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

 

 

 

The Home Stretch

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Only 5 weeks remaining in the NHL regular season and we’re in for a helluva finish in the WC and there are still 3-4 teams that could grab the final wild card spot in the EC.

The Boston Bruins just defeated the Flyers in OT.

Boston moves to 73 points, up 3 on Florida and 4 on Ottawa and Philly. Given that Florida is without their top 2 goaltenders they may be all but out of it and I’d keep an eye on the streaking Senators who are 8-1-1 in their last 10GP, somehow.

Much more interesting in the WC where Minnesota, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Los Angeles, San Jose and even Dallas, are still all vying for a playoff spot.

I had all but counted the Stars out of the race but there’s word today that Tyler Seguin is expected to return from injury tonight much sooner than expected and, if they can get even average goaltending, they may well be right back in it.

As for the others, I would bet a sizeable amount that the Minnesota Wild will make the playoffs with a very good chance to overtake the Blackhawks and/or St’ Louis for 2nd or #rd in the Central Division.

Then it gets really interesting.

Winnipeg has been exceeding expectations all season but now they are without their best player, Dustin Byfuglien, and their top centre, Bryan, Little for an extended period. I’m not sure they can withstand that double body blow.

Vancouver is almost impossible to get a read on. In their last 10 games, they’ve beaten Minnesota, the Rangers, the Islanders, Boston and St. Louis but lost to Buffalo, Arizona and New Jersey. You have to wonder why they can’t beat the teams they should beat.

The Calgary Flames continue to amaze. Everyone was counting them out when Mark Giordano went down with a season ending injury but all they’ve done is beaten Detroit, Boston and Philly…all on the road….since he went down. What the Flames are accomplishing with the lowest payroll in the league (other than those who sold the farm at the deadline) is a testament to great coaching and hard work. Yes, I know they are getting hammered in the possession stats but what many of the staszis don’t often recognize is that shot blocking is a demonstrable, repeatable skill and the Flames are exceptional at it. Flames defenseman Kris Russell leads the league in BS by a wide margin with 221 compared to 175 for the second place shot blocker Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Dennis Wideman, TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano are also among the top 20 in the league. Shot blocking may not be good for your Corsi rating but it sure does stop goals from being scored.

It also helps that the Flames are among the top scoring teams in the league (11th) at 2.82 while the supposedly young, fast talented Oilers will all those #1 picks are 28th at a paltry 2.17…only Arizona and Buffalo are worse.

Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are both providing great numbers fro such young players and those who expected Monahan to fall back this season have been very disappointed…he could hit 30 goals and 60 points.

Both Los Angeles and San Jose remain just outside the wild card spots and, while I expect LA will make it, San Jose appears to be in serious trouble despite their star-studded lineup.

Buckle up…it’s going to be a great ride.

 

 

 

 

Handicapping the Playoff Races

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The playoff race in the EC is all but over. The Florida Panthers could still track down the Boston Bruins for the last wild card spot so there is that.

But in the WC, things are much more interesting.

As of this writing, 6 teams are still in the running for the final 4 spots in the playoffs.

Let’s take a look at their chances.

Vancouver would appear to be in the catbird seat with 65 points in 55GP and they have games in hand over San Jose (3), Winnipeg (2) and Calgary (1). They also hold the tie breaker of regulation wins (29) over Calgary (28), San Jose (27), Minnesota (26), Winnipeg (24), Los Angeles (24) and Dallas (24).

But…the Canucks are down two of their top 4 defensemen in Edler and Bieksa and may find it difficult to win without them.

Those Stazis discount “momentum” but, believe me, confidence plays a huge part in the performance of sports teams and the Minnesota Wild are on a huge roll.

Buoyed by the goaltending of Devan Dubnyk (who could have seen that coming) the Wild are 8-0-2 in their last 10 games and may overtake the Winnipeg Jets in the Central Division.

Winnipeg has a 5 point lead but Minnesota has 3 games in hand and could close that gap pretty quickly.

The 4 Pacific teams vying for a post season berth, San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary and Los Angeles are within 4 points of each other and all are playing around .500 hockey in their last 10 GP.

