It is still early in the season but there is a coach who has put himself forward as the early season coach of the year. Bruce Boudreau of the Anaheim Ducks is doing a wonderful job. I have been a Boudreau fan for quite a while. He was my coach of the year pick last year and the year before. Boudreau is a good coach who always has his team motivated and playing a strong system. His team is first in the West Conference despite having changed his goaltending from Jonas Hiller to Frederik Andersen who had only 28 NHL games experience before the start of the season. He has overseen the development of Cam Fowler into a solid NHL defenceman. He saw the retirement of Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne without the team skipping a beat.
Even if Anaheim and Boudreau keep up their pace and have top flight seasons, I expect that he may get overlooked as coach of the year despite being deserving. The coach of the year is often given to the coach of the most improved team and Anaheim won the West Conference last year. There isn't much room for improvement. This is a problem with the way the coach of the year is determined. Bruce Boudreau may deserve the award as best coach, but he won't be considered as coach of the most improved team.
As I pick award leaders early in the season, it is inevitable that many will change as the season progresses. Some may change many times before the end of the season. We have our first award leader change today. I picked Darcy Kuemper of the Minnesota Wild as an early season Vezina Trophy leader. He had shutouts in his first two starts and three of his first four games. That pace was not one that could be maintained for a whole season. In fact we are early enough into the season that one poor start is enough to change the race. In his last start on Monday night against the New York Rangers he allowed five goals on twenty shots. Hence it is time to pick a new Vezina Trophy leader.
The current Vezina Trophy leader is Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. He has posted a .950 saves percentage and a 1.78 GAA in eight games played. Nobody who has played the majority of his team's games has better numbers.
Quick is putting up a strong career. He has twice won the Stanley Cup and once won the Conn Smythe Trophy. If he can put together a Vezina calibre season this year, it will go a long way toward making his case as a Hall of Fame goaltender. To date, his regular season numbers have been up and down. He hasn't shown the consistency of a Hall of Famer. Is that changing?
One thing we know for sure is it is early in the year. October is almost over. At this point, Jonathan Quick has been to top goalie in the NHL.
The American Hockey League season is underway. Most teams are one or two games played behind the NHL teams. This is the first point where there appear to be two early front runners.
The Milwaukee Admirals have six games played and have won them all. They have outscored their opponents by a tow to one mark (22-11). They are the Nashville Predators farm affiliate. A big part of the Milwaukee success has been strong goaltending. Marek Mazanec played in five of the games and is posting a 1.96 GAA and a .931 saves percentage. Their offence has been deep with five players who have five or more points.
The Albany Devils (New Jersey affiliate) are the other front runner. They have five wins and a shutout loss in their six games played. They have a 28-13 goals for and goals against. Paul Thompson, Scott Timmons and Joe Whitney are all in the top ten scorers in the league right now. Keith Kincaid has been strong in their goal.
It is still early in the season and it is too early to predict that these two teams will challenge for the league title. They are both off to a fast start and will likely be top teams this year. Neither team is defeated in regulation and both have outscored their opponents by a 2 to 1 margin or better. Should the cores of these teams stay together in the AHL they will be tough to defeat.
It is still early in the season, but one result which could be very significant is the Arizona Coyotes goaltending. It was expected that Mike Smith would be the successful starter and Devan Dubnyk would be the lesser used backup. Smith had been a successful NHL goalie in the past. He was the number three goalie on the 2014 Canadian Olympic Team. Although he did not play in the Olympics, given the number of NHL goalies who are from Canada that is an endorsement that he is a pretty good player.
Dubnyk struggled last year playing in Edmonton and Nashville. He was given a chance to be a number one goalie in Edmonton but struggled in that role.
So far this season, Mike Smith has really struggled. He has posted a .849 saves percentage and a 4.54 GAA. These are the worst numbers for any goalie who has played the majority of his team's games so far this year by a significant margin. Smith will almost certainly improve his play with more chances but if he is not a top flight goalie the Coyotes will struggle. So far Dubnyk has been adequate. He has posted a 2.31 GAA and a .904 saves percentage. That is better than Smith but it is not the numbers of a starting goalie either.
Arizona will struggle to make the playoffs unless they have strong goaltending. So far they have not had goaltending at all. If Mike Smith continues to struggle it could be a long year in the desert.
In the early days of the season, I am actively trying to pick out leaders for the various NHL awards. I want to see how often the early leader wins or remains a contender come season's end. While I am yet to pick a Hart Trophy leader, I have picked a Vezina Trophy leader. Today I am picking an early season Calder Trophy leader in Tanner Pearson of the Los Angeles Kings.
Pearson is the top scorer on the Stanley Cup champion Kings. He has seven points and a +7 +/- rating in only six games played and he has done this in moderate ice time of a little over 12 minutes a game.
Pearson was passed over in the 2010 and 2011 entry drafts. It wasn't until 2012 when he was selected in the draft. He had been the top scorer on the Barrie Colts with 91 points. This allowed him to be the final pick of the first round in 2012. He spent his next season in the AHL but got to play one playoff game. Last season was spent mostly in the AHL but he got a significant NHL play. He played 25 games in the regular season last year and 24 more in their Stanley Cup run. That makes Pearson a very experienced rookie.
