At The Quarter Pole

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Most NHL teams have now played a quarter of their season and the cream has risen to the top and the dregs are being separated.

RISING STARS

No surprise to me but almost unnoticed by the national media is just how absolutely dominant the Dallas Stars have been this season.

The Stars are sporting a record of 17-4 with no loser points and despite not showing up for 2 losses against the Leafs.

The Stars have a 6 point lead over the Blues who have the second best record in the West and they’ve scored 12 more goals (74) than the second place Canucks (62).

Montreal is pacing the Stars with 74 goals as well but they’re playing in the weaker conference while Dallas has run up a 6-1 record against the tougher West. The Stars will be playing more games against the West as the season progresses but there is absolutely no reason to think they can’t keep up the pace.

The most remarkable thing about the Stars is not the all world performances from Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin (which I expected) but the emergence into an elite defenseman of 23 year old John Klingberg. 

Klingberg is tied for the league lead in assists with Patrick Kane and Seguin at 19 apiece and has hit 3 goal posts in his last 2 games.

Worth noting…the last defenseman to lead the league in assists was some guy named Bobby Orr.…Klingberg might soon make history.

BLACK FRIDAY

We’re only a few days away from the defacto playoff doomsday for teams that are at least 10 points out of a playoff berth. It is almost impossible for those teams to make up enough ground to grab a spot so let’s take a look at which teams could see their seasons effectively over by Black Friday.

The Pacific Triangle

In reality, there is very little chance that the Central Division won’t send 5 teams to the playoffs so that leaves the last 3 spots for the Pacific Division.

 

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Edmonton has a  7-12-1 record heading into the week and have only 4 wins in their past 10 games.

The Oilers face Washington, Carolina and Detroit in the next week and would need to win at least 2 of those games to stay in the hunt. Even then, they would need just the right combination of losses from other Pacific Division teams to remain viable.

What is germaine here for the Oilers is the schedule for the teams that are ahead of them this week.

As of this writing, the LA Kings are losing to the Carolina Hurricanes and both San Jose (vs. Columbus) and Vancouver (vs. New Jersey) play later today and both could enhance their chances substantially with a win and an Oilers’ loss to red hot Washington (6-3-1 in their last 10) would leave them 9 points out.

It also doesn’t help that two teams the Oilers are chasing, Anaheim and Calgary, play each other Tuesday or that Anaheim also plays Arizona on Wednesday and Calgary plays Arizona on Friday.

If there are any 3 point games among that group and the Oilers don’t win at least 2 of 3, their season is pretty much done.

Vancouver also has a couple of tough games this week against the Wild and Stars but have shown an ability to keep games close and pick up points.

If the Canucks can build on last night’s 6-3 hammering of the Blackhawks and pick up at least 3-4 points this week they should hang around but anything less and they may be in trouble.

The Calgary Flames, of course, are also in a very precarious spot but have been playing much better (6-4-0 in their last 10) since TJ Brodie returned to the lineup.They can pretty much write their own story if they can win against Anaheim and Arizona but that’s certainly not a given although I like their chances.

Things will be much clearer by Black Friday.

Sedinery

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We would be remiss to not mention a superb performance by the Sedin twins last night.

Daniel scored 3 and added an assist while brother Henrik had a 5 point night including a goal.

Both have now moved into the top 15 in league scoring (Daniel tied for 6th…Henrik only 2 points back.)

Watch out Pacific Division if the Sedins catch fire.

 

 

 

 

 

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10 TO WATCH

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With the exhibition season drawing to a close, it’s time to anticipate some of the story lines I think we’ll see develop over the course of the season.

Here are the 10 top things I’m expecting to emerge over the next 7 months.

  1. Ryan Johansen

Johansen is the oft forgotten graduate of the Class of 2010 that also includes Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. The 6’3″ 225 centre came close to a PPG last season and, now that he has Brandon Saad patrolling his left wing, I expect Johansen to take another step forward and emerge as a true superstar. Worth noting that Johansen led the NHL pre season scoring with 4G and 12P in only 4 games while his right winger, Nick Foligno finished with 9 points and Saad recorded 8. This is setting up as one of the premier lines in all of hockey.

