When Sean Avery was suspended by the NHL in early December, the Dallas Stars were dead last in the West Conference. From that point on, things have clearly improved. They have the eighth best record in the league since the suspension and would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today, as they are seventh in the west.
It is easy to put the blame onto Sean Avery for the bad start, but things are not that simple. Dallas’s goaltending has significantly improved. Marty Turco had been off to a pathetic start, but has turned things around. Perhaps the most significant change for the Stars has been the return of Jere Lehtinen to the lineup. Due to injury, he had played only three games before the Avery suspension. He has now appeared in 20 games and been a vital cog to the Stars.
When I last looked at the AHL slightly under two weeks ago, I described a two team race for the AHL lead between the Manitoba Moose (Vancouver Canucks affiliate) and the Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals affiliate). Commenter Pharazon wrote that the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings affiliate) and the Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators affiliate) looked like they might be in the mix as well. Since then, Manitoba has clearly run away with the race.
The Manitoba Moose have not lost in regulation in their last eight games. Manitoba now has 81 points. They have a five point lead over Hershey (though Hershey does have a game in hand).
A lot of press has been given to the Montreal Canadiens slump. They have a 3-10 record in their last 13 games. This has dropped Montreal to fifth place in the East Conference. It has provoked a lot of panic among Montreal fans who have all kinds of crazy suggestions including fire the coach, trade key players, send All Star goalie Carey Price to the minors. Montreal fans are overreacting. Slumps happen. Every season, somebody falls into one during the stretch run. In almost all cases the team recovers. A Montreal recovery is likely. They have a good young goalie in Carey Price who will find his game. They have some talent in Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang on the injured list. There are reasons to explain the slump.
In an effort to change the recent direction of the team, Montreal has acquired Mathieu Schneider from the Atlanta Thrashers for a 2009 second round draft pick and a 2010 third round pick. Likely Montreal will survive this slump and will have lost home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs because of it, but that will be the most significant loss.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were Stanley Cup finalists in 2008. Though they didn’t win the cup, many people picked them as a team that had a good chance to win the cup in the future. However, this season has not worked out according to that plan. Defensive injuries to Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney left the Penguins defensively vulnerable. Even with the league’s top scorer in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who is in third place, the Penguins have not succeeded. The Pens have a 27-30 record (with five losses counted as regulation ties). They are currently in tenth place in the East Conference. They are five points out of the playoffs.
Something had to be done to try to change their fortunes. The easiest something is usually to change the coach. That was the Penguins choice. Michel Therrien has been fired. This is his fourth year as Pens coach and although he has had a relatively successful winning record; it is the team’s talent level that gets most of the credit. Therrien has never seemed like a top coach. It seemed more like a case of a good young team that was ready to make a big leap forward when he joined the team.
Mike Green of the Washington Capitals has been playing very well lately. He broke Mike O’Connell’s record for most consecutive games played by a defenceman with a goal tonight, when he scored in his eighth straight game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. I am picking him as the Norris Trophy leader at this point in the season. Despite those accolades, I think many people do not realize how good he has been lately. Since January 1st, Mike Green has 27 points. That is the second highest total of anyone in the entire league (Pavel Datsyuk has 28). Among only defencemen, he leads second place Scott Niedermayer by eight points. Those numbers are amazing. If these numbers could be kept up an entire season, he would be a serious Norris Trophy (and Hart Trophy) candidate. Even accepting that he doesn’t have the toughest defensive assignments, a defenceman who was second in league scoring would be amazing.
Of all the things I write, this topic tends to get fans the most upset. In January, I picked Brendan Witt of the New York Islanders as the worst player in the league and I promptly got not one, but two different message boards promptly told me how stupid I am. I think it comes down to the fact that in order to stay in the lineup, the worst regular player in the league must be likeable. He must have a track record of moderate success in previous seasons or be a hard worker. Generally the fans of his team will like him. They will be offended at his choice. They will be able to offer insults, but no logical argument (or if they attempt a logical argument they will hold the player to very low standards - i.e. he is getting better at completing his checks).
Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins is seen as the front runner for the Norris Trophy by many people. I think he is a poor selection being put forth because there isn’t a runaway leader for the Norris. Of the contenders, Chara has had a very good career and has not won any major NHL awards. He is being considered for a large part because of the quality of his career. This would make the 2009 Norris Trophy effectively a career achievement award.
Last season, Zdeno Chara finished third in the Norris Trophy voting and made the Second Team All Star. It was his second appearance on the Second Team All Star (the other in 2005/06). This goes with his 2003/04 First Team All Star appearance.
The Boston Bruins have made a big step forward this season and are in first place in the league. It is easy to give Chara too much personal credit for that team achievement. The Bruins rise is another justification for giving Chara the Norris Trophy, when it is clear that they are a team built around many stars.
I chose to write this piece from the point of view of a hypothetical Toronto Maple Leaf fan. That allows me to fill in a few details that are team specific. The general argument is the same for any large market team, but a few specifics must be changed to suit the market (for example one might remove the problem of missing the playoffs).
Toronto Maple Leafs tickets are the hottest ticket in town. It is almost impossible to buy tickets. As an example, I went to the Toronto Maple Leafs site through Ticketmaster and attempted to buy two tickets to the March 12th game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. This is a midweek game against a bad team that is a month away. The best seats available were standing room only for that I get to pay over $76 for the two seats when including the Ticketmaster “convenience charge”.
Watching the rookie class to get a feel for the new players to the NHL is always interesting. It is fun and challenging to try to pick out the rookies who will have significant careers and those who are flashes in the pan who will soon disappear from the league. Often a rookie stands out as an interesting case who accomplishes something unusual for a player of his age. This makes him a player to watch because it is not so easy to find comparable players for his talents. It is those players who are most likely to become NHL stars, even if their rookie season does not put them in position to win the Calder Trophy.
One such rookie this season is Blake Wheeler of the Boston Bruins. He leads the NHL in +/- with a +32 ranking. That is quite impressive. Generally, the +/- leader is a player on a good team who is excelling in the role he plays on his team. Wheeler is no different. Boston is in first place in the NHL and Wheeler has been used in a protected role by the Bruins. He is tenth on the team among forwards in ice time per game (behind Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Phil Kessel, PJ Axelsson, Marco Sturm, Milan Lucic, Michael Ryder and Chuck Kobasew). Clearly he has been a success in that limited ice time.
It is important to keep in mind how much better the West Conference is than the East Conference. Tyler Dellow has a post that shows how this has been true over the last several years. He shows the winning percentage of the west in games against the east since 1999/2000 and shows that the West Conference has a significant winning record every year except 2003/04. This season, the west has a .559 record (treating games that are tied after 60 minutes as ties). That is the highest winning percentage for the west since 1999/2000. Western dominance is not going away. If anything it is getting bigger.
Given the level of player movement in the NHL, such a trend is surprising. With free agency, one would expect things to even out. If one conference was better at one time, it would quickly be evened out as free agents move throughout the league. This is not what has been observed. The west is better than the east and has been almost consistently for a decade.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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