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.
After the lockout, in 2005 the Chicago Blackhawks thought they had the solution to their goaltending. They signed reigning Stanley Cup winning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four year $27 million contract. The problem was Khabibulin was never able to maintain that success in Chicago. In fact, it wasn’t too long after the signing that I wrote that he had been the worst free agent signing of the off season. Khabibulin never got back into his previous form and Chicago stuck with him. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first three years of the deal.
This summer, the Blackhawks decided to make another splash into the free agent market. Their fortunes looked good due to the rise of a talented young core of players including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. The Blackhawks signed the top available free agent goalie in Cristobal Huet from the Washington Capitals. They signed him to a four year deal worth a little over $22.5 million and expected him to be their starter.
I like to pick award leaders as the season is progressing in order to see who the current leaders are and when the leader may change. Today I will look at the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward. I think the leader is Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild. Mikko Koivu has been turned into a top checking centre in Jacques Lemaire’s defensive system in Minnesota. Koivu leads the Wild forwards in ice time with almost 22 minutes played per game and leads the team in scoring with 16 points. Koivu plays against one of the toughest qualities of opposition. In fact, only five forwards with considerable ice time (defined here as at least 10 games played and an average of 10 minutes per game of ice time at even strength) have faced a tougher quality of opposition than Koivu.
The Anaheim Ducks have been one of the best teams in the NHL for the past couple years. Their peak occurred with their 2007 Stanley Cup victory. One of the main reasons for this has been a strong defence built around former Norris Trophy winners Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. Along with Francois Beauchemin, these three defenceman have played a tremendous amount of minutes for the Ducks. No team depends upon three defencemen as much as the Ducks depend upon these three. In terms of total ice time, Niedermayer is second in the league this season (behind Dion Phaneuf of the Calgary Flames), Pronger is fourth and Beauchemin is 10th (despite having missed a game to injury).
This situation is forced to change now that Francois Beauchemin tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. Beauchemin is expected to be out for the remainder of the season. Does Anaheim have the defensive depth to recover?
I like to track the players who I think are the leaders for the NHL awards as the season progresses. In October, I picked Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens as the top defenceman in the NHL. While Markov remains one of the top defenceman in the league this season, I think another defenceman has jumped to the forefront. He is Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators. He is the top scoring defenceman in hockey with 18 points in his 17 games. He leads his Nashville team in ice time and +/- playing over 24 minutes a game and sporting a +9 rating.
The Calgary Flames are not having a particularly bad season. They currently have a 9-9 record (with one regulation tie point). This is not a particularly good season either. If the season ended now, they would hold down the eighth and final playoff spot in the west. The main reason they have been held back is goaltending.
Miikka Kiprusoff has proven himself to be an elite goalie in the past. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2005/06. He was a nominee for the Vezina in 2003/04 and 2006/07. Since then, he has not been an elite goaltender. Last year his goals against average grew to 2.69 and his saves percentage dropped to .906. This made him an average NHL starter. So far this season, he has a 3.49 GAA and a .885 saves percentage. Those numbers just won’t do.
Have you ever been in a fantasy hockey league where a brash new owner comes in who is confident that he will build a winner of his team? He talks trash and makes a whole bunch of brash but questionable moves. When his team doesn’t win, he decides to repeatedly make that that final desperation move to try to right the ship. The problem is his team is far more than one move away from winning and the owner wouldn’t be able to recognize that final good move if it existed (which it probably doesn’t). All that is available are bad desperation moves where the other teams are capitalizing on the desperate crazy moves.
That is happening in the NHL today. It is happening with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie are running the Lightning that way.
The most recent example of their stupidity is firing coach Barry Melrose after only 16 games coached. Melrose took over a last place team and brought them to 26th place. They have a 5-11 record (with four regulation tie points). It’s not a huge improvement but it could easily be worse.
In the earlier portions of the season, I picked Kris Versteeg of the Chicago Blackhawks as the best rookie in the NHL. I not longer believe that to be true. Versteeg has fallen to second in the rookie scoring race (tied with Mikhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs - who has three more games played). The rookie scoring leader is Derick Brassard of the Columbus Blue Jackets. I think he has been the top rookie in the NHL so far this year.
Brian Burke has been replaced as the Anaheim Duck GM. Burke will remain as an advisor to the Ducks. He is free to negotiate employment opportunities with other teams. Bob Murray takes over as the Anaheim GM. Burke was in the last year of his contract with Anaheim and it was widely believed that he would leave the team at the end of the season. Burke had refused to sign a contract extension. Anaheim decided that they would rather have an unproven GM who is staying with the franchise than have one of the best GM’s in the business who is on his way out the door. If Anaheim had realized this during the summer, they would have had better options as a replacement GM than Bob Murray. That would have been preferable if they were unwilling to complete the season with Brian Burke. It is not uncommon for teams to complete seasons with GMs who do not return (either as the team fired him or as he chose to not re-sign). That seems like a preferable situation for the Ducks - assuming we have all the facts of the situation.
It is often valuable to look at the leaders in the AHL to learn about which NHL franchises have depth and players available who might make a significant NHL impact. Currently, the first place team in the AHL is the Portland Pirates. They have a 9-2 record (with one overtime loss). This gives them 19 points in 21 games. They are the Buffalo Sabres minor league affiliate. So not only is Buffalo off to a good start with 19 points in their 14 games, which has them in seventh place, they have plenty of depth in the minors.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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