2. McDavid vs. Eichel vs. Sam Bennett

Most observers expect McDavid and Eichel to be the top two in an outstanding rookie class but it needs to be remembered that both are playing on teams that don’t score much, have huge holes on the blue line and questionable goaltending. None of those things apply to Bennett whose Calgary Flames were 6th in goal scoring last season and promise to be even better this season with a healthy Mark Giordano, the additions of possession darling Michael Frolik and puck moving wizard Dougie Hamilton as well as further maturation of young stars Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. Others to keep an eye on are Artemi Panarinin in Chicago and Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg.

3. Jamie Benn

Benn won the scoring title last season despite playing with two bad hips which he had operated on in the offseason. He’s now healthy and will have Patrick Sharp and Tyler Seguin as line mates. Will he win the Hart Trophy? When asked which player he would build a team around, Sidney Crosby immediately identified Benn as his choice. I don’t disagree.

4. Tyler Seguin

The Yin to Benn’s Yang is Tyler Seguin who emerged last season as a bonafide superstar. Seguin would have easily topped 40 goals last season had he not missed 10 games to a dirty low bridge hit. He may be one of the few players with a legitimate chance to hit 50 this season and I wouldn’t bet against him.

6. Bo Horvat

Horvat was a revelation last season starting out on the 4th line and later in the season centering Vancouver’s 3rd line. In camp this season, he’s already moved up to the Canucks 2nd line C position and there are more than a few observers who believe he will soon make Vancouver fans forget all about Ryan Kesler.

7. Vladimir Tarasenko

Tarasenko is another member of that sweet 2010 draft class that should hit another level this season. After scoring 37 goals and 73 points in 77 GP last season, I expect Tarasenko will soon join Seguin atop the pinnacle of that draft class.

8. Buffalo vs. Edmonton

The Oilers finished 8 points ahead of the Sabres last season and, while adding Connor McDavid, trading for Cam Talbot and signing Andrej Sekera, the Sabres have blown them away in making substantive changes to their roster.

Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, David Legwand, Jamie McGinn, Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson and Robin Lehner trump everything the Oilers have done in the offseason. I expect they’ll improve much more than the Oilers. and….by the way…the Oilers are almost cap strapped while the Sabres have almost $12M in free cap space. 

9. The Detroit Red Wings

This is the season that the Wings finally fail to make the playoffs. It’s not so much that they will decline by a large margin but the hard charging Florida Panthers, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Ottawa Senators all are likely to finish ahead of them.

10. There is always one team that surprises with their success and at least one other that does a face plant. This season, I think the Calgary Flames are going to surprise and will win the Pacific Division. My candidate for the team likely to fall furthest is the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks made the playoffs last season by a mere 3 points and with the changes they’ve been forced make and the surging Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets, they could well finish 6th in the tough Central Division.

Nostradamus Redux

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Before the 2014/15 seasons began, I went out on a limb and predicted where the WC teams would finish in the standings and, of course, I had some hits and misses.

I had these as the teams that would make the post season…in this order:

STL

CHI

ANA

DAL

LAK

COL

MIN

VCR

Well, I got only 5 out of 8 right but I certainly over-rated Colorado thinking their your stars would be enough to overcome their defensive deficiencies but, as a group, they underperformed and their season was done.

I believe, if Dallas had received even average goaltending, they would have made the playoffs but one very hopeful sign for the Stars is their 7-3-0 record in the last 10 games. Jim Nill, with a ton of cap space available should be able to shore up his D and G positions and the Stars should be very dangerous next season.

The Kings were sunk, very simply, by an abysmal record in 1 goal games and shootouts (2-8). Reports have surfaced that there is tension between the King’s players and coach Sutter so I think we may see some changes there in the offseason. It would be very amusing if the Kings fired Sutter and replaced him with Todd McClellan if he gets fired in San Jose.

I obviously under-rated the Winnipeg Jets (who didn’t?) but, after having watched them this season, I doubt I or anyone else is going to do that again. Their a big, talented, hardworking team with a bevy of youngsters either breaking in or just a few months away.

No one I saw predicted Calgary would make the playoffs so I’m going to give myself a partial pass for missing that pick because I did manage to frame their issues:

The Calgary Flames

The Flames, as everyone knows, are rebuilding and they are doing it the right way. They’ve shored up their goaltending with Jonas Hiller, they have a legitimate top pairing on D and they now have tremendous centre depth if their two recent #1 picks develop according to their pedigree.

