When I last looked at the AHL scoring race, it was unclear who would lead the way the rest of the season because the top three scorers had all been called up to the NHL. It turns out Keith Aucoin of the Hershey Bears (Washington affiliate) had the shortest NHL recall of the bunch. He was up for three NHL games (in which he failed to score). Thus he has been back in the AHL for a while and been able to build a bit of a scoring lead with 55 points in his 42 games. His teammate Alexandre Giroux remains second in AHL scoring, but his NHL recall was a much longer one. Giroux spent 11 games with the Washington Capitals. He is scoring at a higher per game rate in the AHL with 52 points in only 35 games, but his longer stint in the show has him behind Aucoin in the league scoring race.
The Vezina race for best goaltender has become a very tight race. I have been picking Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets for this award, but a couple strong games from Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins coupled with a couple lesser games from Mason have been enough to tilt the balance. I am now picking Tim Thomas as the current Vezina leader.
Thomas has a league leading .937 saves percentage and a 2.00 GAA (that is second only to Mason). Thomas has faced more shots than Mason in slightly less ice time. The race between the two of them is very close and could again swing on a couple of games.
I wrote a couple days a go that New York Islanders are the worst team in the NHL and point to the root cause of the problem as poor management decisions off-ice. Both the decisions on who should be in the Islanders brain trust and the decisions by those people have been poor. We had a very good example of such a decision occur yesterday.
The New York Islanders goaltending is a problem, due partially to injury. Rick DiPietro is out indefinitely (probably for the rest of the season) with knee problems. In DiPietro’s absence, Joey MacDonald has been their top goalie. He has a groin injury and should be out a few weeks. That leaves them with Yann Danis and Peter Mannino as their NHL goaltending pair. This is an AHL pairing. So something had to be done.
The Norris Trophy is one of the more interesting trophy races this season. There is no clear front-runner at this point. The biggest name defencemen in Nicklas Lidstrom and Zdeno Chara have had good seasons, but they haven’t jumped out as clear leaders. Both have teammates in Brian Rafalski and Dennis Wideman who are statistically about as strong Norris candidates. Dan Boyle leads the NHL in scoring among defencemen, but he is not as strong in his own zone as some of the players previously listed. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is another San Jose Shark having a very good year, but he is not as offensively strong as some of the other candidates. Duncan Keith is doing very well in Chicago and also deserves consideration. Mike Green has by far the best points per game among defencemen and should he have been healthy the whole season playing at that level he would be the front-runner. Scott Niedermayer, Dion Phaneuf and Chris Pronger are other serious Norris candidates who could take over the lead given a strong second half. With all of those candidates, I have been supporting Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators.
The last place team in the NHL is the New York Islanders. They sport a 12-32 record (with four losses counted as regulation ties). This puts them five points below the Atlanta Thrashers in last place. They seem to have given up on this season - as is shown by their pathetic 2-18 record (with 2 regulation ties) since the beginning of December. Thats right! The New York Islanders have won only two games since the beginning of December.
Clearly they have slipped into the race for a lottery playoff spot and have little expectation to win this season. How did this team drop this far?
It starts with questionable decisions off ice. The fiasco when GM Neil Smith was replaced before his first Islanders game and replaced by Garth Snow, their backup goalie with no hockey managerial experience, is a very good example of such a decision. More recently, the Islanders fired top coach Ted Nolan late enough into the off season that the top available coaches were already signed.
Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were a success story. Their 102 points won the Atlantic Division and placed them second in the East Conference. They were the eastern representative in the Stanley Cup final, eventually losing 4 games to 2 to the Detroit Red Wings. As a young team built around superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, they were widely considered a team on the rise that would likely win a Stanley Cup before too long. They haven’t continued that momentum. Currently, Pittsburgh sits out of the playoffs in 10th place in the East Conference. They have a record of 21-24 (with four losses counted as regulation ties). They have lost more games than they have won this season. That is a remarkable drop from the previous season. What happened?
