With the tedium of the All Star break thankfully behind us for another year, two counting the Olympics, we can now get back to the business of meaningful hockey with all the gusto that is associated with the regular season run in. Heading into the NHL’s maligned showcase weekend, one of this decade’s most memorable mid season pile ups was materializing in the Western Conference. With eight teams separated by no more than six points and any of the fifteen teams still in contention for a playoff birth it’s any four of eleven as the divisional leaders and Chicago pull away from the pack.
As every game night results in trampoline standings movement attention is being diverted from the West’s battle for supremacy between San Jose and Detroit as mid pack analyst’s crunch numbers on the fly.
Hey Buddy; can you spare me a Dime?
Currently topping out the pack battle, playoff hockey couldn’t be more vital for the Phoenix Coyotes if recent reports of fiscal haemorrhaging are to be believed. Five seasons have elapsed since the Desert Dogs made their last foray beyond 82 and failure to capitalize on their mid season form this year could confirm what naysayers have always believed was inevitable; that hockey could not survive in the desert. Indeed no amounts of Gretzky’s influence will save the ‘Yotes if their dwindling fan base is subjected to another late spring of charity golf events.
Regardless of the pressure, the Coyotes have played themselves into contention for the first time in years after a lengthy and almost perpetual rebuilding process. With a roster few outside of Arizona, or in it for that matter, have heard of including two rookies from the 2008 draft class, Phoenix have managed to combine a low scoring offence, weak power play and average penalty killing unit into a team that grind out victories. While many would point to Olli Jokinen’s acquisition on draft day and subsequent chemistry with perennial forgotten man Shane Doan as the nexus of the Coyotes offensive successes, the real story has been the Coyotes second defensive unit. Flying under the radar during free agency, former Avalanche Kurt Sauer has been a rock on the blueline while partner Zbynek Michalek is arguably one of the leagues most overlooked defenseman comfortably leading the NHL in shots blocked. With Ilya Bryzgalov once again providing stellar net minding in his post Ducks rebirth the only criticism with his .910 save percentage is that it could be higher were it not for the occasional soft goal.
At just 2.61 goals per game Phoenix’s real problem comes with a lack of scoring, particularly secondary scoring. With Doan, Jokinen and Mueller combining for 49 tallies, the other 21 players to suit up for the Coyotes this year have managed just 79 between them. With the likes of Carcillo and Jovanovski disappointing on the goal scoring side of the game and the second worst power play unit in the league one struggles to see the Coyotes maintaining fifth in the West.
As it is franchise survival could require a lengthy and unlikely venture to the Conference finals.
Prediction: Despite the excellent work of the Phoenix’s top line and defensive corps the Coyotes are providing too little of an offensive threat. While their schedule may be reasonably manageable the Coyotes could find themselves in the unenviable 9th slot come April 12th.
New Name, Retro Struggles
For many of the franchises currently encompassed in the middle of the Western Conference 2008/09 has been something of an overachievement, for the Anaheim Ducks its been a painful return to reality. Winners of Lord Stanley’s mug just two seasons ago the little tinkered Ducks have been a pale imitation of the rough and tumble side that strut to the cup. A dire start, a streaky recapturing of form and then further struggles through January leave the Ducks looking for some cohesion despite their tried and tested formula.
Injury and age could be one factor, talismanic blueliner Scott Niedermayer and partner Chris Pronger have looked far from their impenetrable best and despite good work from Jonas Hiller there still appears to be a desperate bid to reinstate Jean-Sebastien Giguere despite his understudy is posting a far superior GAA. Selanne is slowly showing the rigours of age while Brendan Morrison has failed to jell and with the once free flowing offence proving so disappointing, the grinding 3rd and 4th lines that were seen as the Ducks engine room two years ago now look redundant, merely fuelling the Ducks propensity to take bad minor penalties resulting in the fourth most power play goals against.
Nevertheless the recent march to injury reserve has freed up some much needed cap space and the chance finally arose to introduce Bobby Ryan to the NHL for a sustained period of time. 33 points in 33 games since should insure he is up for good and alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry has proved a feel good story for a team in dire need of a youth injection.