They lost some goal scoring with the departure of Mike Cammalleri but I expect Johnny Gaudreau, Mason Raymond and Sam Bennett will more than compensate.

Sean Monahan produced a 30+ goal season and Gaudreau was even better than advertised but the big surprise was the play of Jiri Hudler with the two youngsters, As you know, Bennet was derailed by shoulder surgery so expect the Flames to look pretty good going into next season if they can wisely use their bounty of cap space to add a couple more big pieces.

I said this about the Nashville Predators:

The Nashville Predators

It’s really hard to know what to expect from the Predators. They have added a lot of potential goal scoring in James Neal and Mike Ribiero as well as a new offensively minded coach.

Their defense and goaltending are stellar and their centre depth is something else so there is potential for them to return to the playoffs.

This likely comes down to whether or not they can adapt to a totally new style of playing so they are a team that could surprise.

Well, they did surprise to an extent but I’m not sure they are as good as their regular season record would seem to indicate.

At the bottom of the heap, here is how I called things:

 The Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers seem to have improved somewhat but there are still tremendous holes in the lineup (what else is new?)

Their centre depth remains the worst in the league, they don’t have ONE top pairing defenseman and their goaltending is questionable.

At centre, they are a RNH injury away from disaster, it appears they will play Nikita Nikitin as a top pairing D (yikes) and have decided Ben Scrivens is as least an average NHL goaltender. Scrivens was very good early in his Oiler career but was very pedestrian as the season wore on.

The Oilers don’t score much and they are dreadful defensively (although they should improve somewhat) and the addition of some mid level defensemen, some cast off wingers and a couple of more rookies are NOT the answer.

Man…I called that one perfectly…except for the part where I said “improved somewhat”. They were actually worse.

 The Arizona Coyotes

There is word tonight that the NHL is trying to find a new buyer for the Coyotes. Source

The current owners reportedly lost $24 million last season (who could have seen that coming?) and need to bail.

At some point, the off ice activity has to have an effect on the on ice performance and I’d guess that it going to happen this season.

The Coyotes lost their two top scoring forwards in Mike Ribiero and Radim Vrbata and replaced them with Martin Erat and Kyle Wellwood Sam Gagner.

The previously defensive stalwart Coyotes sprung some leaks last season and unless Mike Smith has a Vezina level performance this season, this team is doomed.

Nailed it again.

The Wild Wild West III

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As I expected, and predicted, the Minnesota Wild are poised to clinch a playoff spot in the near future.

Sports Club Stats has them sitting at a 98.8% chance of making the playoffs going into tonight’s game at home against the Kings. A win would out them at 99.8% and with 95 points they would have a death grip on a wildcard spot and would be, in fact in 3rd place in the Central Division although the Blackhawks would have 2 games in hand.

The game tonight, though, also has tremendous implications on the playoff hopes of the Calgary Flames who now trail the Kings by 1 point.

Calgary still has 3 was to make the playoffs…finish ahead of the Vancouver Canucks in the Pacific Division…finish ahead of the Kings in the Pacific Division or grab the final wild card spot if any of Vancouver, Los Angeles or Winnipeg fades down the stretch.

I’m really hoping all of Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary makes the playoffs since that would enhance the chances of a Canadian team winning a cup…something that hasn’t happened since Christ was a cowboy.

It’s not that I don’t like the Kings or appreciate how good they can be but it would be refreshing to have a different dynamic in this years’ playoffs.

 

 

 

Top 3

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When you spend a lot of cash and cap space on the best 3 players on your team, you had better be getting a massive return on your investment or you’re not likely to be very successful.

I thought we would look at the top 3 players (by cap hit) on all the WC teams to see which teams are getting an adequate return on their investment.

