And…Here We Go!

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In a just a few hours, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators will kick off the NHL’s 100th season.

More than ever before, this season will be exemplified by a bevy of young guns under the employ of the Leafs, the Oilers, Flames and especially the Carolina Hurricanes.

I haven’t been around for all those seasons but have to say I’ve been a fan since before games were televised and, hopefully, will be around for a few more.

The game has changed tremendously over the decades and I have to say its current iteration featuring skill and speed as witnessed at the recent World Cup has me salivating for the upcoming games despite the insistence of coaching systems that are determined to slow the game to a crawl. Hopeful, the success of the Penguins last season will rub off on those who yearn to win by preaching safe, boring defensive hockey. We’ll soon see.

The Battle of Alberta

To me, as an almost life long Albertan, the greatest intrigue this season will be the relative ascendance of the two Alberta teams that are rising from the ashes of the past decade of ineptitude and failure.

Of course, the Edmonton Oilers have been re-building for almost an entire decade while the Calgary Flames have made a much quicker turnaround under Brian Burke and Brad Treleving.

Going into the season, it’s pretty easy to see that the renaissance in Calgary has been more successful despite the Oilers having a string of #1 picks and, while you can debate the relative merits of the forward corps on each team, the Flames are clearly better on the back end and, with even league average goaltending, should make an aggressive move up the standings.

But, I think it prudent to question whether the Oilers’ forward group is better than the Flames…I don’t think it is.

Here is the Flames’ announced forward group for tonight’s game:

I’ve seen a couple of Tweets today (from Oiler fans) suggesting that second line will get killed by the Oilers but, if we can agree the Oilers/Flames top lines are pretty much a saw off and remember that Brouwer, situationally, can move up to the top line, I don’t think the Oilers second line of Pouliot-Hopkins-Kassian is clearly superior.

In fact, I’m expecting Sam Bennett to break out in a big way this season after an 18G 18A season….I’m thinking 25G and 30A should be reasonable with the two gig wingers he’ll be playing with.

Brouwer should be good for at least 20 now that he’s getting second line minutes with skill and Tkachuk, who was superb in pre-season creates a huge net front presence that will also help Bennett.

Farther down the lineup, The Flames third group is built on two veterans who bring a very strong two way game, something that Maroon-Draisaitl-Puljujarvi will have a tough time with.

While fourth lines don’t make a huge difference in any game, The Flames group is clearly superior to Pitlick-Letestu-Slepshyev in experience.

The Back End

Calgary’s new coach is trying some unusual pairings for tonight’s game…splitting up Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton to carry Wideman, Engelland and newly-signed Niklas Grossman but I doubt that approach lasts all that long and he has the option of re-uniting his top D at any time.

What we really need to remember here is that the Flames D will be very much involved in the offensive side of the game, something the Oilers have little or no answer for.

In goal…Cam Talbot has a decent first season with the Oilers but he;s playing without a safety net while the Flames have added last season’s top goaltender by save percentage as well as a capable NHL quality backup.

How Brian Elliot adapts to a new team will be critical for the Flames this season but even if he performs at career average, the Flames should take a big step up the standings.

A Bold Prediction

I have the Calgary Flames going on a huge run this season…finishing second in the Pacific Division with the potential for a long playoff run.

I think both Anaheim and Los Angeles will falter somewhat allowing the Flames to move in behind the Sharks in second spot.

Which of the Ducks or Kings gets bumped will likely depend on luck and/or injury but the signs of a small regression are there.

Another Bold Prediction

The Edmonton Oilers are going into another season with dreadful depth in key positions and almost any injury could sink their season again.

If any of  McDavid, Eberle, Hopkins, Klefbom or Talbot missed any significant time due to injury, they just don’t have the horses to replace them.

Considering that pretty much every one of those players has a significant injury history, a prudent bettor wouldn’t count of them all being around all season.

I think you’ll see the Oilers and Canucks scrambling to stay out of last place in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference as all of Colorado, Arizona and Winnipeg finish ahead of them.

For the Canucks to prevail, they, like the Oilers, need everything to go right this season and, if experience teaches us anything, it seldom does.

So, for Shits and Giggles…

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WC

  1. Chicago
  2. Dallas
  3. Nashville
  4. St. Louis
  5. San Jose
  6. Calgary
  7. Minnesota
  8. Anaheim
  9. Winnipeg
  10. Los Angeles
  11. Colorado
  12. Arizona
  13. Vancouver
  14. Edmonton

You’re welcome

 

 

 

Predictive Value

So, here we are moving into the second round of the playoffs with, in my opinion very few surprises.