Three players are not going to turn a team around however and discontented murmurs suggest something is fundamentally amiss in Anaheim with talk of dressing room stagnation proving no surprise. The comparative collapse of this seasons Ducks and the potential for numerous retirements not to mention a slew of players entering free agency could mean one of the most consistent rosters in the league are about to enter a period of restructuring.
Prediction: You get the feeling Anaheim could wake up at any moment, if the players can keep themselves out of the box the Ducks should capture fifth or sixth, a year outside the playoffs would be unlikely and unthinkable.
A Long Old Road
It shouldn’t have proved that much of a surprise when the Edmonton Oilers took their time getting acquainted with Rexall Place, having played 18 of their first 26 games on the road coming home must have seemed liked going away again. Subsequently drawing upon statistics such as the sixth worst average goals against and middle of the pack scoring can be taken with a pinch of salt, being murdered at home by Buffalo 10-2 having subsequently played 15 of their last 21 at the Rexall is unforgivable and the continued struggles of the Oilers to capitalize on home ice with only three games over .500 is proving a real destabilising factor.
Still holding out for a playoff spot is the very minimum the Oilers can do with a balanced team that promised so much after their heroic run to ninth in the Western Conference last year. Keeping together the core of that team while adding Erik Cole, the focus was on the continued nurturing of Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner while hoping Dustin Penner and Sheldon Souray could recover their pre Oiler form and justify their $9.7 million cap hit.
In that respect it’s proved a mixed bag, Hemsky has been spectacular in a breakout season but will once again miss out on playing 82 games and concerns grow over his inability to stay fit and Sheldon Souray battled past early struggles to provide useful offence but still looks more like a cannon for hire than a defenseman. Meanwhile Sam Gagner is undergoing the dreaded sophomore slump and has proved largely ineffectual on the second line and Dustin Penner continues to look like a young player weighed down by his wallet.
Fortunately inconsistencies have met with the unexpected offence of their young defensemen. With veterans Vishnovsky and Souray leading the way with 62 points, third year Tom Gilbert and former cameo star Denis Grebeshkov have added an addition 48 points with the four combining for 27 goals.
With the unusual three goaltender rotation that optimized the Oilers incoherent first half of the season coming to rest on veteran Dwayne Roloson, hopes are that the Oilers will recover some composure down the stretch and galvanise their current playoff ambitions.
Prediction: Recent home thumping by Buffalo aside, if Roloson can take the bull by the horns and secure the top spot the Oilers should make the playoffs but Edmonton are going to need disappointing forwards putting up some offensive numbers soon and they’re going to need tightening up on the blueline.
Seven long NHL years have past and with the Buckeye’s taking centre stage in Ohio the Blue Jackets had to stop being all about the hype. Indeed for all the bluster that surrounded Rick Nash since he first cut NHL ice the Jackets management have done a god awful job surrounding him with talent, or more to the point players not looking to cash a cheque. Overrated prospects and so-so net minding have all helped Rick Nash, arguably one of the leagues premier talents, become one of the forgotten men in the NHL.
But things are on the mend. Hired under Doug McLean, former cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock has been slowly building something alongside new GM Scott Howson. Still sporting a threadbare roster the Jackets have been all about control and physical defence taking a leaf from other successful thinly manned west coast sides such as Minnesota.
Furthermore a batch of youngsters worth caring about in the form of Jakub Voracek, Nikita Filatov and Derick Brassard and a supporting cast of dependable rogues such as Jason Chimera and Jared Boll have been aided by new faces like playoff scoring specialist RJ Umberger, cup winner Mike Commodore and workmanlike scorers such as Kristian Huselius. Little wonder that after a gelling process wielded a slow start the Blue Jackets look competitive for the first time in their existence.
Of course without netminding no NHL club is competitive and an awful start to the year for the established, albeit never bona fide, partnership of Leclaire and Norrena looked set to scupper the season once again, however Steve Mason’s ascendency has proved perhaps the real tale of the Jackets season. Drafted 69th overall in 2006, Mason had barely dipped his toes into a professional career outside the juniors when the call came from the desperate Jackets. Filling in for an injured Pascal Leclaire, Mason won all three games and went on to secure the number one slot since improving to 16-11-2 with an outstanding 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage.