Anaheim – Getzlaf, Perry, Kesler:

$23 million cap hit – 35 G 84P

Arizona – OEL, Doan, Yandle:

$16 million cap hit – 17G 51P

Calgary – Hudler, Wideman, Giordano

$13.2 million cap hit – 31G 80P

Chicago – Kane, Toews, Sharp

$18.5 million cap hit – 31G  81P

Colorado – Duchene, O’Reilly, Landeskog

$17.5 million cap hit – 22G 54P

Dallas – Spezza, Seguin, Benn (note Horcoff actually has a slightly higher cap hit than Benn but is only getting paid $3 million this season)

$18. 2 million cap hit – 37G 88P

Edmonton – Eberle, Hall, Hopkins

$18 million cap hit – 22G 56P

Los Angeles – Doughty, Kopitar, Brown

$22.6 million cap hit – 15G 42P

Minnesota – Parise, Suter, Koivu

$21.7 million cap hit – 18G 56P

Nashville – Weber, Neal, Fisher

$17 million cap hit – 19G 42P

San Jose – Thornton, Marleau, Couture

$19.3 million cap hit – 35G 82P

St. Louis – Statsny, Pietrangelo, Steen

Cap hit $19.0 million – 18G  40P

Vancouver – Sedin, Sedin, Vrbata

Cap hit $19 million – 25G 75P

Winnipeg – Enstrom, Wheeler, Kane

Cap hit $16.5 – 15G 44P

Some observations:

  • Anaheim is forking out the most dough but they’re getting full value for it.
  • Calgary is getting HUGE value from their best paid players.
  • The Kane and Toews contract extensions next season are going to whack the Blackhawks.
  • The best “top 3” in this study is Spezza, Seguin, Benn and, if Dallas gets its D together, watch out.
  • Edmonton’s “top 3” are very disappointing.
  • The Kings 3 highest paid players are severely under performing and the standings show it.
  • Nashville’s highest scoring players, Forsberg and Ribiero have a combined cap hit of less than $2 million.
  • Likewise, the Blues’ top 3 scoring forwards, Tarasenko, Schwartz and Lehtera have a combined cap hit of $5 million.

Now a list like this doesn’t indicate which team will have the most success but teams that aren’t getting good value from their best paid players are likely not to have any long-term success.

Top Guns

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Time for a look at who is delivering the mail (and who isn’t) so far this season.

There have been some remarkable early season performances by some of the top guns in the league and by some young players who are tearing up the league thus far.

Here’s a look at the top 30 scorers (minimum 10 games played) in the WC 5V5 P/60 thanks to Behind the Net.

WC

Tyler Toffoli – 4.57

Jeff Carter – 4.27

Nick Bonino – 3.89

Chris Higgins – 3.75

Tyler Seguin – 3.74

Jamie Benn – 3.70

Vladimir Tarasenko – 3.62

Tanner Pearson – 3.62

Filip Forsberg – 3.46

Joe Colborne 3.43

Ryan Carter – 3.36

Zach Parise 3.12

Corey Perry – 3.12

Ryan Getzlaf – 3.11

Martin Hanzal – 2.98

Blake Wheeler – 2.98

Jason Pominville – 2.95

Brandon Saad – 3.91

Thomas Vanek – 2.87

Mike Ribiero – 2.83

Jiri Hudler – 2.75

Justin Abdelkader – 2.73

Brian Bickell – 2.72

Joe Thornton – 2.69

James Neal – 2.61

Mason Raymond – 2.61

Taylor Hall – 2.59

Alex Burrows – 2.51

Joe Pavelski – 2.46

Jaden Schwartz – 2.46

A few observations.

There are some interesting names who didn’t make this list…Henrik (2.24) and Daniel (2.27) Sedin are absent although they are reasonably close. But what is striking is how much the Canucks second line has been contributing. Nick Bonino , Chris Higgins and Alex Burrows are all on this list supporting the notion that Willie Desjardins has the Canucks playing an effective 4 line game and silencing critics who thought the Canucks were a one line team without secondary scoring.

We’ve said it before but it bears repeating…the Kings “That 70’s Line” has been a dominant force thus far. They’ve slowed down recently so it will be interesting to see how they’re performing after another month but I think it’s fair to say that Tyler Toffoli has to represent one of the biggest 2nd round draft steals in recent memory.

The Dallas Stars appear to be on the verge of wasting a spectacular season from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Going into the season, we all knew the Stars had issues on D but to add to their woes, their goaltending has been pretty bad too. Kari Lehtonen has been below par at .904 while Anders Lindback has been nothing short of horrible at .852. You have to wonder how long Jim Nill will let that situation fester?

