Last Friday I wrote about the leaky pipeline of Russian talent coming to North America that lost Pavel Valentenko. There have only been two Russian rookies to play in the NHL so far this season (Nikolai Kulemin of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nikita Filatov of the Columbus Blue Jackets) and the NHL is on the verge of losing its second Russian prospect to the KHL. Alexander Nikulin, an Ottawa Senator prospect, has demanded that Ottawa trade him (with a deadline of tonight) or he will return to Russia.
UPDATE: It turns out that Nikulin is not leaving North America yet. He has been traded to Phoenix for Drew Fata.
When teams begin the season, they have an expectation of which players will be the frontline players and which will be the backups and lower line players. As games are played, the circumstances change. Players get hurt. Players exceed and fail to reach expectations. In a given year, a few teams will start the season with a given number one goalie and replace him over the course of the season. The first team to fall into that situation this season appears to be the Ottawa Senators
Most people expected the Dallas Stars to do pretty well this season. They were fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup semi-finals and would have Brad Richards joining their offence for the entire season. Marty Turco had provided solid goaltending for the last several years. There was no reason to doubt his ability to keep that up into the future. However, the goaltending has not been there. Dallas has the worst goals against average in the NHL. They have allowed 4.09 goals per game (they had a sizeable lead over second place Atlanta’s 3.70 GAA).
Although Russians make up some of the most talented players in the NHL today (including reigning MVP Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and current top scorers Alexander Semin of Washington and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins) there influx of players from Russia is strongly in decline. In fact there are only two Russian rookies in the league so far this year. Russian players tend to be staying at home due to the lack of transfer agreement and due to better opportunities in their homeland.
When the pipeline of players has become as weak as to only produce two new players in a season, any further losses of players are significant. During the years of no transfer agreement, approximately three or four Russian players a year have headed back to Russia during the NHL season. They have generally been AHL players who were help to under $100,000 salaries per year while in the minors due to two way contracts that would be subject to re-entry waivers if they were paid higher.
The latest player in North America to depart is Pavel Valentenko of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Southeast Division has been the weakest division in the NHL for the last several years. Last year, only the Washington Capitals made the playoffs of the southeast teams. Washington won the division. They needed a very strong stretch run to get 94 points which tied for the lowest total of all east playoff teams. The other four southeast teams all missed the playoffs. Given the large number of intra-division in the unbalanced schedule last year that is quite an achievement.
This year doesn’t look like it will be much different. If the season ended right now, based on current point totals only Washington would make the playoffs again. They would tie for the worst point total among east teams again.
If a company has massive layoffs and makes multiple policy changes to save money such as stopping matching employee contributions to employees 401(k) and banning overnight and express mail, then it is usually a sign that the company is on shaky ground and may not be around much longer. The Florida Panthers are doing this according to George Richards’s blog.
The economy is taking its toll on the NHL and the weaker NHL markets will have some trouble. Most of the more recent NHL markets including Florida, Nashville, Phoenix and Atlanta will be tested. In good times, these markets have had trouble financially. In bad times, they may not all make it.
Last season, the NHL MVP was Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. The runner up to the award was Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The top two goal scorers in the league were Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers. All of these players are Russians.
This season, the scoring race is not much different so far. Malkin and Alexander Semin of Washington are tied for the scoring lead. They are both Russians.
There is no question that Russian players have the most dominant offensive players in the last while in the NHL. However, this is a situation likely to change in the near future. The pipeline of Russian talent in the NHL is drying up.
It is still very early in the NHL season. Some results of teams and players which are surprising at this point are not likely to last all season long. The statistic that surprises me the most at this point which has the least chance of lasting the season is the Los Angeles kings leading the NHL in shots against. The Kings have allowed only 24.3 shots per game. This is a small lead over the San Jose Sharks.
The Kings solid defence so far this season is surprise because the 32.0 shots per game they allowed was third worst in the NHL. That team subtracted both Lubomir Visnovsky and Rob Blake in the off season without adding any significant veterans. If they have improved, how have they improved?
Along with tracking the leaders for the NHL awards as we progress through the season, I like to track the worst player who is getting regular ice time. Generally at points early in the season it is a name player with NHL experience who is off to a very poor start. In time, either the player plays at the established levels that have made him an NHL regular or gets sent to the minors. Later in the season, usually the worst player getting regular ice time is an “energy player” who has impressed his coach with hard work but isn’t particularly good.
At this point in the season, the worst player with a regular shift has been Brett Lebda of the Detroit Red Wings.
Over the past few days, I have been picking the early leaders for the various NHL awards. Yesterday when I picked Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens as the best defenceman so far, a commenter Kevin from Pittsburgh suggested that Alex Goligoski a defenceman with two points so far should be considered for the best defenceman and is the leading candidate for rookie of the year. I disagree.
At this point in the season, I pick Kris Versteeg of the Chicago Blackhawks as the rookie of the year.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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