The San Jose Sharks have been the best team in the NHL so far this year. Their 20-4 record (with one regulation tie point) gives them 41 points and first place in the NHL. However, all is not perfect in San Jose. Their number one goalie Evgeni Nabokov has yet to play particularly well. He is sporting a .896 saves percentage, which has a lot to be desired. His other numbers do not look so bad. He has a 2.57 GAA and a 13-2 record. This is a testament to how well the Sharks have played in front of him. Nevertheless, his goaltending will become an issue if he continues to play at that level. It is impossible to have prolonged success in the NHL without better goaltending.
The solution is obvious. When Nabokov was injured, backup goaltender Brian Boucher played extremely well. Boucher has a .928 saves percentage and a 1.89 GAA. Since Boucher was the temporary number one goalie, his better numbers are not a function of playing against weaker competition.
One of the final trophies that I am yet to pick an early leader for is the Lady Byng Trophy. This trophy is for the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability. There are a few candidates for this award. Perennial Byng Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings has 23 points and 4 PIMs, Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils has 25 points and 2 PIMs, San Jose’s Patrick Marleau has 26 points and 4 PIMs and his teammate Devin Setoguchi has 27 points and 2 PIMs. All are solid Byng candidates, but I do not select any of them.
I think the current leader is Brian Campbell of the Chicago Blackhawks. It is harder to play well and play a sportsmanlike game without significant penalty minutes on defence than it is at forward. In fact, only Bill Quackenbush and Red Kelly have ever won the Lady Byng while playing defence.
It is being reported that Brian Burke has agreed in principle to become the next general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The official announcement is expected Saturday, with his introduction probably occurring during Hockey Night In Canada. The Maple Leafs have been courting Burke to be their GM since the later part of last season when they fired John Ferguson Jr. Burke was under contract with the Anaheim Ducks serving as their GM. Burke got out of his Anaheim contract early in order to move to Toronto. The situation where Toronto courted a GM who is under contract with another organization prompting that GM to get let out of his contract does not look right. It looks as though Toronto was tampering with an Anaheim employee and should be punished for it. I think Toronto should have to give up something (such as their first round pick) to Anaheim for this situation.
In October, I picked Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals as the early season MVP. However, Semin has not played a game since November 14th due to a back injury. As a result, it is time to pick a new leader in the 2008/09 Hart Trophy race. That leader is Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Malkin leads the NHL in scoring with 35 points. His 25 assists are also a league leading total.
The NHL has tried to maintain the narrative that the best player in the league is a battle between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, but that does not appear true. Malkin is at least as good as they are and beginning to show that he may be the better player.
Before the season began, most people would have predicted the Vezina Trophy would go to one of Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks or Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks but each of them has missed time to injury. Brodeur had surgery on his elbow and should be out for several months. Luongo has a groin injury and should be out for at least a month. Nabokov has a rather unimpressive .891 saves percentage and has missed three weeks with a lower body injury. None of them look likely to win the Vezina at this point. That leaves a wide open Vezina race with some unexpected candidates.
Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins has established himself as the front-runner with a league leading .944 saves percentage and a 1.80 goals against average. If the season ended now, he would be the runaway choice for the Vezina. If the season ended now, I would also nominate Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild along with Luongo. With Luongo’s injury, it is unlikely that he will maintain his position as a Vezina nominee for much longer. The most likely candidate to replace him is Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. These are new names to enter the Vezina race.
Over the course of the summer and into the beginning of the 2008/09 season, the NHL and the KHL have been fighting over player transfers. There is no transfer agreement between the leagues governing players leaving one league to join the other. As a result, there have been a few cases of players contested who have contracts in both leagues. The most high profile case has been Alexander Radulov who left the Nashville Predators of the NHL to join Saavat Yulaev of the KHL, but there have been players jumping to the NHL as well. The most recent case that the NHL fought is that of Matt Murley.
Murley signed a two-way one year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes this summer. When he failed to make the NHL, he jumped to the KHL to play with Khaborovsk Amur. Naturally, the NHL protested this with the IIHF. The IIHF has ruled.
It is still quite early in the NHL season, but one team has clearly emerged as the top team in the East Conference so far. That team is the Boston Bruins. They have a 14—7 record (with four losses counted as regulation ties). The only other team with 14 wins in the East Conference is the New York Rangers who have two more games played. Boston being at the top is a surprise. I predicted they would miss the playoffs this year. I think it was a more common prediction to have the Bruins winning one of the bottom playoff berths in the East.
They were coming off of a season where they had surprised to make playoffs. They did so despite a lack of offensive depth. Marc Savard and Marco Sturm were their only forwards to clear 40 points. They did so with a defence that also lacks depth and is strongly dependent upon Zdeno Chara. The main reason that they surprised is that Tim Thomas had a very good year. He was not too far back of the Vezina trophy nominees in terms of his on ice success. For a 33 year old that had spent most of his life outside the NHL - who had never been considered a top prospect - this was a surprise. It was easy to predict that it was an aberration and couldn’t be repeated.
I like to keep track of the worst player gathering regular ice time in the NHL. It is an interesting exercize to see why certain players continue to get ice time despite failing to accomplish anything with it. As the season progresses, usually I settle on an energy player who is known for being a hard worker but is very limited in talent. Often this player is a bit of a fighter to fit into that role. In early parts of the season, other players may appear as the worst player in the league, but they have always disappeared from the running once the season reached maturity. Earlier this season, I picked as this worst player. Given time his game has improved. He has three points already. That means it is time to replace him.
The new winner of the worst player so far this season is Raitis Ivanans of the Los Angeles Kings.
There has been a series of posts on the blogosphere about the value of the +/- rating stat. Since I have a longstanding interest in sabermetrics and hockey I thought I would comment on it. The series of posts begin with David Staples of the Edmonton Journal writing on his Cult of Hockey blog. He wrote a post called Why Plus/Minus is a Rotten, Useless, Misleading and Irrelevant Stat for NHL Players. If we go beyond the hyperbole of the title, he makes the point that +/- ratings can be misleading because (like any other statistic) there is a context to the numbers which is not clear from one number alone.
The Montreal Canadiens are one of the better teams in hockey. I picked them to win the East Conference this season (which was not an uncommon prediction). So far this season, Montreal has done well, but they haven’t taken the East Conference by storm. They currently sit in fifth place in the East Conference with an 11-7 record (with two regulation tie points). That is a solid start. If the team gets hot in the stretch run, they may manage a first place finish in the East.
However in the Montreal market, the media tend to overanalyze things. This start is not as good as expected. Worse, their power play which has been the league’s best for the past two years is not at the top of the league. They sit in 22nd place with a 15.7% power play success rate (compare this with their 24.1% power play efficiency last year). This is something for the media to fret about.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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