Likely the biggest surprise here is the absence of Jonathan Toews (1.43) and Patrick Kane (1.05)! Since the Hawks are leading the league is shots/game, I wouldn’t read too much into this right now but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Watch out for the Wild. The Wild have 3 players on this list and have the best team shot differential in the league. Despite that, they remain 10th in the WC and. at some point, that dam is going to be breached.

Some interesting numbers and trends emerge when you look at how teams are performing by this metric.

If we use 2.00 P/60 as a demarcation point for players who are performing adequately offensively and then see how many players teams have who are at or above that mark, we see the following:

Anaheim – 3 (Perry, Getzlaf, Silfverberg) Obviously the Ducks are relying on one line to do almost all their scoring)

Arizona – 4 (Hanzal, Boedker, Doan, Erat) Not bad but, when Martin Hanzal is your scoring leader, you’re likely in a spot of trouble)

Calgary – 5 (Colborne, Hudler, Raymond, Gaudreau, Giordano). Gaudreau and Giordano are pleasant surprises for Flames fans here. I wonder though how Colborne and Raymond will fare when they return from injury.

Chicago – 3 (Saad, Bickell, Versteeg) I don’t think it will be long before Toews and Kane join this party.

Colorado – 3 (Iginla, Tanguay, Duchene) What’s remarkable here is who is missing. Top guns Nathan MacKinnon (1.77), Ryan O’Reilly (1.14) and Gabriel Landeskog (0.84!) are having miserable seasons. No wonder the Avalanche are struggling.

Dallas – 6 (Seguin, Benn, Roussel, Spezza, Garbutt, Eaves) The Stars are having a superior offensive season but if you can’t keep the puck out of your own net, it doesn’t matter much.

Edmonton – 4 (Hall, Eberle,Hopkins, Pouliot) the Oilers “superstars” are all at the low end of the range and their performance has come against a steady diet of EC teams. Once their schedule balances out and they play the big boys in the WC, I think it’s possible they won’t have anyone in the top 30 and may have only 1 or 2 above the 2.00 marker. Also notable here is that former 1st round pick Nail Yakupov is at a dreadful 1.66 (134th in the league) substantially behind Flames 4th round pick Johnny Gaudreau (2.12) who is the same age.

Los Angeles – 3 (Toffoli, Carter, Pearson) It’s a good thing for the Kings that trio is shooting out the lights because no one else on the team is scoring much at all. Kopitar (1.68), Richards (1.48) and Justin Williams (0.68) have been dreadful thus far.

Minnesota – 6 (Carter, Parise, Pominville, Vanek, Zucker, Fontaine) The Wild have been killing it at even strength this season but their PP has only recently shown some signs of life.  At a staggering 5%, you just know that won’t last and the Wild will shoot up the standings.

Nashville – 4 (Forsberg, Ribiero, Neal, Roy) The 4 offensive players acquired by Nashville are doing what is required of them and considering the Predators are giving up fewer than 2 GPG, that should easily be enough to win them a playoff spot.

San Jose – 3 (Thornton, Pavelski, Couture) There is a huge drop off behind these 3 which would seem disappointing for the Sharks.

St. Louis – 3 (Tarasenko, Schwartz, Lehtera) Like Anaheim, the Blues have been relying on 1 line to carry the mail. Steen, Berglund and Backes have almost dropped off the face of the earth.

Vancouver – 5 (Bonino, Higgins, Burrows, Sedin, Sedin) and with Richardson at 1.99, The Canucks are battling the Wild for the most balanced attack in the league.

Winnipeg – 1 (Wheeler) This won’t end well.

 

 

 

Snapshots

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The biggest early season surprise team is most certainly the Calgary Flames. The Flames are currently in playoff position with a record of 8-5-2 …a record that was largely achieved through the stellar goaltending of Jonas Hiller (.929) and the league leading scoring of their top pairing D. Giordano (with 15 points) and Brodie (14 points) have had a remarkable early season and Dennis Wideman (9 points) hasn’t been too shabby either. Whether or not the Flames can remain respectable with so much offence coming from the back end is debatable but their forward group led by Sean Monahan and Johnny Hockey seems to have come alive recently. Monahan started slowly this season but is now on pace for a 27 goal 50 point season.

* An update from Saturday’s early game…Mark Giordano with 1G 2A, Gaudreau with 1G 2A and Monahan with 1G 1A.

