Nearly a month ago I picked PK Subban as the best defenceman so far in the season. Subban remains one of the top scoring defencemen in the league with 17 points. This places him second in scoring among defencemen. The problem is Subban is not as reliable defensively as some of the best defenders in the NHL. I think a better pick as top defenceman so far this season is Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes. He has one fewer point than Subban but is stronger defensively. He has a +12 +/- rating, which is the third highest among defencemen. He does this facing the toughest opposition that Phoenix faces.
Ekman-Larsson is only 22. He is in his fourth NHL season and quickly developing into one of the best defencemen in the game. The potential exists for him to go down in history as one of the best defencemen in hockey history. That success would be still to come, but he has the pedigree that it is possible.
The AHL season is well underway. Teams have played 13 to 19 games so far this year. We are far enough into the season that there is a clear league leader in the Abbotsford Heat (Calgary Flames affiliate). They have a record of 13-6 with one point for a regulation tie. That gives them 27 points. This gives them a two point lead over the Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles Kings affiliate). Manchester has an 11-6 record with three regulation tie points. This is good for 25 points with a game in hand over Abbotsford.
Abbotsford is the highest scoring team in the AHL. They have some good offensive depth with Blair Jones, Corban Knight and Ben Street all scoring at or near point per game rates. This is the team most likely to outscore you in the AHL.
Manchester's success has come from preventing their opponents from scoring. Martin Jones has been their top goalie posting a 2.24 GAA and a .927 saves percentage. The problem for this team is that Jones has been called up to the NHL because of Jonathan Quick's strained groin. This should give Abbotsford a chance to build a lead if the injury lasts a few weeks.
The Abbotsford Heat are in first place in the AHL. Their closest competitor is Manchester but they might not be able to sustain their record if their top goalie is in the NHL for any extended period.
One award I have yet to make an early season pick for is the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward. I think the leader at this point is Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. Bergeron won this award in 2012. He is the player in the league who can most overcome playing a tough defensive role with a high number of defensive zone starts against tough competition and nevertheless have his team take control of the puck and gain offensive opportunities. Despite starting 57% of his non-neutral zone shifts in the defensive zone, he ends over 55% in the offensive zone. Despite this tough role, he has the eighth best Corsi rate among forwards who have played a regular role this season. These numbers show that he is extremely valuable defensively.
The case that he won't win the Selke - assuming his play holds up the rest of the season - would be based on his lack of offensive success. He has 11 points in 19 games, which isn't bad but it won't make him appear in any scoring leaders list. The Selke Trophy shouldn't be one where offence matters, but recent results show that it is. Perhaps with Bergeron's reputation and past success in Selke voting this might be overlooked. It might be harder for a first-time candidate unless he is a top scorer. Defensively he deserves the Selke Trophy based upon the season so far.
A big news story this week is the changes in the Buffalo Sabers front office. General manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston have been fired. Pat LaFontaine has been hired as president of hockey operations. It will be his job to find a new general manager. Ted Nolan has been hired as coach.
Buffalo was stuck in last place in the NHL. There are thoughts that they had given up on the season after their Tomas Vanek trade and attempts to trade Ryan Miller. The early return on this move is positive as Buffalo defeated Toronto 3-1 today. This is Buffalo's fifth win in 21 tries. They remain in last place in the East Conference.
Regier had been the Buffalo GM since 1997. It is hard to call him incompetent when looking at his entire record, but it is also hard to call him a top GM. I think the real problems began when Buffalo owner Terry Pegula began to push through moves instead of listening to the GM. You can't fire the owner, but that may be a better call. The GM is the fall guy instead.
Pat LaFontaine will be given the job of finding a new GM. Hopefully he can do this quickly. Right now, Buffalo is a ship without a rudder. They need a competent GM. They need somebody strong enough to resist ownership interference. LaFontaine may be able to find such a guy, but he isn't that guy. The sooner they are in place the better for Buffalo. LaFontaine is a former playing star who is learning the ropes as a front office official. Too many teams bring in former players instead of proven front office talents. There are different skills required to be a hockey player than there are to run a hockey team. Teams must learn this.
A week ago I last wrote about the AHL scoring race. Nikita Kucherov of the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate) had caught Travis Morin of the Teas Stars (Dallas affiliate). I don't see Morin as a serious candidate to win the AHL scoring race because he has never been a point per game player before this year in a half dozen AHL seasons. I see Kucherov as a better candidate to lead the league. He is a 2011 second round who scored 53 points in 27 QMJHL games last season. He is a top level NHL prospect.
Morin has taken the lead in scoring again. He has 24 points in 13 games to date. Kucherov is two points back with the same number of games played. I am uncertain that Morin will be able to keep this scoring rate all season, but he is off to a great start. It is rare that a 29 year old suddenly starts scoring at twice his past scoring rate. Thus it is unlikely that he will keep it up all season.
