I often like to look at the standings and see if I can explain why the team in first place is in first place. Right now the Nashville Predators are in first place. They have a record of 36-18 with six regulation tie points. This gives them 78 points. They have a three point lead over any other team. This is a big improvement from last year's Nashville team that finished in 19th place. Is their improvement sustainable?
This improvement comes from Nashville increasing their scoring by nearly a third of a goal per game and dropping their goals against by nearly half a goal per game. The defensive improvement is mostly explained in goal. Pekka Rinne has been one of the best goalies in the league this season. Last season was an injury plagued write-off where Rinne was limited to 24 games played. A significant improvement in goal can make a big difference to any team. As long as Rinne stays healthy and plays this well, the Preds will be a much better team than they showed last year.
Whenever a new player takes over the +/- rating lead, I like to take a look at him and try to explain what his +/- rating means about him. +/- ratings are a measure of puck possession but because they only record plusses and minuses when goals are scored they run into sample size problems that Corsi and other metrics do not.
Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens leads the NHL with his +29 +/- rating. He has a one point lead over Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The next three players after Pacioretty are Kucherov and his linemates. Pacioretty is having a good season. He leads his Montreal Canadiens with 45 points. That places him 24th overall in league scoring. He is a good player but hardly the top puck possession player in the league.
Taking a look at the ice time leaders, we see two players well ahead of the rest of the pack. Drew Doughty leads the NHL with 29:22 per game and Ryan Suter is slightly behind him with 29:20 played per game. The third player (Shea Weber) is nearly three minutes per game behind them.
Suter has played league leading ice time since his arrival in Minnesota. He had the highest total ice time in the millennium so far last season. It remains to be seen if this will be a problem in playoffs. Minnesota has not had a significant playoff run to test things.
The change from last year is Drew Doughty's icetime increase. I think a significant reason for this is the loss of Slava Voynov. Doughty has taken some of it over in order to make up for the loss. We may see Doughty hit a wall from his increased ice time in the playoffs. Los Angeles is the defending Stanley Cup champions and will likely have a good playoff run (assuming they make playoffs). Drew Doughty's increased icetime is one of the stories of the season. Ryan Suter's continued high icetime is another. These will be interesting players to watch.
Several years ago I wrote a post entitled If Only They Had Goaltending. I wrote it for a few years in a row. I was looking for a team with a good defence but one that was not succeeding because of weak goaltending. I argue this is the easiest kind of team to turn around because all that is required is the addition of the correct one player to put things on track. The first year I wrote this was the most successful. I picked the 2005/06 Edmonton Oilers. They were a team that was struggling with Jussi Markkanen and Ty Conklin in goal. They acquired Dwayne Roloson in a trade deadline move and barely slipped into the playoffs before making it to game seven of the Stanley Cup finals. In future seasons, I tended to pick a team that never acquired their goalie, so we didn't have as direct a test of my choice.
This year I would pick the Minnesota Wild as that team. They have allowed the fewest shots per game in the league but only have the 19th best goals against average. The problem with this choice is they appear to have recently found their goaltender. On January 15th they acquired Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes for a third round draft pick. Since that time Dubnyk has a .948 saves percentage in Minnesota. He has played in eight complete games and part of a ninth. Four of those games have been shutouts.
The Nashville Predators are a good team. They are one point behind the first place Anaheim Ducks with a game in hand. Despite that Paul Gaustad of the Predators leads the league in defensive zone starts. At least using the behind the net definition where the percentage of faceoffs taken in the defensive zone when compared to offensive and defensive zone starts (neutral zone starts are ignored). This number is used as a percentage.
Paul Gaustad has only 10.2% defensive zone starts. That is an eight percent lead over anyone else in the league. This is an eight percent increase over any player in the league last year. Gaustad is the top specialist for defensive zone faceoffs in the league.
Gaustad is one of the best faceoff men in hockey. His 57.2% success rate is fourth in the league this season. He plays a strong defensive game. He was the sixth best player in the league last year by team and zone adjusted Corsi rating. He is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. I don't think there is a forward in the league who is more valuable than him who hasn't scored more than 12 goals in a single NHL season.
At the beginning of January I picked Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers as the most valuable player so far in the season. I noted that there is no player this season who is playing at the level of past MVPs. Voracek's selection was made despite the fact he is not particularly strong defensively. It was necessary that he was the NHL top scorer for that argument to hold any water. He is now in a threeway tie for the point lead with Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin. Thus Voracek is no longer the NHL MVP - and neither are the players who are tied with him in points.
I think the best candidate for NHL MVP at this point is goaltender Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. He leads the NHL with a .932 saves percentage. He is second in the league with a 2.06 GAA. This is particularly impressive when you consider that Montreal has allowed the 9th most shots per game this season.