If forced to make a wager right now, I would go with this for the top 8 teams in the WC:

1) NSH

2) STL

3) ANA

4) CHI

5) CAL

6) MIN

7) VCR

8) WPG

Wow. The 1st round of the playoffs should be epic.

Down the Home Stretch

finish

 

The Christmas break is the unofficial halfway point of the NHL season.

October, November and December are all but gone leaving January, February and March as pivotal months for many teams.

By the time we get to April, the remaining games are meaningless for most teams other than a few on the playoff cusp or those jockeying for playoff position but, as of now, we have a pretty good idea of what is going to occur.

We’ll discuss the upcoming Tank Battle in more detail in a subsequent post but, in the Western Conference, we find only 12 teams with a chance (the Oilers and Coyotes have a less than 1% chance of making the playoffs) and Dallas, Colorado and Minnesota are on shaky ground. The surprising Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames still have a decent shot but it appears the titans of seasons past…Chicago, Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Nashville could be playing in late April.

That’s 7 teams so I think it’s likely that Winnipeg, Minnesota and Calgary are playing for the #8 seed.

I would likely put my money on Minnesota here but they’re having a strange season where they outshoot everyone but still find a way to lose.

I have to admit I’m pulling for Calgary out of respect for their impeccable work ethic but I doubt they have the horses to get the job done unless they use some of their vast cap space to go for it this season. A trade with Arizona, for example, could land them Keith Yandle and Antoine Vermette and would likely land them a playoff spot.

The Jets are also exceeding expectations…they keep winning despite have 4 of their top 6 D out of commission but I’m not convinced they are as good as their record.

We’ll look at the Eastern Conference tomorrow.

800 Pound Gorillas

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So, as some teams complete the first 10% of their seasons, it’s worth looking at which teams are really playing well and which might be benefiting from either a surplus of power play opportunities or an unsustainable power play percentage.

Pittsburgh, for example is cashing in on 36.4% of their power play opportunities this season and, although they led the league a year ago at 23.4%, you can expect some regression there.

That’s not a huge deal for Penguin fans since their team is also very good at even strength posting a 5V5 F/A of 1.09.

Don’t think 5V5 matters much? Well, here are the top teams from last season:

1) Boston 1.53

2) Anaheim 1.39

3) Los Angeles 1.28

4) Chicago 1.27

5) St. Louis 1.22

6) San Jose 1.17

7) Tampa Bay 1.16

8) Minnesota 1.15

9) Colorado 1.12

10) New York Rangers 1.07

11) Columbus 1.06

12) Pittsburgh 1.05

13) Dallas 1.04

14) Detroit 1.03

15) Phoenix 1.00

16) Montreal 0.99

Please note that 15 of those 16 made the playoffs last season and only Phoenix didn’t although they missed by a hair.

The lesson here is that you’d better be good at even strength, the state in which most of the game is played, or you’re doomed.

So, in an early season snapshot, let’s take a look at the contenders and pretenders so far this season with the caveat of small sample sizes.

The Gorillas

1) Minnesota leads the way with a 5V5 FA ratio of 4.00. The Wild have only played 5 games and have yet to score a PP goal this season but they have been so good 5V5 that they’ve managed a .600 win percentage.

2) Nashville 2.00

3) Calgary 1.80

4) Chicago 1.67

5) Anaheim 1.60

6) Los Angeles 1.57

7) Tampa Bay 1.50

8) Washington 1.44

9) New Jersey 1.36

10) Ottawa 1.33

11) Dallas 1.23

12) New York Islanders 1.21

There are several other teams with a positive 5V5 percentage so one good or bad game could change their status but there are also several teams that are a mess at even strength and you can likely count them out of the playoff race soon if not now.

The Chimps

30) Buffalo 0.35 (OMG)

29) Carolina 0.43

28) Arizona 0.53

27) Edmonton 0.64

26) Winnipeg 0.65

Save a massive turnaround in even strength play, those are your leading contenders for Connor McDavid in the 2015 draft.