The biggest change from 2007/08 to 2008/09 in Pittsburgh is a dropoff in their ability to keep the puck out of their net. Pittsburgh has a sixth worst 3.11 goals against per game. Last season, they prevented better than half a goal per game more. Their 2.58 goals against per game placed them 10th in the NHL. There is also criticism of their lack of offensive depth, but I do not think this is an important part of the puzzle. Last season, the team actually scored fewer goals per game (2.93 vs. 2.98 per game) and struggled through a Sidney Crosby injury. Pittsburgh is a team that could be improved by better offensive depth, but that is not a reason for their drop in the standings.
Miikka Kiprusoff has 26 wins in 42 games played by the Calgary Flames so far this season. That projects to over 50 wins this season (50.76 wins). The NHL record for most wins by a goalie is 48 wins and Martin Brodeur accomplished it in 2006/07. If Kiprusoff has a very good chance of breaking that record, one would think he is having one of the best seasons in NHL history. He isn’t. In fact, Miikka Kiprusoff’s play has often been a weak point that has held back the Calgary Flames this season. Kiprusoff has a .904 saves percentage. This places him 30th in the NHL (among the 44 goalies who have enough games played to qualify for the race). His 2.79 GAA places him 26th among the same 44 goalies. Among this group of goalies, Miikka Kiprusoff is slightly below the middle of the pack.
To get a lot of wins as a goalie, one needs to play a lot of games on a good team that wins a lot. Nobody plays more games than Miikka Kiprusoff. This is because Calgary does not have a legitimate backup goalie. Curtis McElhinney has only played in four games this season (and only two of those are complete games). Kiprusoff has played the rest of the season. He has 40 games played and has the decision in all 40. This gives him a record of 26-14 (where three losses are regulation ties).
I track the player’s I consider award winners as the season progresses, in part to see at what point in the season the eventual winner takes over as a front-runner. I had been picking Brian Campbell of the Chicago Blackhawks as the Lady Byng leader. He is a good defenceman, who was chosen to be an All Star Game starter (thanks to some ballot stuffing). He is tied for sixth in scoring among defencemen with 29 points and has only six penalty minutes. This is a good case for the Lady Byng and a rare case of a defenceman front-runner for that award. However, there is a better case right now. That case is Martin St Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
St Louis is the Tampa top scorer with 40 points in 41 games (which is quite an achievement given how dysfunctional the team has been). His +8 makes him the team +/- leader as well. If Tampa needs a skater as their All Star Game representative it should be him and not the more famous but not playing as well Vincent LeCavalier (I would argue that goaltender Mike Smith has been the team MVP and would be the best Tampa choice for an All Star Game). While doing all this, St Louis only has two penalty minutes.
The global economy influences the NHL. The current economic problems in the world have led to and made worse economic problems in the NHL. There is speculation that the 30 team NHL may not survive the current economic slowdown. The team that has jumped to the forefront as the most economically troubled (replacing the Nashville Predators who are yet to solve their financial issues) is the Phoenix Coyotes.
The primary owner of the Phoenix Coyotes is Jerry Moyes. Moyes has made his money through the trucking company Swift Transportation. In 2006, Moyes decided to take the company private (buy out all the stock not owned by his family). In doing this he took on $2.4 billion in debt. The sharp rise in fuel prices last year coupled with the global economic slowdown have made this a questionable decision. Moyes is no longer willing to (or possibly able to) afford the Phoenix Coyotes.
As the season progresses, I like to track the players who I feel are front-runners for the NHL’s awards. I had been picking Craig Anderson of the Florida Panthers as the Vezina leader. This pick was a little unsatisfactory because Anderson has only 21 games played (and only 18 decisions). This is less play that Tomas Vokoun, his Florida teammate with whom he has been sharing the Panther goaltending position. This makes him the nominal number two goalie in Florida and it is odd to call a number two goalie the NHL’s best.
The Vezina race is relatively wide open because none of the goalies who have the most games played are asserting themselves as front-runners. It is hard to call the current games played leaders (Miikka Kiprusoff of Calgary, Marty Turco of Dallas, Henrik Lundqvist of the NY Rangers, Joey MacDonald of the NY Islanders or Vesa Toskala of Toronto) serious Vezina candidates. None of them have been consistently outstanding goalies.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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