For essentially the entire time it has existed, the Southeast Division has been the worst division in hockey. Never have more than two teams in this division been good enough to make the playoffs in the same season. I have written about this weak division many times (for example last year). This year is no different.
Four of the five worst teams in the East Conference right now are Southeast Division teams. Florida and Washington are the last two teams in the conference. Buffalo (from the Northeast Division) is third from last. Then comes Southeast members Tampa Bay and Winnipeg. In all likelihood only one team from the Southeast will make playoffs this year. At this point that team is Carolina but it is reasonable to wonder if Carolina can keep up their start. Star goalie Cam Ward is out for the remainder of the season with a leg injury. This leaves Dan Ellis and Justin Peters to man the Hurricanes nets and it is reasonable to wonder if either will succeed.
At this point in the season the Southeast teams have 49 wins and 61 losses. They have nine regulation tie points.
The Montreal Canadiens lead the East Conference with 32 points. They have a 14-9 record with four regulation tie points. This is a big step forward from last year's team who finished in last place in the East Conference.
Montreal is not your typical last place team. They only allowed 14 more goals than they scored in the season. Most last place teams do worse than that. However even if we accept that they should have been better than a last place finisher last season, they are no first place team either. This is partly shown by their large number of regulation tie points. Toronto has the same win/loss record as Montreal without any regulation tie points and they sit fifth in the East Conference.
Montreal has improved offensively by about half a goal since last season. They have also improved their goals against by a fifth of a goal per game. This makes the better part of a goal a game improvement from last year.
Probably the biggest reason for the offensive improvement is a healthy Andrei Markov, who has been very good at moving the puck up the ice into offensive situations. He joins Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec offensively. Rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher have also contributed. Raphael Diaz is also a pleasant surprise from defence.
The AHL season has been a very disjointed one. When the NHL season began in January, many of the top players in the league left for the NHL. That changed the fortunes of the top teams in the league.
When I last looked at standings in mid-December the lockout was still underway. The Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate) was leading the lead. They were in a race with the Abbotsford Heat (Calgary Flames affiliate) and Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes affiliate). All of these teams lost players to the AHL. Cory Conacher from Syracuse is the leading Calder Trophy candidate. Sven Baertschi and Danny Taylor are key Abbotsford players who have played with Calgary in the NHL this season. Brett Sutter and Justin Faulk are key Charlotte players with Carolina in the NHL.
The AHL lead is now a three-way tie with 75 points. Charlotte remains in the tie. They have been joined by the Springfield Falcons (Columbus Blue Jackets affiliate) and Texas Stars (Dallas Stars affiliate). Charlotte is four pints back of the tie and Abbotsford has fallen off the pace and is now 13 points back.
One of the big surprises this season is that Mark Fraser of the Toronto Maple Leafs leads the NHL in +/- rating with a +15 rating. It's a bit of a surprise that Fraser is not in the AHL and has a regular NHL job. He is a defenceman who played only four games outside the AHL last season.
In fact before this year, Fraser had 98 NHL games played over the course of four seasons. His only full NHL season occurred in 2009/10, when he played 61 games for the New Jersey Devils. Fraser had been traded to Toronto last season for Dale Mitchell after he had a brief stop in Anaheim.
For the large part Fraser has played a protected role in Toronto this season. He has played against relatively poor competition in somewhat limited minutes and with strong teammates. I think the circumstance of Fraser's play is a better explanation for his top +/- rating than his play itself. However Fraser has looked like he belongs in the NHL. Whether he will continue to succeed if he plays a tougher role is still an open question.
Mark Fraser leads the NHL in +/- rating so far this season. That is one of the more surprising numbers so far this season. It is a sign that Fraser has been solid so far this season but his league leading +/- is largely due to the fact that he has been protected in his usage so far this season. I think Toronto will give him a bigger role as the season progresses and it will be interesting to see how well he handles it.
The AHL season has been a rather disjointed one because of the NHL lockout. Many of the top players in the league joined the NHL in January when its season began. One example of that is seen in the scoring race. Jordan Eberle of the Oklahoma City Barons (AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers) took over the league scoring race around the end of 2012. His biggest rival was teammate Justin Schultz. Both are in the NHL now.
Eberle has 15 points so far this season in the NHL and Schultz is slightly behind at 13 points. They were so far in front of the pack that it took about a month and a half before anyone who remained in the AHL caught up to them. There are now two players who have passed Eberle's mark of 51 points. These players required about twenty games more than Eberle played.
Gustav Nyquist of the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings affiliate) leads the league with 56 points. He leads over Tyler Johnson of the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate) who has 54 points. They have a bit of a lead over the rest of the pack and there is a significant pack. Four players have between 49 and 51 points (not including Eberle who is not returning to the AHL this season in all likelihood).
