes good teams peak before Christmas and do not wind up as major players in the Stanley Cup playoffs. There is widespread concern that San Jose might do so this year and that concern is increased due to past playoff failures.
Last year, the Atlanta Thrashers finished with the fourth worst record in the NHL. Nobody thought too highly of the team that went through the 2008/09 season with 35 wins and 47 losses. This year (so far) has gone much better, though the Thrashers have not received much notice yet in part because the Thrashers have played a league least 18 games so far. Through that, they have a 10-8 record (with two regulation tie points), which has the team in 22nd when the standings are sorted by points. If you sort the standings in terms of points per game, Atlanta is 11th (11 positions better than their total points spot). Faux rumors shows this with their projected final standings (which has Atlanta on pace to get 100 points this year). That would make this the best season in Atlanta Thrasher history.
Corey Locke of the Hartford Wolf Pack (NY Rangers AHL affiliate) is running away with the AHL scoring lead. His totals of 11 goals, 18 assists and 29 points all are league leading totals. He currently has a seven point lead over Charles Linglet of the Springfield Falcons (Edmonton Oilers affiliate). Probably Locke`s biggest challenges for the AHL scoring title come from Alexandre Giroux of the Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals affiliate) and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau of Hartford. These players have point per game scoring rates similar to Locke, but have both been limited to thirteen games played due to NHL call ups (Parenteau is currently on the New York Rangers roster).
Corey Locke is a 25 year old who has not had much of an NHL shot, due to his small size. He is listed at 5`9” 168 pounds. That would make him one of the smallest players in the NHL. Locke was drafted in 2003 by the Montreal Canadiens. He played his one NHL game with them in the 2007/08 season before being traded to the Minnesota Wild. Last summer, he signed as a free agent in New York. Like many AHL stars, he is well travelled and has never had a legitimate NHL shot (probably for reasons outside his control - his size).
A couple weeks ago I wrote that the best teams of the past decade all occurred before the lockout. This was according to a ranking by Puck Daddy. I argue that the decline in the quality of elite teams is caused mostly by two factors: over-expansion of the NHL and the salary cap and current CBA which prevents teams from keeping good teams together. I argue that this is not a good thing for the NHL. It reduces the quality of Stanley cup final series (which should be matchups of two elite teams). I also argue that this is not some equalization procedure to keep big markets from dominating the NHL (afterall the New York Rangers with the biggest payroll in the league missed the playoffs for the final seven seasons of the last CBA). There is a flip side to this. If the best teams are not as good, then the worst teams are not as bad. This is shown by further Puck Daddy analysis.
I like to write a career retrospective when any future Hall of Fame player retires. Yesterday, Brendan Shanahan announced his retirement, so here is his career retrospective.
Brendan Shanahan was born on January 23rd, 1969 in Mimico, Ontario (which became a part of Toronto as Toronto expanded). Shanahan grew up playing hockey in the Metro Toronto hockey system. It was as a 16 year old he was first seriously noticed by NHL scouts. Shanahan joined the London Knights of the OHL to play his junior career. Shanahan was a star in junior. He scored at better than point per game rate in his rookie year and added 92 points in 56 games in his second junior season. He was immediately seen as a leader and ran some Knights practices when the coach was unavailable. As a 17 year old, Shanahan starred for Team Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championships. He scored seven points in six games/ This was the year that a bench clearing brawl between Canada and the Soviet Union left both teams disqualified, so Shanahan did not play for a World Junior medal. Shanahan was chosen second in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils (Pierre Turgeon was selected first overall).
I try to track the player who is the worst player who is playing a regular shift in the NHL. It is interesting to see what kind of player will continue to be played despite playing poorly. Early in the season it is usually a better known player, who was expected to produce and is failing. Earlier this season I picked Vesa Toskala as the worst player in the league. At that point he had a horrid 5.56 GAA and an .812 saves percentage. Those numbers are clearly well below NHL calibre. From that point, Toskala has not played much. He suffered a knee injury and gave up the Toronto goaltending job to rookie Jonas Gustavsson. Gustavsson has done a pretty solid job with a .903 saves percentage and a 3.06 GAA, though he was pulled very early in a poor outing versus Calgary in his last game. Toskala has had three further appearances since I picked him as the worst player in the league and he is doing better. Toskala’s season numbers are still bad, but they are significantly improved to a .853 saves percentage and a 4.44 GAA. That drops him from the worst player position because he is not playing as regularly and because he is playing better.
My current selection for the worst regular in the NHL is Brad Richardson of the Los Angeles Kings.
One problem that can derail a team is injuries. When several core players get hurt simultaneously, it is very hard for a team to continue to compete at their expected level. Predictably, some of the more injured teams this season have been the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. These are the two teams that have competed in the Stanley Cup finals in each of the last two years and have thus had the shortest summers. Short summers lead to less time to recover from the long NHL season and less time for recurring injuries to get better.
Detroit started off the season with a rash of injuries. Johan Franzen had knee surgery very early in the season. Valtteri Filppula has a broken wrist. Andreas Lilja has missed the entire season so far recovering from a concussion suffered last year. To make matters worse, free agent signee Jason Williams has a broken leg. In October, Detroit seemed to be the team most affected by injuries, though they have recovered from a relatively slow start. Detroit has won seven of their last ten games (including three straight) and currently hold down sixth seed in the West Conference.
As usual, Jacques Lemaire is doing a great job coaching. This happens every season and is usually overlooked. It required some first class coaching to keep the Minnesota Wild in the playoff race as long as they were last year. Last year, the Minnesota Wild finished ninth in the West Conference. They were two points back of a playoff berth despite having played without star forward Marian Gaborik most of the season. This year roughly the same Wild team exists (Gaborik is now a New York Ranger) and they are sitting last in the West Conference. That is one way to measure the Jacques Lemaire effect on the Wild. Notice how far they have dropped without him.
Lemaire has come to New Jersey where he is doing his usual great job. The New Jersey Devils are first in the East Conference with a 14-4 record. Lemaire teams are always defensively responsible. This year the Devils have the top defence in the NHL - with a 2.06 GAA.
Alan Cohen led a group of Florida businessmen in purchasing the Florida Panthers from Wayne Huizenga of Blockbuster Video fame in 2001. Since that point, the Panthers have been one of the have not teams. They have failed to make the playoffs during Cohen’s ownership. According to Forbes Magazine the Florida Panthers have the fifth least value in the NHL and faced the second largest operating losses last year (beaten only by the Phoenix Coyotes). As a result, Alan Cohen decided he wanted out.
Over the summer, Cohen agreed to sell the team to Sports Properties Acquisition Group. This is a publicly traded company set up with the purpose of buying a sports franchise. Should they fall to do so by the end of the year (which appears likely), they will be dissolved and money will be returned to shareholders. The sale was to be for $240 million and included the Panthers franchise, the BankAtlantic Center where they play and some surrounding real estate.
In October, I picked Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals as the early season MVP. He has fallen from the race since suffering a shoulder injury on November 1st. In the meantime, two candidates have emerged as the MVP leaders. There is Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, who has 30 points to lead the NHL and top goalie Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, who leads the NHL with a .938 saves percentage and a 1.82 GAA.
I think the current MVP is Ryan Miller, but it is not by a large margin. The main difference comes from the relative values of different positions. A goaltender is the most important player to a team when he plays well. He is on the ice the entire game and has a better ability to singlehandedly keep a team in the game. That is not to say that a position player cannot be MVP (in fact the MVP usually is a position player), but in event of a close race between a goalie and a non-goalie, I tend to favor the goalie.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???