About three weeks ago I picked Alex Goligoski of the Dallas Stars as the worst player so far in the season. Since he is a defenceman with some talent it was quite likely his game was going to improve in time. While he isn't off to a good start, he has a couple goals and an assist and that is more than enough to lift him out of the position of worst player this season. My current pick for that dishonor is Tom Sestito of the Vancouver Canucks. He is a player who has dressed for all 19 games so far this season without scoring a point. He has the worst rate Corsi among all forwards in the league. The Vancouver Canucks have only had enough faith in him to play him a little over five minutes per game. He is a big player who is willing to fight and has 43 penalty minutes in his 19 games. That is why he continues to be dressed. He is a goon and not a particularly good one. He isn't a good hockey player or one of the most feared fighters in the NHL. He is a deserving worst player in the league and as long as he stays in the league might keep that dishonor for the rest of the season.
The Florida Panthers are a bottom-feeding team. They have only three wins in their 16 games to date. They are not a particularly good team. Tomas Fleischmann leads the team with 11 points. He is the only player on the team with more than 8 points (a point every second games). Brian Campbell is their top defenceman - but his defensive skills can be lacking. Their best defensive defenceman may be Tom Gilbert. Their most proven goalie Tim Thomas is 39 years old, has been away from the game for a season and is on the injured reserve. There isn't much to like here. Predictably, the team is off to a poor start so they fired their coach Kevin Dineen. Dineen had been coaching the team since 2011 and he had a surprising first season where Florida topped the Southeast Conference (they lost more games than they won), but there had been little to cheer about since.
Dineen has done little to show he is a good NHL coach, but he isn't at fault for Florida's failures. He will be replaced by Peter Horachek. Horachek had been an assistant and associate coach to Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators for nine seasons. I suppose that is long enough that he deserves a shot as an NHL coach, but it's hard to see him as one of the best coaching prospects in the NHL right now. He had been the coach of the Florida Panther AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage since the beginning of this season before he got his NHL promotion.
Florida is not a good team. Changing coaches will not change that fact. Their biggest hope for success is a healthy Tim Thomas playing outstanding hockey in their goal. I doubt Peter Horachek will have a successful run as Florida Panther coach. I doubt any coach could succeed with this team. Kevin Dineen's firing doesn't address their lack of talent which is their main problem.
A few weeks ago I picked Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche as the top goalie so far in the season. Varlamov was off to a great start but he has had some off-ice problems. He was arrested for domestic violence. Perhaps this is straining his play. His numbers have fallen in his limited play since the arrest. Thus it is time to pick a new top goalie. My pick is Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins. He is posting a 1.68 GAA and a .942 saves percentage while carrying the load in goal.
Rask has taken over as Boston's top goalie when Tim Thomas departed. While it is hard to replace a legend, who has won multiple awards and lead his team to the Stanley Cup, it might be easier in this case. Thomas was not well-liked by his teammates. Rask has a lot of talent. He has shown himself to be capable of this job. Tuukka Rask has been the best goalie so far this season.
The first place team in the NHL right now is the Anaheim Ducks. They have a record of 12 wins and four losses, with one regulation tie point, for 25 points. Although they are a strong team that finished third overall in 2013, this is a bit of a surprise. It is a huge step up from their 2011/12 finish which was third from last in the West Conference. Their player personnel hasn't changed much. The big change is coaching. Bruce Boudreau has brought in a successful positive atmosphere that has led to winning. He should have won the 2013 Coach of the Year Award and is making a strong case for it this season.
Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are sold point per game performers but there is little offensive depth here. Mathieu Perreault is currently third in scoring and is the only other player on the team with more than 8 points. Francois Beauchemin is their top defenceman and will be hard-pressed to match an excellent 2013 campaign where he was a Norris Trophy candidate. Cam Fowler is developing into a good defenceman as well after early growing pains. Jonas Hiller has been their number one goalie most of the season, though rookie Frederik Andersen has taken control in goal and is playing quite well as of late.
This team doesn't have the talent to hold onto first overall. The fact that they have done this so far is a testament to the coaching of Bruce Boudreau and some good luck. It is rare to have as good a record as the Ducks have without a bigger goal differential. They Ducks have currently scored 12 more times than opposition, while some teams have a goal differential twice as good as that. I suspect that Anaheim's time in first place in the league will be short-lived, but they should finish a solid playoff team.
Almost three weeks ago I reported that Travis Morin of the Texas Stars was the AHL scoring leader. He is a career minor leaguer who had never shown top offensive ability, so I predicted he would soon be caught in the scoring race. That has happened. Nikita Kucherov of the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay's affiliate) has caught him in the point race with 20 points and a game in hand.
Kucherov was a second round draft pick in 2011. He would likely have been selected earlier if he wasn't playing in the KHL and it was uncertain if he wanted to come to North America to play. In 2012/13 he showed his willingness and came to Canada to play his final year of junior eligibility in the QMJHL. He was a scoring star with 63 points in only 33 games played. That shows he has the potential to score well in the AHL and also the NHL. As a 20 year old, he has significant potential as a professional hockey player.
Kucherov is a player who could win the AHL scoring title. He also is a player that should be considered a top Tampa Bay prospect and could very easily be in the NHL by season's end and hence drop out of the scoring race in the AHL. He has a better shot at the AHL scoring race than Travis Morin, who is currently tied with him.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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