The last significant free agent to sign this season is Ryan O'Reilly. He was a restricted free agent this summer. He was unable to come to a deal with the Colorado Avalanche. After a 55 point third NHL season at age 21, he looked poised to become a star in the NHL. Potentially he could be worth a lot to his team but that potential is yet to be fully realized in the NHL. Colorado balked at paying for him. As a result he has held out for the first 18 games of the season.
Today the Calgary Flames have signed him to a two-year offer sheet. O'Reilly gets a $2.5 million signing bonus and $1 million in salary for the remainder of the season. He gets $6.5 million next season. This gives him a $5 million salary cap hit and it forces his team to qualify his contract at $6.5 million in order to keep his rights after the contract expires. It is a worse deal than those that Colorado had balked upon leading to his holdout.
If Colorado chooses not to match the offer they will get a first and a third round draft pick in compensation. Unless Calgary is poised to win the draft lottery this season, that is a poor price to pay for O'Reilly. Calgary would get him cheap in terms of hockey asset value.
UPDATE: As I was spellchecking this article and publishing it, the Avalanche announced they are matching the offer sheet. As I suggest in the article they had no other logical choice.
One question I have spent a lot of time thinking about is at what point in their career a player first establishes himself as a Hall of Famer regardless of what may happen in the rest of their career. This selection made the threshold about a month ago and I have yet to write the post. I believe Evgeni Malkin has now cemented himself as a future Hall of Famer.
The final step in this accomplishment was his being probably the best player in the world during the lockout. Despite missing the beginning and end of the KHL season because it occurred before and after the NHL lockout, Malkin wound up the third highest scorer in the league this season. Malkin had the highest points per game in the KHL. He finished more than 20 points ahead of any other NHL player who spent part of the season in the KHL.
Malkin already was an established NHL star. He is the reigning NHL MVP. He is a two time top scorer in the league. He was named MVP of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. He is a three-time First Team All Star. These are the credentials of a Hall of Famer regardless of what happens in the remainder of his career.
In early February I last picked an MVP for the early season. Tomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres was my pick. He was leading the NHL in scoring at that point. Since then Vanek has been passed in the scoring race and his Buffalo Sabres are in trouble after firing their coach.
The MVP race today comes to two players: Steve Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. They are one and two in the NHL scoring race with 29 and 28 points respectively. I think the main difference between these two players in the quality of teams against which they play. Stamkos plays in the weak Southeast Division. This is the weakest division in the NHL. No team has more than 19 points so far in this division. Crosby plays in a tougher Atlantic Division where his Penguins have 26 points and New Jersey has 24. The last place team in the Atlantic (NY islanders) would be tied for third in the Southeast Division. As a result of a weaker division, Stamkos has played against weaker teams and this difference is more than enough to explain a one point lead. I pick Sidney Crosby as the current MVP.
Crosby is arguably the top player in the NHL. He was my pre-season pick for the Hart Trophy and he is the current leader. I think there is a good chance he could be the eventual winner. Evgeni Malkin's concussion may help Crosby with the flawed calculus of some voters. If Pittsburgh keeps winning with Malkin out, that would help Crosby's MVP chances in their eyes. Reality is Crosby is a talented player who has been the best player in the league so far this season and Malkin's presence or lack of presence does not change that.
Earlier in February I picked Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators as the early Norris Trophy leader. It soon became clear that Karlsson was not going to repeat as Norris Trophy winner as he suffered an Achilles injury that will keep him out most (if not all) of the remaining season. The question was who would take over the lead. I think Kris Letang has taken over the lead. He currently has 15 points which is good for second among defencemen in the league and is posting a +7 +/- rating.
Letang is one of the top defencemen in hockey today. He is yet to have a Norris Trophy worthy season and perhaps this could be his season. He has the talent that he could win the award. It will be interesting if he can maintain this lead throughout the remainder of the season.
I have wanted to comment upon the Buffalo Sabres firing of Lindy Ruff this week but have yet to find the time. Ruff was the longest serving NHL coach. He had been hired in 1997 and has successfully taken the Buffalo Sabres to the Stanley Cup finals. He finally fell for the "what have you done for me lately?" mindset that often sees good coaches get fired. Buffalo was off to a 6-11 record with one regulation tie point.
This was not the result that I was predicting. During the lockout, I picked him as a likely Jack Adams Trophy winner should there be a season this year. This wasn't really an endorsement of Ruff as the best coach in the league but rather as a good coach who looked likely to see his team improve. Incorrectly, I thought Ryan Miller would bounce back into shape this season. Strong goaltending would turn the team around. That hasn't happened. In fact Buffalo has the most goals against in the league right now (but its close enough that with games underway that may change before the night is through).
To be fair, Miller is not the problem in Buffalo. He is posting a solid .913 saves percentage and a 2.94 GAA. The problem is defence. Buffalo has allowed more shots than any other team in the league this year. Their defensive defencemen in Tyler Myers and Robyn Regehr have not succeeded this season and that cost Ruff his job.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???