There is an interesting situation at the top of the AHL scoring race right now. The three top scorers so far this season have all been called up to the NHL. Keith Aucoin leads the league in scoring with 36 points, but he has been called up by the Washington Capitals (who are the parent club of his AHL team - the Hershey Bears). The next position in the scoring race is a tie between his Washington/Hershey teammate Alexandre Giroux and Pittsburgh/ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin Chris Minard with 30 points. Both of them have been called up the NHL as well. This leaves a four-way tie for the top scorer this season who is currently in the AHL. The tie consists of Jeff Taffe from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Mike Iggulden of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (New York Islander affiliate), Yanick Lehoux of the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens affiliate) and Jamie Lundmark of the Quad Cities Flames (Calgary affiliate). All four of them have 28 points. Another player worthy of mention in the AHL scoring race is Mark Mancari of the Portland Pirates (Buffalo Sabre affiliate) He has 27 points in only 16 games played due to an NHL call-up. Clearly who will win the AHL scoring title depends upon which of those players remain in the league.
I have annually written a post looking at a team that would improve significantly with an improvement from their goaltending. Goaltending is the position that most affects the success or failure of an NHL team. The addition of one goalie is enough to significantly change the fortunes of a team - even if the goalie is far from superstar quality.
In 2005/06, my choice for the team that could best benefit from a better goaltender was the Edmonton Oilers, a team that added Dwayne Roloson at the trade deadline and went on to make the Stanley Cup finals. In 2006/07 I picked the Tampa Bay Lightning who did not add a goalie and missed the playoffs. Last season, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins who had the goaltending arrive internally first with surprisingly good play from Ty Conklin and then with Marc-Andre Fleury playing the best hockey of his NHL career. The Penguins wound up in the Stanley Cup finals.
This season, my choice is the Detroit Red Wings.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have had a rather interesting season so far. They brought in new “maverick” owners, made several questionable trades and made a coaching change after only sixteen games played. Since firing coach Barry Melrose and replacing him with Rick Tocchet, Tampa has posted only one win in nine tries (although four of their losses have given them regulation tie points). That clearly shows that the problem in Tampa was not inept coaching holding them back. The problem is a lack of talent. There is a lack of defence and a lack of depth at forward and most of all a lack of coherent ideas from management to solve the problem.
Today came the announcement that Sean Avery suspension will be for six games. Six games for saying the words “sloppy seconds”. That seems a bit excessive. It is clear that the suspension is for far more than that one statement. In the NHL press release there is the following Gary Bettman quote:
Mr. Avery has been warned repeatedly about his conduct and comments, which have too often been at odds with the manner in which his more than 700 fellow players conduct themselves. Playing in the National Hockey League is a privilege, requiring a high standard of personal behavior. Mr. Avery forfeits that privilege for six games.
It is clear that the suspension is for many unpunished past transgressions as much as it is for the current one. There are several problems that come from that policy.
It was announced yesterday that the Carolina Hurricanes fired coach Peter Laviolette. This is in response to Carolina starting the season with a 12-13 record (with two regulation tie points). The surprising part of the announcement is that the new coach will be Paul Maurice. Maurice was the Carolina coach prior to Laviolette. He was fired during the 2003/04 season to allow for Laviolette’s hiring. He returns to the Carolina organization after a two year coaching stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
There is no reason to imagine coaching was the problem in Carolina. They have a team I predicted to finish 9th in the East Conference and are on track for about that kind of finish (currently they sit in 8th). It looks as though Carolina GM Jim Rutherford wanted to do something to jump start the team and he couldn’t find any worthwhile player transactions (trades or otherwise) so he fired the coach. It’s a bit of a desperation move. When it looks like something needs to be done, but there is no other available move, you fire the coach.
I was away from anywhere that I could easily gather hockey news for a while yesterday. When I came online I saw a TSN story titled NHL Suspends Avery Indefinitely for Comments, Pending Hearing. The story is similar to this one although since TSN updates stories over time, it is now longer than the story I first read. My first thought was that the NHL is not usually in the business of suspending players for comments, so whatever he said must be awful. Not only was he suspended, it was an indefinite suspension, so I assumed there must be some profanity laden tirade. When I found out what he actually said, I was disappointed. All he said is:
I am really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it’s become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don’t know what that’s about. Enjoy the game tonight.
This season, a rather overlooked goalie is leading the Vezina race. If the season ended today, I would give the Vezina Trophy to Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins who has been overlooked enough to be left off of the All Star fan ballot. There is another largely unknown goalie who is playing even better, but in more limited ice time. Craig Anderson of the Florida Panthers was penciled in to be the seldom used backup in Florida. He currently leads the NHL with a .948 saves percentage and sports a 1.87 goals against average. He has appeared in 10 games so far this season, which is more than half of the 17 games he appeared in last season.
It was expected that Tomas Vokoun would carry the Panthers in goal and while he has not played poorly, Anderson has played so well that he cannot be left on the bench. Anderson is getting progressively more icetime as his solid play continues.
Earlier this season, I picked the Buffalo Sabres affiliate the Portland Pirates as the best team in the AHL. Two teams currently have better winning percentages than Portland. They are the Washington Capitals affiliate the Hershey Bears and the Vancouver Canucks affiliate the Manitoba Moose. Hershey has an 18-6 record where one loss is a shutout loss. Manitoba has a 15-4 record.
Both of these teams have had significant players called up to the NHL recently which should change the make-up of their teams. The NHL’s Washington Capitals have run into injury problems. They currently have eight players on the TSN injury list (this leads the league. Out are Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Sergei Fedorov, Tom Poti, Chris Clark, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Brian Pothier. In order to try to replace them, Washington has called up Sami Lepisto, Karl Alzner and Bryan Helmer. This is a significant hit to their defence. Vancouver has also had a significant injury in goaltender Roberto Luongo. This has prompted them to call up Cory Schneider from Manitoba. Both teams may struggle to keep up their fast starts given the players called up to the NHL.
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.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???