I still maintain that no NHL player is playing well enough to be on the level of past Hart Trophy winners, but at this point Carey Price has been the most valuable player in the league.
Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 58 points in 52 games played. That projects to a 91 point season. That will be the lowest scoring season in a non-lockout season since 1967/68 when Stan Mikita led the NHL with 87 points. In those days, the NHL only played 74 games in a season. That means that Mikita would project to a 97 point season if he played a full season (since he missed two games in 67/68 - that is 80 games played). The last season that the NHL's top scorer projected to fewer points than Voracek projects to over an 82 game schedule is 1954/55. Bernie Geoffrion led the NHL with 75 points in 70 games played. That projects to 88 points in an 82 game schedule. It has been 60 years since the last time an NHL top scorer had fewer points per game.
That doesn't mean that scoring is down leaguewide. In fact this is the highest scoring season on a per game basis since 2010/11. Although this is not by any significant amount. There have been 2.75 goals/team/game on average this year. In the past three seasons the average has hovered between 2.72 and 2.74 goals/team/game. The last seven seasons before the 2004/05 lockout, scoring was no higher than it is this year.
Scoring is not down leaguewide, but the top scorer's share has declined. Since this is only one season and it isn't complete, it isn't clear that it is a meaningful trend. It shows that offensively there is no player who is as dominant as there usually has been. Can this be seen as a failure of Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin to remain as dominant as they were a few years ago? Is this a sign that depth players are becoming better relative to the stars and hence getting a higher portion of points? Is this a meaningful trend at all?
In mid-January, I picked Shea Weber as the top defenceman in the NHL so far this year. He temporarily passed Mark Giordano who had been leading the league most of the season to that point. I think Giordano has retaken the Norris Trophy lead. Not only does he lead the NHL in scoring among defencemen with 43 points, he also is playing very strong defence. The quality of opposition advantage that Weber had in mid-January has evaporated. Both are playing against roughly equal opposition. Both are used to shut down the top scorer on their opposition and both do it successfully. Giordano has provided more offence in the process.
Mark Giordano is a late bloomer on defence. Last year at age 30 he had his first run where he received any Norris Trophy consideration. At age 31 this season he has become the mid-season front-runner for the award. That is not the usual age where a star develops. Most star players emerge as stars much younger. This is why Giordano is interesting. How good can he become? How many more top years does he have? If Giordano can keep playing at this level (or above it) for a few years, he may be a Hall of Famer. It is also possible that this is his career year and he will never match it again. It is hard to project players like Mark Giordano who do not follow most standard development curves.
The Buffalo Sabres are in last place in the NHL. They have a 14-36 record with three regulation tie points. This gives them 31 points. It leaves them 9 points behind any other team in their conference and four points behind the Edmonton Oilers and last place. They are currently stuck in a 14 game losing streak. They have scored fewer goals than any other team in the league with 94 and have allowed more than any other with 179. This leaves them with 85 fewer goals scored than allowed. These are all signs of a bad team. This is the same bad team that finished in last place last season. However they did so with more talent than they have now. Ryan Miller, Christian Ehrhoff and Tomas Vanek played part or all of the 2013/14 season in Buffalo and are gone and unreplaced now.
The Sabres are an incredibly poor team. They are the worst the NHL has seen in the salary capped era. Their only player who has scored above a point every other game is lead scorer Tyler Ennis with 30 points in 50 games. That places him 97th in league scoring. Defensively Tyler Myers and Josh Gorges are the only players who are played more than 20 minutes per game and neither are top flight defencemen. In goal, Michal Neuvirth has only three wins in 18 games played but he is the top Sabre by saves percentage with a .907. There is no position where the Sabres are average.
The only solution for a team this bad is a long slow rebuild and there is no guarantee that will lead them anywhere. It hasn't led the Edmonton Oilers to any success. Maybe the Sabres will do better. It is hard to imagine them getting much worse.
It was before Christmas when I last reported on the AHL scoring race. At that time Brian O'Neill of the Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles Kings affiliate) had taken the lead. He has been passed by Teemu Pulkkinen of the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings affiliate). This is Pulkkinen's second run this season as top scorer. He was top scorer in the league for a short time in early December.
Pulkkinen has 48 points and a four point lead over second place O'Neill. I think he may have too much NHL potential to remain in the AHL long enough to win the scoring title. He has had six NHL games played this season scoring one goal. He has potential to be a successful scorer at the NHL level, but has yet to click. Perhaps that will happen in his next call-up. It is hard to imagine that it will be a long time before he gets another NHL shot.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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