Several times this season, pundits have written off the Vancouver Canucks. They lost Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison to free agency, while not signing the big name free agent they wanted. That led to many predicting they would miss playoffs. In November, star goalie Roberto Luongo suffered a groin injury. Many thought that would be the blow that stopped the Canucks this year. In January, Luongo returned and big name signee Mats Sundin joined the team and the Canucks proceeded to fall into a slump. That slump was going to knock them out of the race.
It should have been clear that adding Mats Sundin and Roberto Luongo would improve any team. But for the short term it didn’t. Sundin had not stayed in game shape during his sabbatical from the NHL and was playing quite badly as the Canucks number one centreman. Luongo also took a while to get back into game shape. When your number one centre and your number one goalie are not able to play their best, problems happen.
I often look at the list of top power play teams and wonder what makes the leading team so great. I think the problem is often low sample size. The average team might get about 370 power play opportunities in a season. That works out to a little over twelve games on the power play. Twelve games are often not enough to prove anything. It is relatively easy to find a twelve game patch of the season where almost any team plays very well and a twelve game patch where almost any team stumbles. Most likely, the good teams will have good patches and the bad teams will have bad patches, but there should be a lot of volatility in team’s results due to small sample size alone.
Last year, the Montreal Canadiens were the best team on the power play. They had a 24.8% success rate. They had a history of success on the power play. Their success with driven for a large part by Alexei Kovalev, who was the top scorer on the power play last season. Kovalev had an unreal, unsustainable season on the power play. At age 35, he was bound to drop and he did. Montreal has fallen to a mid-range level on the power play (17th) and with that have dropped in the standings.
I am picking Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets as the rookie of the year. There is another rookie goalie who has almost as good stats so far this season in Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators. He deserves some Calder consideration as well. Rinne has played in eight fewer games than Mason and has slightly worse numbers (a .920 saves percentage and 2.31 GAA). These numbers are also very good. They are likely goods enough for a Calder nomination.
Rinne likely does not have the upside of Steve Mason. He is currently 26 years old, while Mason is only 20. Mason’s numbers have been compromised a bit by a bout with mononucleosis and yet they remain the better of the two.
The Montreal Canadiens are slumping. They have a 3-12 record in their last 15 games (one loss is counted as a regulation tie). Something drastic has to be done to turn the tide and end this slide. A traditional way to shake things up is to fire the coach. It doesn’t matter if the coach is truly at fault, it is a shock to the team’s system and players often have to fight to maintain or win playing time. This often turns things around (at least on a temporary basis).
There is another option that was clearly demonstrated by the Dallas Stars earlier this year. Effectively you can fire a high profile player. The Stars were slumping. They were last place in the West Conference and they parted ways with Sean Avery in a high profile manner. Although the improvement was much more complex than being driven only by Avery’s departure, if the season ended right now Dallas would make the playoffs.
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).
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???