Although Brassard’s early Calder cup pace has been sadly cut short due to a season ending injury the Jackets have done well to keep pace with the pack. Where the real test will come is the unquestioned longevity of a number of first and second year players taking up a considerable amount of roster space and their inexperienced fortitude down the stretch, particularly Mason. While many saw this year as a developmental season with an almost completely new team, the heralding of Rick Nash as the first Jackets drafted captain has seen the Blue Jackets catapulted into a tightly bunched mix whether they can maintain their run amidst injury and youth remains to be seen.
Prediction: With almost $5million in cap space and a flurry of descent prospects things certainly look rosy for the Jackets next season, as for 08/09 the Jackets would do well to keep pace and could sneak into 8th.
The Texas Enigma
Can you spell catastrophe? If not the Dallas Stars start to the year would have proved a tough one lexically as many had the Texans pegged as Pacific Division contenders but a 6-10-4 record left everybody looking to the bottom of the leagues standings contemplating only a second year out of the playoffs in eleven seasons. With the only notable exits being Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen from the last campaign, it was the arrival of Sean Avery that resulted in unforeseen consequences.
Souring the dressing room with errant comments, the exit of Avery having run his mouth once too often proved a turning point in the Stars season since going 14-7-3 getting them back into the playoff picture.
Of course Avery wasn’t the sole reason the Stars struggled so badly in the first quarter, a slew of serious injuries to team leaders such as Sergei Zubov and Brendan Morrow served to destabilise the line up. This was particularly evident at the back where aside from Stephane Robidas, the likes of Niskanen, Grossman and Hutchinson were putting up some ugly minuses and top liner Trevor Daley flattered to deceive. Meanwhile Marty Turco looked all at sea behind a weak defence his glove hand particularly suspect as he flapped in the .850 range.
All in all it was a combination of futility that took hold but since the shenanigans of early December the Stars have loosened up and are one of the most in-form teams in the league. With Ribeiro and Richards rediscovering their production from last year and an influx of quality youngsters to fill the holes vacated by Avery, Morrow and Hagman namely Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Fabian Brunnstrom the kick started offense has taken some of the pressure of the D. Subsequently Turco’s numbers have started to move in the right direction as has the teams.
Prediction: With two opposing first quarters one abject, one excellent, the Stars statistics are as good as reading tealeaves when it comes to measuring performance. On current pace the Stars should make the playoffs comfortably especially with a schedule in which they play 19 of their next 35 at home (where they have been extremely strong) against opposition around or below them. Expect them to pull clear of the battle and finish fifth.
Cal Clutterbuck and the Wild, Wild West
A Jacques Lemaire team worth watching? When the Wild lost three of last season’s four top points’ producers to trades and injury one would be forgiven for expecting the Wild to trap opponents and games into oblivion, but when Minnesota slipped to 28th in goals per game Lemaire demanded more offense. In response the Wild have opened up their offensive game while staying true to their defensive roots enduring behind only league leaders Boston and San Jose in goals against. How? The Wild are perhaps the most physical team in the league, where Derek Boogard was always a scary banger, Lemaire has recruited a middleweight agitator into the mix in the form of hard checking rookie and fan favourite Cal Clutterbuck who, aside from sporting the finest alliterative moniker since Zarley Zalapski, has acted as a counterpoint to the Wild’s forechecking two way play. The result has been the first exciting hockey seen in the Gopher State since the North Stars packed their bags and headed for sunnier climbs and while the goal scoring has remained at a premium, the high octane play adopted by the Wild has proved refreshing to those supporters who persevered after years of attrition based trap D.
Despite retooling the attacking game plan and the return of Owen Nolan from injury goals have still proved a struggle to come by and the problems have been compounded by the disappointing output of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, James Sheppard and Benoit Pouliot whom it was hoped improve their numbers given greater ice time. Even the glittering play of team leader Mikko Koivu is a tale of it’s own as Koivu is more renowned as a defensive forward as opposed to goalscorer.
Subsequently the onus fell on the defensive corps who luckily for the Wild has been firing on all cylinders. Far from flashy, Johnsson and Schultz have been standouts as solid shot eating blueliners while Brent Burns has offered up some two way flair and Zidlicky, with his cannon shot, has been a useful point man on the powerplay.