At this early juncture, its wise not to make too much of team success that is based on playing weaker teams especially WC teams beating up on weaker EC teams. But, it’s worth noting that the Flames record against the WC is 5-2-0 while a team like the Edmonton Oilers is 0-6-1 when they play Big Boy hockey. The real surprise here is that the Vancouver Canucks are 7-3-0 against the WC although that record has to be tempered a bit since they have already beaten the woeful Oilers 3 times. The Canucks are in the middle of their Bataan Death March road trip through the Pacific but have already won 2 of 4 games with a huge weekend back to back against the Kings and Ducks on Saturday and Sunday nights. If the Canucks can win even one of those games, I think it’s fair to assume they are back.

And speaking of the Canucks, there were more than a few raised eyebrows when GM Jim Benning acquired Ryan Miller on a 3 year $18M dollar contract but it appears that may have been one of the best off season signings in the league. Miller has been nothing short of spectacular, leading all NHL goaltenders with 10 wins, 1 loss, a 2.19 GAA and a .920 SV%.

There was also some derision from tall foreheads and fans of other teams that the Canucks got fleeced in the trade that sent Ryan Kesler to Anaheim for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and a 1st round pick.

The criticism was that Bonino likely wouldn’t score much if he wasn’t getting PP minutes with Getzlaf and Perry but all he’s done thus far is lead the entire NHL with 7 even strength goals and has 12 points while playing second line minutes. Kesler, playing similar minutes has only 3 goals and 10 points. After a shaky start, Sbisa has settled in as a steady bottom pairing D while the pick Vancouver got from the Ducks was used to select Jared McCann who has done nothing but post 7 goals and 15 points in 11 games with the SSM Greyhounds. Early days, but it appears the one doing the fleecing was Benning. The acquisition of Bonino who is a much younger, cheaper version of Kesler, and McCann gives the Canucks an enviable group of young centres working their way to the NHL.

Bo Horvat (now on the Canucks roster)

Brendan Gaunce (1G 5P Utica AHL)

Cole Cassels (7G 28P Oshawa)

Jared McCann (7G 15P SSM)

Not too shabby.

Okay, everyone else who though Vladimir Tarasenko was an emerging superstar, please raise your hand. You may recall I predicted this a few weeks ago and the dynamic Russian is making me look like a genius. Tarasenko, while not having quite the wheels, reminds me of no one more than Pavel Bure. Tarasenko is currently 4th in NHL scoring with 16 points and, despite losing Paul Statsny as his regular centre, is quickly gaining ground on Sidney Crosby. The sky is the limit for this kid…seriously.

Speaking of Russians, here’s an update on the Russian forward scoring race based on PPG played.

Malkin – 1.33

Datsyuk – 1.25

Tarasenko – 1.23

Ovechkin – 1.00

Kucherov – 0.92

Kuznetsov – 0.50

Kulemin – 0.46

Anisimov – 0.44

Yakupov – 0.43

Namestnikov – 0.38

And, just for laffs…Semin – 0.30

Hey…remember Patrick O’Sullivan? He was the guy who, in his final season with the Edmonton Oilers back in 2009/10,  fired 191 shots (and many dozens of misses) at the opposition goal in only 73 games played.

While he was a Corsi Monster, his 5.8 shooting percentage doomed him to 11 goals and 34 points.

Well, Nail Yakupov has taken to firing shots from everywhere and is starting to look a lot like O’Sullivan. His 32 SOG are second on the team and his SH% keeps dropping like a rock…now at 6.3%. You’d have to think some of those shots will go in eventually but as long as Yakupov remains a perimeter player, they just might not. When was the last time you remember Yakupov being anywhere close to the blue paint?

And speaking of shots…when does the Minnesota Wild’s unbelievable shot differential start paying off? The Wild are outshooting the opposition by an average of 12.6 shots per game and yet they have only a 7-5 record good for only 10th spot in the W. That dam will break eventually.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wild, Wild West

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It seems the WC playoff race is now down to 12 teams, what with the Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers both doing a face plant to start the season.

The Coyotes have been dreadful, giving up 3.60 GA/P, the worst in the entire NHL. For an offensively challenged team that has previously been getting by with a strong D and superlative goaltending, you would have to think that Dave Tippet, not Randy Carlyle may be the first coaching victim this season.

