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.
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.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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