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.
The KHL regular season ended on Sunday. Their playoffs begin tomorrow (February 20th). This may allow KHL players to join the NHL when their season ends as Alexander Radulov did last year.
I followed the KHL season a little closer than I normally do while the NHL lockout was underway but now that the NHL is back my interest has waned. It is interesting to see how things ended up. SKA St Petersburg ran away with the regular season title. They finished with a 36-16 record with five regulation tie points.
Sergei Mozyakin of Metallurg Magnitogorsk won the scoring title with 76 points. This is his third scoring title as he won it in 2009 and 2010. Alexander Radulov of CSKA Moscow finished second with 68 points. He was the scoring champion in 2011 and 2012. Third in scoring was Evgeni Malkin who played with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and scored 65 points. Those three players were well ahead of the rest of the league. No other player scored more than 51 points.
I have often stated that coaching makes very little long-term difference to a team. Sometimes a team fires a coach and that shock is enough to give a team a few wins in the short-term, but over the long-term it isn't worth many games. I think it is safe to say that about 3/4 of the coaches in the NHL are roughly interchangeable in that the difference between their value to their team is lost within the randomness that naturally occurs from season to season.
That leaves a few coaches (1/4 of the NHL's coaches is 7.5 coaches) who make a clear demonstrable difference to their team. In some cases that difference is positive and that coach should be a coach of the year candidate and in other cases the difference is negative and the coach should be fired. If we can find a situation where a coach who should be fired and replace him with a coach or the year candidate a team will have a large positive impact. Similarly if a top coach is replaced by a coach who should be fired we can have a large negative effect on a given team. I think we see a clear example of the second this season.
The Washington Capitals were the first place team in the East Conference in 2010/11. They were coached by former coach of the year Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau is not your technical X and O's coach. He is usually very popular with his team and makes hockey fun and that is the key to his success. Last season when there were signs that he was losing the support of his team - largely his captain Alexander Ovechkin - he was fired.
I have been picking leaders for the various NHL awards. The last award that I am interested in but have not commented upon is the Adams Trophy for coach of the year. It is difficult to decouple a strong coaching job from an improving you team or merely a lucky run. The voters far too often give coach of the year to the coach of the most improved team. One problem with that method is longstanding coaches rarely are considered for the award because there is no reason their team should improve as a result of their coaching. After all they have the same coaching they had last year and the year before.
I think the top coach in the NHL is the only coach in the history of his franchise. I think the coach of the year is Barry Trotz in Nashville. He has his team in fourth place in the West Conference despite a lack of any top scorers. Colin Wilson and Martin Erat lead the team with nine points each. On defence they lost Ryan Suter to free agency, yet they have the best goals against in the league.
Nashville has had a strong defensive system for years regardless of their personnel. Trotz is responsible for this. It helps that they have talented Shea Weber as a lynchpin on their defence but he is not off to a great start and it isn't affecting the team in the standings.
No team owes as much of their success to coaching as the Nashville Predators do and that is why Barry Trotz is my pick for the coach of the year.
The Chicago Blackhawks are off to an incredible start. After 14 games they are yet to suffer a loss in regulation. They have scored 19 goals more than they have allowed. A big part of their success is the play of Jonathan Toews. He is a great two-way player and my pick for the Selke Trophy at this point.
While playing on the league's top team he is clearly a step above his teammates. This is shown by his +/- rating. After on/off ice rate adjustment he is among the top players in the league and doing this while playing against top competition.
Toews has received some Selke consideration in the past but he is yet to be a top nominee. I think this is the year when he could win the award. The success of his team will help to keep him in the limelight and the fact that he has offensive prowess to go with his defensive skill will also help. Jonathan Toews has a solid chance at winning the Selke Trophy this year and he is the early leader.
After yesterday's firing of GM Scott Howson, the Columbus Blue Jackets have announced that Jarmo Kekalainen will be their next general manager. Kekalainen is the first European general manager in NHL history. In principle that sounds like a good idea. There are some great hockey minds in Europe and I am sure some of them would make good general managers. The question is whether or not Kekalainen is one.
Kekalainen had a short NHL career consisting of 55 games played with the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators. He retired to become a scout. He scouted for Ottawa for seven years and the St Louis Blues for three. He spent five years as assistant GM in St Louis. When it seemed that he had hit the glass ceiling as an NHL executive from Europe he returned to his native Finland and became the general manager of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League. This is the first overall team in the league. They have climbed in the standings during his time in Finland. It's hard to make short term judgments on a GM in a league in which I am not too familiar, but it looks like Kekalainen is a good GM from his Finnish experience.
Today the Columbus Blue Jackets announced that they have fired GM Scott Howson. I have been publicly calling for this move for about a year. Howson has not done a good job in Columbus and there were questions when he was hired.
Howson had been the assistant general manager in Edmonton. He helped to build the team that was so poor that got the first overall draft pick three years in a row. For that he was rewarded with the chance to do the same in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are clearly a bad enough team that they can break the Oilers' streak of first overall draft picks.
In fact Columbus has never had a good GM. Doug MacLean, their previous GM, was no better than Howson. Now is a chance to try again. There is no replacement named yet but Jarmo Kekalainen is considered the most likely choice. He is the current general manager of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League and served as an assistant GM in St Louis working under John Davidson who was the Blues president and is the current Blue Jackets president. I believe Davidson has the skills to bring in the first competent front office in Columbus team history. He did that in St Louis and he can do it again.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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