The Oilers, despite have a very favourable schedule with a plethora of home games and EC teams, are pretty much where they were a year ago as they head out on their annual rodeo road trip. Worth noting that last season the Oilers gave up 3.26 GA/G (30th in the NHL) so the team braintrust went out and acquired journeymen defensemen Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne as well as adding goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth.

How is that working out for you MacT? The Oilers are giving up 3.46 GA/G. That’s what you call progress folks.

The Oilers are scoring at a slightly higher rate this season but not enough to compensate for their leaky D. With Taylor Hall out for an indeterminate time, even that Pyrrhic victory is likely in jeopardy.

So, what do we make of the remaining dozen teams?

The plucky Calgary Flames remain in the mix through their never say never attitude and work ethic and attitude. That they have kept their heads above water despite a devastating series of injuries is certainly a testament to their team game and coaching staff. Could they be this year’s Cinderella team? They might be.

Among teams that are currently out of a playoff position, I haven’t been impressed with Colorado or Winnipeg who both seem to be limping their way to mediocrity, Dallas needs shore up their D in a hurry and the Blackhawks just don’t seem to have lift off yet, although I expect that won’t last long.

But let’s turn to the top of the standings where 4 teams have been superlative in the early days of this season.

The Anaheim Ducks have been nothing short of spectacular so far but the Minnesota Wild have been even better.

While the Ducks sport a gaudy 9-3 record, their underlying numbers are nowhere near as good as the Wild. The Ducks are out shooting their opponents by less than 1 shot per game while the Wild routinely out shoot their opponents by more than 10 shots/game. The Wild have been killing the possession game thus far and have the 3rd best offensive production in the league at 3.40 GF/G and now that they have finally got their power play working (2 goals last night) I expect you’ll see the Wild rise to the best record in the NHL very shortly.

Nashville and Vancouver have also “surprised” some observers with their early season success but there are a couple of cautions applicable to both teams.

While Nashville has an outstanding 6-2-2 record, it should be noted that they are actually being outshot by 28.2 to 28.5 S/G.  I would bet they’ll have a tough time maintaining that success unless they can turn around their shot differential.

The caution with the Canucks is that their success thus far has been based on a relatively poor level of opponent. They’ve beaten the hopeless Oilers 3 times and, while they’ve played well in all of their games, the are soon going to face the road trip from hell when they play, in succession, the Sharks, Kings and Ducks.

That those games also constitute a 3 games in 4 nights scenario, things may not look so rosy a week from today.

The St. Louis Blues seem to have achieved ignition helped in no small measure by the emerging superstar Vladimir Taranseko who has 5 goals in his past 3 games and, when TJ Oshie and Paul Statsny return to the lineup soon, I expect the Blues will give the Wild a dog fight for the top spot in the standings.

A week from now, we could see some movement in the standings and that both the Oilers and Coyotes will have been pronounced officially DOA.

As of today, Sports Club Stats has the Oilers with a 17.3% chance of making the playoffs while the Coyotes are pegged at 11.3%.

I expect both will be in single digits a week from now.

 

The Killers

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I think we can agree that the best measure of the value of an offensive forward in the NHL is how he performs at even strength. Scoring on the PP does have value but, especially with fewer and fewer penalties being called, being able to score at evens is critical and, of course is even more valuable in the playoffs where the referees tend to swallow their whistles.

So, early this season, who is killing it at even strength?

*All numbers courtesy Behind the Net.

Last season, the 5 most dominant scorers P/60 5V5 were:

1) Ryan Getzlaf – 3.32

2) Corey Perry – 3.11

3) Jamie Benn – 2.95

4) Taylor Hall – 2.91

5) Tyler Seguin – 2.84

It would seem that elite scorers need to produce above a rate of about 2.25 P/60 to be in the conversation.

So, let’s take an early look at who is killing it so far this season and who is struggling.

There are currently 107 players who meet the 2.25 threshold and you know that regression will weed out a lot of those in the coming weeks but there are a few players whose early season production has been eye popping.

1) Rick Nash – 6.67

2) Jeff Carter – 6.19

3) Mikhail Grabovski – 5.67

4) Tyler Toffoli – 5.63

5) Tanner Pearson – 5.55

6) Jamie Benn – 5.24

7) Matt Cooke – 4.95!!!