The Calgary Flames have to be the David to Anaheim’s Goliath but I’ve been telling you all season that the Flames should NOT be discounted.

I suspect they will have a tough time advancing to the 3rd round just based on Anaheim’s size and skill but, then again, folks who have been trashing Calgary for their inability to show well in the “advanced” stats don’t understand what Calgary is doing, how and why.

I thought it would be interesting to go back and take a look at what the Statzis were predicting this season based on “puck possession” and hold their feet to the fire a bit.

The following graph is lifted from an article on SportingCharts.com and you’ll see pretty quickly how poorly the author performed in predicting how the teams in the WC finished in league standings based on their possession metrics.

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The first thing you’ll notice is that almost half of the teams predicted to finish in the playoffs didn’t even make the post season.

The other striking errors are the Kings finishing 1st in the west and Minnesota finishing 13th.

And therein lies the major problem of using past performance to predict future success or failure using nothing more than a statistical approach without raising your eyes from your spreadsheet to rationally assess how the ever shifting lineups of teams are affected by new additions, injuries, progression by young players, coaching changes and a host of other things that are reflected in the “advanced” stats.

If you’ve been following along, you will know that I have been predicting big things for the Wild all the way back to last season and, despite an early season scare caused by dreadful, goaltending, the Wild have been the best team in the NHL for months.

My being bullish on the Wild has been based on roster makeup, systems execution and coaching.I could go on at great length about those things but I’m going to address them a little later in this post when we look at some predictions for the second round.

Before leaving the Corsi/Fenwick debate behind, I’d like to remind you that there are many devotees of “advanced” stats that will tell you that those metrics can accurately predict who will win in the playoffs and win a championship. Really?

Here are the Top 16 CF% teams in the league from the 2014/15 season…let’s see how predictive of post season success that metric has been:

LAK 55.4

CHI 53.6

DET 53.5

TBL 53.0

PIT 52.8

NYI 52.7

NSH 52.7

WPG 52.5

CAR 52.5

DAL 52.1

STL 51.8

BOS 51.7

SJS 51.5

WSH 51.4

FLA 51.3

MIN 51.0

I think you would have to agree that using “possession ” stats to predict playoff success is pretty much useless and while any fool would agree that having the puck is better than not having the puck, there are so many other moving parts in play, that ignoring them leads to embarrassing moments like the article linked to above.

I’m sure the author was all agog that he was on to something brilliantly insightful but Maggie the Monkey could not have done a poorer job.

So, what about the Flames?

Why have they been so successful despite being 28th this season in CF%?

If you watched the Flames/Canucks series with a critical eye, you will have seen exactly the factors that can overcome or ignore the current “possession” fad a lead a team to win more games that they lose.

Bob Hartley (who should win the Jack Adams trophy hands down) has designed his systems play around the personnel he has and has and has received total buy in from his team.

There are several facets to what he is preaching:

1) Relentless forechecking and puck retrieval.

2) Pounding the opposition D in their own end to wear them down.

3) Keeping opposition shots to the outside

4) Blocking shots

5) A mobile D that turns pucks the other way with accuracy and speed.

5) Speed through the neutral zone

6) Crash the net.

There’s nothing magical about his formula and it only works if executed relentlessly but it doesn’t lead to Corsi success…it overcomes that metric.

Interestingly enough, I think you’ll see that Anaheim plays a very similar style although their personnel are bigger and more experienced.

That likely gives the Ducks the advantage in the series between the 17th and the 28th ranked CF% teams but I expect the Flames won’t go quietly and could upset the Ducks if they outwork them and execute better.

I’ve likely watched about 50-55 Flames games this season and I can honestly say that I have never seen the team take even ONE shift off.

We’re about to find out if they want it more than the Ducks.

Top Pairing Defensemen

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Where do top pairing defensemen come from?

I was “in conversation” with some Oiler fans last night…pretty much all of whom are counting on Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse to soon be a cheap source of high level defensive acumen while the team spends all its resources on the top 6 forwards it has received via the draft.

That may happen but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Let’s take a look at the best defensemen in the WC and how they got to the NHL.