When all else fails the Wild have been able to count on Niklas Backstrom who has finally cast away his “underrated” tag to become one of the leagues premier goalkeepers. Where talk had been of Josh Harding vying for the starter’s role in pre seaon, now talk is of Backstrom being a Vezina candidate.
Prediction: The Wild are going to need Backstrom too, with no sign of the floodgates opening in the goal department the Finn will need to maintain his .925 save percentage and 2.24 GAA if the Wild are to stand a chance. Unfortunately Backstrom has looked noticeably jaded in recent contests and for all the hard work put in by the blueline, the Wild are still 19th for shots against per game. Expect Minnesota to slip to 10th or 11th by seasons end.
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
Who would have thought the return of Roberto Luongo would coincide with the Canucks entering freefall, for that matter who thought an ageing Mats Sundin would be able to pull them out of it?
Quirky has certainly been the mantra of management after an unimpressive foray into free agency was followed up by naming Luongo captain. Since its been a rollercoaster for the British Columbians who started the season with vigour heading to the top of the Northwest Division before see-sawing with the slow starting Calgary Flames; now the Canucks are left holding on after seven consecutive losses and only one win in ten.
It’s been a baptism of fire for Sundin, currently signed to a one year $8.6million contract, the legendary Maple Leaf has managed just three points in eight games while amassing a minus five and his arrival and media attention has done little to help a frustrated team who came to blows during a team practice drill last week.
In the meanwhile the Canucks once reasonable penalty killing unit has begun to disintegrate much like their defensive fortitude.
Up front the Canucks have become a one line team with the Sedin twins and only notable free agent Pavol Demitra providing the majority of scoring however the checking unit of Burrows, Kesler and Bernier have supplied some much needed energy.
At the back efforts had been made to toughen up one of the West softer defensive units and the grit of Shane O’Brien’s has been a bright spot as has been the production of Kevin Bieksa and Mattias Ohlund’s willing to sacrifice his body; but as a unit it feels like six character players devoid of leadership.
Indeed it’s all very underwhelming as the goodwill of the early season rubs of with the realities of roster deficiencies; Gillis is going to have to bolster big time in the offseason as the Canucks struggle to maintain average.
Prediction: The freefall will eventually end but the Canucks will find it hard to rediscover their early form even with Luongo in net. The jury is still out on Wellwood but if he can provide some secondary offence like he did at the close of 2008 the Canucks could pull it around but in reality it’ll be another early end of the year.
Once you head south of the Canucks in the Western standings playoff hopes diminish rapidly but with bottom placed St.Louis still within ten points of eight there is time for an epic run to the playoffs.
First up are LA, just six points out, the Kings are in the final stages of a lengthy rebuild. With a crop of youngsters headed up by Drew Doughty looking to end the Kings five year playoff drought the club are a goalie short of being realistic contenders. However if the Kings can find some attacking cohesion with lines that have struggled to gel consistently and add a true number one net minder in the off season expect them to challenge next year. This season it looks unlikely.
Next are the Avalanche, a freak accident to Joe Sakic and a youtube friendly arm break for Paul Stastny have effectively closed out the Av’s who haven’t been able to fill the gaps on a consistent basis although Ryan Smyth, Milan Hejduk and Wojtek Wolski have done their best. Net minding has been an issue with Peter Budaj rarely looking comfortable and Andrew Raycroft failing to capitalize on a good start. Regardless, the Av’s could finish above Vancouver but still outside the top 8.
Falling further back it seems Nashville are the team that have lost out in the face of Chicago’s resurgence and Columbus’ competitiveness in the cut-throat Central Division. Holding their own early on thanks to D’mens offensive contributions the loss of Radulov after the free agency free for all has left Nashville looking fragile up front and ultimately the lack of goals will see them finish in the bottom three.
Bringing up the rear St.Louis started so well, particularly as an offensive and special teams threat while Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer promised a tough defensive core. However season ending injuries to Johnson and Kariya and a lengthy lay off for Brewer not to mention the trading of point man Lee Stempniak and production fall-offs for Boyes, Tkachuk, McDonald and Perron have left the Blues dead in the water hoping for a good ball in the draft.