8) Ryan Strome – 4.79

9) Ryan Getzlaf – 4.76

10) Corey Perry – 4.74

11) Brock Nelson – 4.66

12) Chris Higgins – 4.59

13) Nick Bonino – 4.39

14) Ryan Carter – 4.35

15) Jakub Voracek – 4.34

16) Jason Zucker – 4.08

17) Nikita Kucherov – 3.98

18) Jaden Shwartz – 3.94

19) Henrik Zetterburg – 3.91

20) Tyler Seguin – 3.91

Some observations about that list would seem to be in order.

I have no idea what’s gotten into Rick Nash. Last season he produced at a pitiful 1.84 P/60 at evens. Perhaps the easiest and most accurate analysis is that his shooting percentage this season is 31% and that’s not likely to persist. Nash is 18th is SOG this season at 29 so I imagine he should drop down the list pretty quickly.

“That 70’s Line” in Los Angeles should likely be renamed “The Killers”. What prompted this column is that I noticed Tyler Toffoli was producing elite scoring while playing only 16 minutes a night. With Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik both out with injury, that line’s ice time will go up so it will be interesting to watch how that affects their production. Based on my viewings of the Kings, I expect they won’t miss a beat…they’re that dominant.

The New York Islanders are a pretty good hockey team. With 3 players on this list, they are producing a lot of offence and are quietly in a position to take over the top spot in the entire NHL if they can beat the Winnipeg Jets at home tonight. I wouldn’t bet against them.

The Vancouver Canucks were worried about secondary scoring when they traded Ryan Kesler to Anaheim in the offseason but, so far, their second line has been very, very good.

Chris Higgins, Nick Bonino and Alex Burrows (2.64 P/60 5V5) have certainly held up their end of the bargain and with the Sedins (Daniel 3.82),  (Henrik 3.78) and (Radim Vrbata 2.73) all well ahead of the 2.25 mark, their scoring is not an issue although their D has been weak so far this season.

Worth noting in the Kesler vs. Bonino race, Kesler has 3 goals and 7 points while Bonino has (you guessed it) 3 goals and 7 points. However, when you look at P/60 5V5, Bonino is outpacing Kesler by a wide margin…4.39 vs 1.25

Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff decided a few games ago to overload his 1st line by running Benn – Spezza – Seguin as a unit so I imagine you might see the Stars’ numbers actually improve. You have to remember that all 3 members of that line can play at centre and watching Ruff deploy them has been an interesting exercise in coaching tactics.

So far this season, Spezza has taken 120 draws while Seguin is at 51 and Benn is at 49. Nice problem to have!

And then there is Matt Cooke. What the hell is he doing on this list anyway?

Well, I expect he won’t be for long but, despite his long, long rap sheet, Cooke is a pretty good hockey player when he’s not doing something stupid.

A few other observations when parsing the numbers:

Sidney Crosby is off to a relatively slow start to the season (2.30). That’ll change at some point.

Watch out for Zack Parise. He’s currently sitting at 3.61 but he also leads the NHL in shots on goal with 48 in only 7 games played.  If he keeps shooting at that rate and his shooting percentage rises from the current 7.5% to his career average of 11.3, he’ll climb this list pretty quickly.

The “high flying” Edmonton Oilers offence isn’t.

The Oilers leader by this metric is Benoit Pouliot at 2.55. That’s a decent number but  Jordan Eberle is the only other Oiler player above the 2.25 mark while RNH (2.24) and Taylor Hall (2.18) are struggling to hit the mark. The Oilers have recently had a steady diet of home games against EC opposition so, when the rubber hits the road and they play a schedule more heavily filled with the Big Boys in the WC and the Pacific Division in particular….we’ll, let’s just say “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”.

The Oilers are also letting David Perron die on the vine by playing him on the 3rd line. Last season, Perron posted a good, not great, 5V5 number of 1.96 which has dropped to a mediocre 1.62 this season. Unless his role changes, I can’t imagine he’ll be too eager to re-sign with the Oilers when his contract is up.

Is something wrong in Chicago?

Although the Hawks are off to a very good start (5-2-1) Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews haven’t been producing much at all at even strength. Kane is sitting at 1.08 while Toews has yet to produce a point at evens 0.00

Something worth watching.

 

 

800 Pound Gorillas

Go-Team-Gorilla-Team

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.