Anaheim: Hampus Lindholm – Drafted  6th overall in 2012. Spent part of 1 season in the AHL and made an immediate impact in the NHL at the age of 20. (6G 30P +29)

Arizona: Oliver Ekman – Larsson – Drafted 6th overall in 2009. Made an immediate impact in the NHL immediately after being drafted.

Calgary: Here is your outlier. Mark Giordano was never drafted but instead spent 4 seasons bouncing between the Flames, the AHL and Russia before finding his game.

Chicago: Duncan Keith – Another crooked development path as Keith was drafted in the 2nd round in 1983 and spent 2 full seasons in the AHL before becoming an NHL regular. (this was before the salary cap era which pushes teams to have more cheap youngsters on their rosters.)

Colorado: – Erik Johnson – Drafted 1st overall in 2006 and played in the NHL as an 18 year old.

Dallas: Alex Goligoski -Picked in the 2nd round in 2004 but made his NHL debut as an 18 year old.

Los Angeles Kings: Drew Doughty – Picked 2nd overall in 2008 and made an immediate impact in the NHL as an 18 year old.

Minnesota: Ryan Suter – Picked 6th overall in 2003 (again pre-cap) and spent 1 season in the AHL but made an impact in the NHL as a 20 year old

Nashville: Shea Weber  – Picked in the 2nd round (OMG) in the generational 2003 draft. That was the draft that also produced Suter, Burns, Coburn, Phaneuf, Seabrook, Stuart, Klein and Carle who were all taken before Weber. Weber spent part of 1 season in the AHL but was already a beast at 21 year of age.

San Jose: Brent Burns – Drafted 20th overall in 2003 and spent 1 season in the AHL.

St. Louis: Alex Pietrangelo – Drafted 4th overall in 2008. Spent another year in junior but was an impact player as a 20 year old.

Vancouver: Alex Edler – Drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. Spent part of 1 season in the AHL but was an NHL regular at the age of 21.

Winnipeg: Tyler Myers – Drafted 12th overall in 2008. Won rookie of the year in the NHL and then struggled. With noting the Jets also have Jacob Trouba who was selected 9th overall in 2012 and spent one year in NCAA  hockey before making an impact in the NHL at the age of 21.

So, that brings us to Klefbom and Nurse.

Klefbom was 19th overall in 2011 and despite showing some promise in 60 games this season at the age of 21. One would think, if he’s going to emerge as a top pairing D, we should see evidence of that next season. If that doesn’t happen, I would think he career trajectory would most likely to be compared to that of Alex Edler who I believe might be the weakest #1D on this list.

Nurse was elected 7th overall in the 2013 draft and is spending another season in junior hockey and may need a season in the AHL before becoming an NHL regular. As you can see from the above, that would be very unusual for a player with his draft pedigree considering most of the players on this list were impact players at the age of 20-21.

Obviously, every player has a different development path that is affected by all sorts of factors but it is also pretty clear that elite defenders emerge very early,

And, almost without exception, you cannot win a Stanley Cup without one.

Too Many Defensemen?

johnny-canuck

 

Just a quick note before heading out for a couple of days in Tofino.

I knew how devastated the Canucks have been by injury but really hadn’t clued in as to the severity of the problem on their blueline.

As one Vancouver newspaper columnist opined this morning, the Canucks D is basically a “swing band called Hamhuis and the Utica Comets”.

The Canucks top 7D going into the season:

Hamhuis (missed 22 games earlier)

Edler

Bieksa

Tanev

Sbisa

Corrado

Stanton

The Canucks went into Boston two nights ago with a D lineup that featured, Dan Hamhuis, Luca Sbisa, Yannik Weber, Ryan Stanton, Adam Clendenning and Alex Biega, whoever that is.

Considering the Canucks were also out forwards Alex Burrows and Brad Richardson and goaltender Ryan Miller, their victory over the Bruins is noteworthy.

That the Canucks are 7-3-0 in their last 10GP while missing essentially 1/3 of their lineup is even more impressive.

In addition to the Canucks surprising defensive depth. I think it’s worth noting that the Canucks bottom 6 forward group has been much stronger than the rag-tag bunch that held the team back in previous seasons.

Led by Shawn Matthias (12G), rookie centre Bo Harvat (9G), Jannik Hansen (11G) and shift disturber Derek Dorsett, the Canucks have been getting tremendously balanced scoring and, when they start getting regulars back from injury, may be primed for a surprising run in the playoffs.