One question I find interesting is exactly when in a player's career does he establish himself as a Hockey Hall of Famer regardless of what may happen in the remainder of his career. I think Roberto Luongo has reached that threshold.
Luongo has been a top goaltender in the NHL for many years. The problem has been that I have been waiting for that one final big accomplishment that cemented his case and it hasn't come. Luongo has never won the Vezina Trophy - though he has had several Vezina worthy seasons and could easily have been a multiple time winner in his career. He has never won the Stanley Cup. In part this is because he did not play of a team that was capable of winning the cup until a few years into his run with the Vancouver Canucks. He probably should have won a cup there. He famously melted down in the 2011 finals when Boston won the cup. These could have been the final Hall of Fame securing achievement if they happened slightly differently.
Nevertheless he has some significant achievements. He was the starting goaltender on the 2010 gold medal winning Canadian Olympic Team. He was a backup who posted a shutout in his only game during the gold medal run in 2014. He has twice made the NHL's second team all star. In 2011 he won the Jennings Trophy for being part of the team with the best goals against average. He has made four NHL All Star Games. These accomplishments may not be enough to make the hall of Fame by themselves but they put him on the right track.
One ongoing project I have is trying to determine at which point in the season the eventual award winners emerge from the pack. Is this different for different awards? As such, I like to pick the award leaders based on the season so far throughout the season. As soon as a league leader emerges, he needs to be acknowledged for the record. Usually I expect the first award to have a clear leader is the Hart Trophy. That isn't true this year. There is no clear leader yet. That doesn't mean that there are no leaders for any awards. The Vezina Trophy has a clear leader. The top goaltender so far this year is Darcy Kuemper of the Minnesota Wild. He has played two games and has shutouts in both of them.
Last year Kuemper was the fourth string goalie in Minnesota who was called into action alongside Ilya Bryzgalov when Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding were on the disabled list. This year, Bryzgalov is gone. He is an unrestricted free agent who has not signed with an NHL team. Harding has been unable to play so far this year because of his multiple sclerosis. Kuemper got the starts so far this season and has done very well. Not bad for a goalie with 32 regular season starts before this year. He has posted solid numbers so far in his career, but this start is remarkable. Obviously it is unsustainable. He will allow a goal before long. At this point he is the clear Vezina Trophy leader.
Yesterday I wrote about the remarkably low attendance at the Florida Panthers home opener. They had an attendance of 11,419 which is more than 2,500 fans fewer than any other team's home opener attendance. Things got worse yesterday and they got worse in a remarkable way. Only 7,311 fans came to last night's game against the Ottawa Senators. That is a team record lowest attendance. As long as things continue this way, the Florida Panther organization is doomed. They cannot survive in Florida financially. They will almost certainly have to move to greener pastures.
The NHL is discussing expansion again. That cannot occur as long as there are teams that are not surviving in the league. Florida is a franchise that is dying if it continues down its current path. Arizona is in trouble as well but not in the serious trouble Florida is. That is not to say there are troubles NHL-wide. For most NHL owners, their team is a source of incredible wealth, but a few teams in weak markets are struggling and cannot survive unless circumstances change significantly. Florida has it worse than any other. Fans are not coming to the games. That means they are not making the money they need to survive.
I have recently written about the possible problems in Arizona/Phoenix but there is one team that may have even worse problems. They are the Florida Panthers. The Panthers have had only one home game to date but they haven't drawn fans. Florida's one home game Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils drew 11,419 fans. This is by far the lowest figure in the NHL. This is an extremely low figure for a home opener. Arizona is the second lowest attendance in the league and they drew over 2,500 more fans than Florida.
This attendance trouble in Florida is highlighted this year. This home opener attendance is significantly lower than the average attendance for the Panthers in any previous season. In fact it is more than 3000 fans fewer than their average attendance last season.
Hockey players with some NHL experience have never liked being sent to the AHL. This is especially true if they are on two-way contracts so that their pay is significantly cut to go with the demotion. For a few years, players have had an alternative in the KHL, but it isn't so easy to play there anymore. Political relations between Russia and North America are at a low point. Russian involvement in the Ukraine has led to sanctions which could hurt any players joining the league. Where do players go to avoid AHL demotions?
A couple NHL players have found an answer. Matthew Lombardi and Peter Mueller have gone to play in Switzerland. Both have experience playing in the Swiss League and wanted to make NHL comebacks. Lombardi attended training camp with the New York Rangers. When he failed to make the team he refused demotion to the AHL and has instead returned to Geneve-Servette HC of the Swiss League. Mueller failed to make the St Louis Blues. He signed with the Kloten Flyers in Switzerland. This is a natural consequence of the salary cap. If you try to limit the wages of players in the NHL system some will find somewhere else that pays better. The Swiss League is far from being an alternative for most NHLers but a few will find refuge there and as time progresses that number may grow.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???