The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs begins on Wednesday, so I am giving my predictions today. While I usually manage to predict more playoff series correctly than incorrectly, I am well aware that predictions are not reliable and many NHL games are decided based upon luck. I expect that some of these predictions turn out to be wrong but they are the best choices I can make at this point.
Anaheim defeats Winnipeg. I see the Jets as a team that is happy just to have made the playoffs. Anaheim is the team with something to prove. With Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler leading their offence, the Ducks have offensive talent that the Jets cannot match. That alone should make this a one-sided series.
Every year, I like to make my picks for who I would vote for if I had an award ballot. When the award winners are actually announced I can then compare with my picks. I am going to expand my ballot slightly from what I have done in years past to include five choices for those awards that have five picks on the actual NHL ballots although I do not exactly like this. The Hart Trophy (or any other) should never be determined based on a 4th or 5th place pick on one ballot and potentially that is possible.
Calder Trophy: 1. Filip Forsberg Nashville Predators 2. Aaron Ekblad Florida Panthers 3. Mark Stone Ottawa Senators 4. Johnny Gaudreau Calgary Flames 5. John Klingberg Dallas Stars. I have picked Filip Forsberg as the winner for most of the season. As the season closed, the scoring race among rookies tightened significantly and this reduced Forsberg's lead over the pack. I think he deserves the award despite finishing third in rookie scoring (though one point from first) because he established himself as a significant player earlier in the year and had to play against tougher opposition through most of the season that other candidates. Johnny Gaudreau in fourth place is also worthy of mention. It is lower than he likely will finish in the actual balloting but I think this is reasonable because Gaudreau has little defensive presence. He is an exciting offensive player to watch but he is to easily beaten in his own end due to his lack of size.
We will definitely not have a repeat Stanley Cup champion this year. The defending champion Los Angeles Kings have not qualified for the playoffs. Their 3-1 loss last night against the Calgary Flames leaves them four points behind the eighth place Winnipeg Jets in the West Conference. Since the kings have only one game remaining this season, they cannot make up that deficit. Thus the defending Stanley Cup champions have fallen. It is the first time since 2007 where the Stanley Cup champions failed to qualify for the playoffs the next season (in that case it was the Carolina Hurricanes).
This is further evidence to my claims that the 2014 LA Kings were not an elite team. One would expect that an elite team in one season should be at least strong enough to qualify for playoffs in the following season. So what went wrong in Los Angeles?
The New York Rangers are the first place team. They have a 51-28 record with seven regulation tie points. This gives them 109 points with three games left this season. They have a two point lead and a game in hand over second place Anaheim. Given how close we are to the end of the season, they are likely going to win the Presidents Trophy.
I don't think many people predicted the Rangers would win the Presidents Trophy. How have they surprised us? Offensively their 3.04 goals per game have them in third place in the NHL. This comes without any of the top point scorers in the league. Rick Nash leads their team in points with 69. That is good for 15th in the league. Nash is second in goals scored. He has had a solid bounce back season. Derick Brassard is second in scoring on the Rangers and he is 49th in league scoring. Derek Stepan, Martin St Louis and Mats Zuccarello have also scored pretty well this season, but none are among the league leaders.
I don't like the salary cap. Its main effect is to keep teams from getting to be too good. An NHL without really good teams is a mediocre NHL. Sometimes it forces teams to do things that make no sense. The Pittsburgh Penguins are currently in one such hell. They have played their last two games with only five defencemen. That is no logical way to play games in the NHL stretch drive.
The Penguins are in this hell because of injuries to Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff. Neither is injured seriously enough to be placed on long-term injured reserve. During the middle of the regular season, the Penguins might have thought otherwise and kept one of them out longer than needed to gain a roster spot but putting either of them on LTIR would keep them out of the beginning of the playoffs. The Penguins only have five healthy defencemen in Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole and Derrick Pouliot.
The player with the worst +/- rating in the NHL is Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has a -36 +/- rating. He is Toronto's leading scorer and is often a scapegoat for the problems in Toronto.