With Chicago missing Patrick Kane and Anaheim struggling (4-5-1) there may be an opportunity for the Canucks to make some headway in the post season.

While I would hardly call them favourites for a long playoff run, they have held their heads above water in the WC (16-14-2) and in the Pacific Division (10-7-2).

It’ll be interesting to see if Jim Benning adds any pieces at the deadline or stands pat and gets his infusion of energy from his returning players.

 

 

 

 

Hockey Notes

take-notes

 

1) As of this morning, 5 of the 7 Canadian teams in the NHL are in a playoff position…except for Ottawa and the team that is dead last in the NHL. Their winning percentages are as follows:

Vancouver .700

Montreal .692

Calgary .646

Toronto .604

Winnipeg .560

Ottawa .521

Edmonton .320

Ottawa keeps flailing about, being scuppered, mainly, by dreadful team defense…they’re giving up the 2nd most shots/game at 34.9. Only Buffalo is worst at 36.1

2) No surprise there but what is surprising to me is that the Vancouver Canucks appear to have sustained their early season excellence based on a resurgence of the Sedins, the perfect fit that Radim Vrbata has been with the twins and boatloads of secondary scoring.

2nd line centre Nick Bonino is on pace for a  23G 62P season, rookie Linden Vey looks like he’ll hit 20 goals and Jannik Hansen is on pace for 26.

Jim Benning‘s other big off-season acquisition, Ryan Miller, has posted a .910 save percentage so the Canuck’s have at least adequate goaltending so, if they keep scoring at their current rate, I can’t see the Canucks missing the playoffs.

3) Speaking of scoring…which team is leading the NHL WC in scoring so far this season? No…it’s not Anaheim…not the Blackhawks…nor the Sharks…it’s the surprising Calgary Flames!

The Flames have scored 83 goals this season compared to the Canucks second best at 79. Actually the Flames and Canucks are tied for 4th in the league at 3.08 G/G behind only Tampa Bay, Toronto and Pittsburgh who of course play in the weaker EC.

The Flames scoring leaders are Mark Giordano (26P) and Jiri Hudler (25P) but they’re getting tremendous contributions from TJ Brodie (21P), Johnny Gaudreau (19P)  and Sean Monahan (17P). Monahan is on pace for 28 goals so those who suggested he got “lucky” last season may want to reassess their opinions.

Some Calgary players have sustainable shooting percentages (like Josh Jooris at 27.6) but you have to bear in mind the Flames have been scoring and winning without 3 of their top centres and a top 6 winger. Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan, Joe Colbourne and Mason Raymond will all be back from injury by the new year so the Flames will be getting an infusion of talent to try to hang on to a playoff spot.

4) A couple of weeks ago, venerable Lowetide poster and sometime Edmonton Journal blogger Woodguy, bet me a bottle (Talisker please) that the Oilers would finish ahead of the Flames this season (and the following 2 seasons as well). At the time of the bet, the Flames were leading the Oilers by 9 points but have now widened that lead to 18 points and counting. Mmmmm…Talisker.

5) Speaking of the Oilers…it appears the team is going to hold the fort after an uptick in panic in Edmonton. Really, other than cleaning house from top to bottom, I don’t think there is much they can do in any event. Apparently Nail Yakupov has zero trade value around the league, the Oilers are  over-valuing Jordan Eberle and only David Perron seems likely to be moved if Craig MacTavish can find a dance partner.

In a poll conducted by David Staples at the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey, more than 90% of respondents want Daryl Katz to put on his big boy pants and get out the broom but Staples doesn’t think that will happen.

Two things obvious with the Edmonton Oilers:

1. Massive change is needed.

2. Massive change won’t happen because owner Daryl Katz is loyal to old friends.

It’s obvious this is a gigantic mess and has been for years. Full-scale changes badly needed. The ball is in Katz’s court and yet he does nothing.

The team has been the worst team in the NHL under his watch since July 2008, the management team — in various permutations and combinations — has been in charge forever in NHL terms, and there’s no sign of things ever getting any better.

6) Staples post also reveals something that I easily predicted would happen once the Oilers started play predominantly WC teams.

While Edmonton wasn’t winning games in the first six weeks of the 2014-15 season, at least it was holding its own when it comes to shots plus-minus and scoring chances plus-minus. In the first 19 games of the year, the Oilers averaged 14.6 scoring chances for per game and 14.2 against. Those are good numbers for a team that was so weak last season, and all the better because the Oilers were even with other teams when it came to Grade A chances, the very best scoring chances,  dangerous one-time shots or wicked shots from the kill floor right in front of the net.

