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.
One story this season is disappointment regarding the progress of 2012 first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov. He was the top scoring rookie in the lockout shortened 2013 season with 31 points. There were questions about his defence but it was pretty clear that he could score. Big things were expected for the 2013/14 season. They haven't happened yet. Through 32 games he has only five goals and 11 points and a league worst -21 +/- rating. There have even been rumors that the struggling Oilers are considering trading him.
The Calgary Flames have fired General Manager Jay Feaster today. He had a slightly under three year run as their GM as he was hired in December 2010 when he took over for Darryl Sutter. During that time Calgary never made the playoffs. Their playoff prospects are not looking any better today than when he was hired. Brian Burke takes over as an interim GM. He claims that he will step aside when a new GM is hired, but it is hard to believe that he will be really out of the picture. Any new GM is likely to have Burke looking over his shoulder.
One of the more interesting moves over the summer was when the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks effectively traded coaches. Both teams got rid of their old coach - Alain Vigneault in Vancouver and John Tortorella with the Rangers. They then hired each other's former coach. It was largely seen as a lateral move in terms of coaching tactics and both coaches tended to select their forwards based upon the zone in which the shift starts. The Rangers and Canucks are the teams that most dominate the lists of top offensive and defensive zone starters in the 2013 season. The main difference was a stylistic one. Tortorella is more intense and drives his players harder. Vigneault is more of a player's coach who gives his star players more room to be creative. The biggest reason for the coaching changes was probably just a chance to reset expectations and give players a bit of a jolt in hopes of improving their fortunes.
In the first half of last season there was open speculation about whether or not Alexander Ovechkin's best days were over. He was off to a relatively slow start. Things turned around and he finished with the NHL goal scoring lead and won his third Hart Trophy. I argue it was a poor choice, but it wasn't a totally off the wall selection. This year he is again leading the NHL in goals. With four goals scored today, he is up to 26 goals on the season. The problem is none of his numbers other than goals are as impressive.
Ovechkin only has nine assists on the season. This is good enough to put him in sixth place on his team tied with Martin Erat. His -10 +/- rating is a team worst. His once dominant Corsi numbers are long gone. In short, Ovechkin has abandoned several parts of his all-around game to concentrate on goal scoring. He is very good at goal scoring, as his league leading totals show, but he would be a more valuable player to his team if he played a more well-rounded game and let his goal totals fall a bit.
Last week I wrote about the AHL scoring race. Colton Sceviour of the Texas Stars (Dallas affiliate) had pulled into a tie with Travis Morin his teammate. Morin had been the early points leader, but he fell off the pace because he was called up to the NHL. Morin played three games with Dallas before being returned to the AHL.
The early season top contender to Morin's point lead had been Nikita Kucherov of the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay affiliate). He has been called up to the NHL as well and remains on the Tampa Bay roster.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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