You would think that the top scorer in the biggest NHL market would be a popular player but that isn't the case. Why doesn't Toronto love Kessel? He is American in a Canadian city. He is socially awkward in an interview. He has a fat looking head and that has unfairly given him a reputation as somebody who doesn't work hard enough to stay in shape. For a large part, he has a bad rap.
It is true that he hasn't scored as well since Toronto changed coaches and the season fell apart. For the most part that statement is true of any player on the Toronto Maple Leafs. He isn't the strongest defensive player and on a struggling team like Toronto everyone has a poor +/- rating. It isn't too surprising that a player with a lot of ice time on the Leafs should have the worst +/- rating in the league. The next two highest scorers on the team in James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozek are only one point worse than Kessel with a -35 +/- rating.
In mid-March I picked PK Subban as the Norris Trophy leader. The Norris Trophy race has become the tightest award race with several possible candidates. I think Subban has been caught by Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. Karlsson is similar to Subban in that he is a former Norris Trophy winner who plays a stronger offensive game than he plays a defensive game. His defensive game has clearly improved since his Norris Trophy winning season. He has come on strong at the end of this season. He is a puck possession leader on his team. The biggest difference is that Karlsson has better offensive numbers. Karlsson's 61 points leads the NHL among defencemen and his 20 goals is second. Subban is seven goals and eight points behind his offensive numbers. Karlsson is a big part of the reason that Ottawa has come on strong and may make the playoffs.
Karlsson is clearly on a Hall of Fame track. This is only his sixth NHL season. He has played 390 career regular season games. This is not enough of a sample size to guarantee a Hall of Fame career. If he does win a second career Norris Trophy this season it would go a long way to completing such a career. That may happen this year, although given the number of viable Norris Trophy candidates, there is no guarantee of his victory.
Earlier in March I reported that the Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals affiliate) were in first place in the AHL. Things have changed since then. The Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles Kings affiliate) have retaken the lead. Manchester now has a three point lead with a game in hand over Hershey. That is likely enough that they will win the regular season title. Manchester has league top scorer Brian O'Neill and the third place scorer in Jordan Weal. They have offensive star power. More than likely this is the regular season champions. Let's see if regular season success carries over into the playoffs.
The NHL will be significantly affected by its salary cap next year. Because of a drop in the value of the Canadian dollar it may not rise much from its current $69 million. This will hurt the quality of hockey in the NHL. The best teams of this season will not be able to be kept together because they won't have the salary cap space to give their current players the raises they deserve.
There is an optional salary cap escalator that the NHLPA and NHL can invoke to increase next year's cap by 5% above the value that last year's revenue would give. The NHLPA is not interested in doing this because they have lost significant amounts of their salaries to escrow in the past few seasons. The dollar figures that player's sign on their contracts are not the dollar figures they actually get paid. The players get 50% of the defined revenue that the NHL makes, with the owners getting the other 50% plus all money that is not defined as revenue. If the contracts signed by players are likely to be for more money than 50% of defined revenue, the players have to pay into an escrow account. When revenue is clearly known, the players likely get some of the escrow money back. Players can lose 15-20% of their contact values due to escrow. The players do not like this. Thus they would rather keep the salary cap figure low to reduce escrow.
At the beginning of February, I reported that Teemu Pulkkinen of the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit farm team) was the top scorer in the AHL. I also predicted that he wouldn't be the top scorer at season's end because he would likely be called up to the NHL. That prediction has turned out to be correct. Brian O'Neill of the Manchester Monarchs (LA Kings affiliate) has re-taken the scoring lead. O'Neill has 67 points in 57 games played. This is a six point lead on Pulkkinen in eleven extra games played. O'Neill has been hot lately. He scored five points in two games over the weekend.
O'Neill is 26 years old, so he is young enough that he may make an NHL impact. However since he is very small for an NHLer at 5'8" 165 pounds, he is not on the fast track. Los Angeles may give him a shot, but it isn't clear if they will take a chance on him during their stretch run. I think he will likely have the chance to win the AHL scoring title.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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