At that point, as recently as a few weeks ago, despite the losing, I was open to the argument that maybe things were getting better, and the only real issue was weak goaltending. Of course, the fact that the Oilers had kept around the same goalie coach who had had little but poor results for years didn’t speak well of the organization, but there was some rational reason that a decent enough team was getting atrocious results in the won-loss column.

In the past six games, though, the team has come apart completely. The Oilers have been outchanced: 11.2 for, 16.7 against.

When it comes to Grade A chances in the past six games, things are even worse. The Oilers have created 31 and given up 62.

So, there you go. It’s going to get worse folks.

7) As boy, I had a chance to watch some of the all time greats play hockey on TV. Howe, Hull, Orr, Esposito…it’s a long list. But there was one player who was absolutely unique in the way he played the game and conducted himself off ice. Pierre Lebrun of TSN/ESPN has written a great piece today about the hockey legend:

Jean Beliveau batted .500 in the most impressive hockey category of all: 10 Stanley Cups in 20 seasons.

But he batted a thousand where it mattered most.

“What a wonderful person,” fellow Habs legend and former teammate Dickie Moore told ESPN.com a few years ago. “All these years, he’s always thought about everyone else but himself. That’s Jean Beliveau.”

Beliveau died Tuesday night. He was 83.

No classier human being has ever laced them up in the 97-year history of the NHL. His talent was all-world, but it was his humble demeanor that will forever be remembered.

“He was, in every way, a one-of-a-kind player, matched only by his grace and quality as a human being,” wrote the great Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette.

I would hope there NHL will immediately name one of its trophies after Beliveau…perhaps the Lady Byng.

Sedinery

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The fate of the Vancouver Canucks this season (as in every season in recent memory) rests in the hands of Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Early returns from the 1st game of the season in Calgary are good…Henrik went 1G 1A while Daniel picked up 1A and their new line mate, Radim Vrbata, scored his 1st goal as a Canuck.

“If they can get back to “normal,” they can get production out of their third-wheel (currently Vrbata), and the Canucks can muster a more productive power play, even in consideration of the natural decline with age, there is no reason to believe that they can’t easily surpass their 2013-14 overall production totals, and likely come relatively close to their 2011-12 numbers. Takers on 70+ points anyone? I don’t see why not.”

Much, much more on what to expect from the Sedins this season is here…really a great read.

The Canucks have a very odd October schedule in that they played the Flames on Wednesday, got 3 days off before their home opener against the Edmonton Oilers Saturday night and then don’t play again for almost a week when they travel to Edmonton to take on the Oilers again.

While the Canucks will have only played twice when they meet the Oilers for the second time, the Oilers will be playing their 5th game, sandwiching a road trip to Los Angeles and Arizona in between those two games against the Canucks.

You would think that gives the Canucks a huge advantage in both games against the Oilers since they have the rare opportunity to practise during the season and will have ample time for rest and recovery from any minor injuries while the Oilers take their lumps against 2 big, heavy teams on their road trip.

In another scheduling oddity, the Canucks and Oilers play each other again on November 1st and November 19th so, if one teams dominates this season series, they could do a lot of damage to the aspirations of the other.

The Sedins have rag dolled the Oilers for years…winning their home opener  last season against the Edmonton team 6-2 with Henrik picking up 3 points and Daniel 2.

Last season the teams didn’t meet again until December 13th and it was the same old story with the Canucks winning 4-0 although the Sedins had a quiet night.

If I were a betting man…okay I’m a betting man…I expect the Canucks will win both games against the Oilers this month.

The Oilers D still looks like a work in (cough) progress and there are still huge questions about their goaltending based on Scrivens’ performance against the Flames Thursday.

It’s entirely plausible that the Oilers come home from their road trip 0-4 (maybe they can beat Arizona) to play a rested Canucks squad playing just its 3rd game of the season.

That the Oilers play the high powered Tampa Bay Lightning two days later could trigger a fan revolt if the Oilers open the season 0-6.

The Oilers follow that game with another 5 at home in a row against the Capitals, Hurricanes, Canadiens, Predators and, you guessed it, the Vancouver Canucks on November 1st.

Last season, the Oilers were out of the playoff race by Halloween and, unless they can find some success against the Canucks in the next 21 days, it could happen again.

Game on.