Early in January the Olympic hockey teams for the Sochi Olympics will be announced. I am going to take this time to list the players i would pick for the teams if I was given the opportunity to select them. This is not necessarily the group of players I expect will be selected. It is my choices.
Roberto Luongo Vancouver Canucks
Carey Price Montreal Canadiens
Mike Smith Phoenix Coyotes
I would use Price as the number one man. Luongo should be a reliable number two. Mike Smith is a solid goalie who could be useful in a number three role if the depth is tested to that level.
There have been two goalies who have established themselves as the leaders for the Vezina Trophy. They are Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. In early November I picked Rask as the Vezina leader. In early December, Price passed him in the race. I think Rask is back in the lead. Rask is posting a 1.87 GAA and a .936 saves percentage. Price's numbers are not quite as strong. He is posting a 2.10 GAA and .932 saves percentage. Rask is clearly in the lead right now.
The race is close enough that a good game from one and a poorer game from the other could change the rankings. Tuukka Rask is one of the better goalies in the NHL and it is not impossible that he establishes himself as the top goalie in the league over the next couple of years. He is a 26 year old who has always posted good goaltending numbers. He has only once played more than 36 games in an NHL season. His playing time is taking off this year as Chad Johnson is his back-up and will not challenge Rask for ice time in any significant way. Rask is leading in the Vezina race this season and is in a good position to stay in or near that position for a significant time into the future.
Currently the top +/- rating in the NHL belongs to Francois Beauchemin of the Anaheim Ducks. He has a +21 rating and is one point ahead of four other players. Beauchemin is a very good defenceman and there is an interesting myth surrounding him that he only plays well in Anaheim.
Beauchemin first had success in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks in the 2005/06 season. He quickly became an important part of the Ducks as their number three defenceman, where he won the Stanley Cup. He played significant minutes with the team but was kept behind future Hall of Famers Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger in the depth charts. In 2009 he signed as a free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs. There he was immediately removed from the shelter of playing behind Niedermayer and Pronger. Beauchemin was moved into a very tough role. He played all the most defensive shifts against the opponent's best offensive players with little support from his team. Toronto wasn't a good team and the fans needed a whipping boy to take things out on. Their new free agent signee became that man for many fans.
The AHL scoring race this season has been one where the leader has been repeatedly called up to the NHL. I last wrote about it almost two weeks ago when Ryan Strome of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (NY Islanders affiliate) was in the lead. Early this season, leaders have included Travis Morin and Colton Sceviour of the Texas Stars (Dallas affiliate) and Nikita Kucherov of the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate) have all held the lead and all have been in the NHL. Morin has the lead back. He is back in the AHL and with 34 points has taken the lead from Strome.
Morin is a candidate to win the AHL scoring title because he is not much of an NHL prospect. He is 29 years old and has played six NHL games with no career points. He has been playing minor pro hockey since 2007. This is the kind of player who often wins the AHL scoring race. If a younger better prospect was in the scoring lead, he would be likely called up to the NHL and lose his chance to win the scoring race.
Yesterday, I wrote a post entitled How valuable is Corey Crawford? In it I argued that Corey Crawford is not a particularly valuable starting goalie. Sure he is the number one goalie on the best team in the NHL, but he is not one of the top goalies in the league. His numbers look better than they would otherwise be because of the strong team playing in front of him. I use Antti Raanta the rookie goalie who has taken over for Crawford during his injury and posted better numbers thus far (in a limited number of games) and Ray Emery, his last year backup who posted good numbers in Chicago and is struggling now that he has moved onto Philadelphia as evidence to support my case. A lot of what I said about Crawford could also be said of Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. Yet I consider Quick to be one of the best goalies in the NHL. I want to make the case why that is true despite the fact I concluded the opposite for Crawford.
This season Jonathan Quick has posted a .905 saves percentage and a 2.35 GAA. Those are relatively average numbers for an NHL goalie. Quick has been injured with a strained groin for the last month. While he has been away, his backup goalie Ben Scrivens has put up some very good numbers. He has a .941 saves percentage and a 1.66 GAA. This is the best saves percentage among goalies with enough games played to qualify for the league race. Scrivens is new to Los Angeles. Last year in Toronto he posted a .915 saves percentage and a 2.69 GAA. The argument can be made that his numbers look better now that he is Los Angeles. Their strong defence makes any goalie look better.
Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks is the top goalie on the top team in the NHL. Some have argued that he is a candidate for the Canadian Olympic Team as a result of this situation. I have argued that Crawford is not a great goalie. He is a modern Chris Osgood or a Marc-Andre Fleury. He is an adequate starting goalie on a very good team and this causes people to overrate him.
Crawford has been out with a lower body injury on December 8th. Since he has been out, rookie Antti Raanta has taken over in the Chicago goal. Raanta has five wins and one loss since the injury occurred. He has posted a .921 saves percentage and a 2.01 GAA in that time. These are very good numbers. They are better than the numbers Crawford has been posting - .907 saves percentage and 2.47 GAA. Raanta has been better than Crawford. This isn't a good argument for Crawford being an indispensible part of the Hawks lineup.
The Abbotsford Heat (Calgary affiliate) have been atop the AHL for over a month. They did this in part due to the fact that they have been among the league leaders in games played, but they have also been a very good team. In 30 games they have a record of 20-10 with two regulation tie points for 42 points. As the westernmost team by a significant distance, they have had to overcome significant travel in order to do this. They have been caught by two teams with a lesser number of games played. The Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles King affiliate) are the top team in the standings. They have a 19-10 record with five regulation tie points, This gives them 43 points and a game in hand over Abbotsford, but their lead in the standings is due to regulation tie points and not outright wins. Tied with Abbotsford in the standings are the Grand Rapids Griffons (Detroit affiliate). They have a record of 20-7 with two regulation tie points. This gives them two games in hand against Manchester and three against Abbotsford. Probably this makes Grand Rapids the top team in the league. Abbotsford may also have a claim to being the top team but their record is hurt by their excess travel.
About three weeks ago I picked Darren Helm of the Detroit Red Wings as the Masterton Trophy leader. At that time I noted he was in a tight race with Manny Malhotra of Carolina. Both overcame significant injury that kept them from contributing to their teams last season. Their injury problems go back a couple years at least. Both have made significant comebacks this season, but I think Malhotra has been more significant and he has been able to stay healthy this season.
Malhotra suffered an eye injury in 2011. He has struggled to comeback to full strength since then. Last year he was placed on the longterm injured list after only nine games played with the Vancouver Canucks. It looked like his career was over. He signed with the Hurricane AHL affiliate in Charlotte this season before coming back to the NHL this year.
Malhotra has been playing well in Carolina. He is playing a tough defensive role with little offensive opportunity. His role is one of the toughest ones in the league. He currently has the second best faceoff winning percentage in the NHL at 60.4%. He appears to be back and at 100%. He has been very valuable to the Hurricanes and it is amazing that he is still in the NHL at all. That makes him the Masterton Trophy leader right now.
The World Junior Hockey Championships are upon us. Teams are being selected and preliminary games are underway. A question that comes up every year is how great it would be if all the junior aged players in the NHL were sent to play in the tournament. This year three NHLers look to be going to the tournament. Mathew Dumba of the Minnesota Wild will be joining Team Canada, Elias Lindholm of the Carolina Hurricanes will be part of Team Sweden and Mikhail Grigorenko of the Buffalo Sabres will be joining Team Russia. All of these players are being sent to the World Juniors because they are struggling in the NHL.
Grigorenko has three points so far this season. This is his second NHL year. Last year he scored five points. His development into an NHL player has yet to happen. Buffalo threw away two years of his path the unrestricted free agency when he was ineffective. It is a poor bet. Grigorenko will be eligible for unrestricted free agency at age 25 as opposed to 27 like normal NHLers since he will have played seven NHL seasons by age 25.
The NHL has done well in terms of public relations in their battles with the NHLPA. The NHL periodically shuts itself down depriving fans of hockey in order to force players to accept a smaller piece of the pie than they did they did the last time the league was shut down. Despite that, many fans support the NHL in these labor battles.
Here is one prime example of how the NHL achieves this. Hockey players have the right to appeal lengthy suspensions with the NHLPA working as their legal counsel during the appeal. Thus it is going to be reported in the media that the NHLPA is appealing the suspension of an NHL evil-doer. The NHL comes out on the side of law and order and the NHLPA comes out on the side of supporting a violent offender. It makes the NHL look good and it makes the NHLPA look bad. This is the kind of public relations battle the NHL keeps winning.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???