It has now been about 3 weeks since the puck dropped on both sides of the pond, putting us a little more than an eighth of the way through the season, and already a few story lines have started to emerge.
Among them are:
How deep do the issues go in Detroit?
Can Alex Ovechkin put up numbers to top what we have seen in the last two decades?
Is Sidney Crosby developing as a goal scorer, rather than the playmaker he has been in his first three years?
And is this the best crop of rookies since the post lockout Crosby-Ovechkin year?
All of those are important questions, which I will get to, but in my mind, there is one question that sticks out thus far in the 2009-2010 season. That question; is there a single dominant team in the NHL? There isn’t one team that sticks out, but let’s take a look at the contenders.
Pittsburgh- The champs are the obvious place to start, but to be honest, this team just doesn’t feel like a dynasty from what I have seen. The reasons to think that they could be are obvious, Crosby and Malkin are just going to get stronger as their top guys, players like Maxim Talbot and Jordan Staal are going to improve as secondary scorers, and Marc-Andre Fleury is only 24, anchoring the Black and Gold in net. Despite this, Pittsburgh has two problems.
The first is that I’m just not sold on their depth. Obviously it is hard to do better than Crosby and Malkin anchoring your attack, but over 82 games, many are bound to come down to the third and fourth lines. In my opinion, the Pens go about five forwards deep in terms of guys who can be expected to put up significant production (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Chris Kunitz). Beyond that, however, there isn’t anyone that you would bet on a 40 point season from. It wouldn’t shock to see Bill Guerin put up one more good campaign, or Tyler Kennedy step up and throw out some offense, but those are long shots, and you certainly wouldn’t bank on career role players like Ruslan Fedatenko and Matt Cooke or unproven entities like Chris (son of Ray) Bourque and Maxim Talbot (skilled, but has yet to break 30 points in the NHL) to step up.
(Two asides on their lack of depth:
1. I don’t think that you can absolutely bank on Jordan Staal for production either. He has averaged just under 40 points through his first three years, and didn’t crack the top 100 in scoring last year despite a career high in points, making him a decent fourth scorer, but not much better so far in his career. I’m not saying he is a bad player, just a bit overrated because of the name on his jersey. On the other hand, he is only 21, so I am not writing him off as a potential star.
2. I started that list of four with seven, but looking at their numbers last year, had to cut it down to five. Really, beyond Crosby and Malkin it isn’t an impressive crop offensively. 71 and 87 picked up a lot of the slack last year and will need to do so again.)
The second problem for the Pens is on the blue line. I really think that while Kunitz provides an excellent secondary scoring punch and some well needed grit, in the long run, trading Ryan Whitney will hurt. (Don’t get me wrong they got a cup out of the deal, which made them better in 2009, and should absolutely have done it, but it may not make them better in 2010, 2011 and beyond) Whitney was an extremely skilled defenseman, and the trade left them with one sure thing in Brooks Orpik, a emerging stalwart, one potential developing star in Kris Letang, an aging leader in Sergei Gonchar, who I am unsure will be productive much longer, and three question marks. Those slots will be filled with a combination of youngsters Alex Goligoski (split time between Scranton and Pittsburgh last year), former Dartmouth Big Green (and Deerfield Fightin’ Doors) standout and AHL All-Star a year ago Ben Lovejoy and (in my opinion) mediocre veterans Mark “The Pride of Wilmington Delaware” Eaton, Jay McKee and Martin Skoula. Not a particularly inspiring bunch.
Am I nitpicking here? Absolutely, but to say you expect a team to be dominant it should be a little bit harder than that to nitpick. I’m not saying the Penguins aren’t good, or even that they shouldn’t be considered the favorite (although I’m not saying that myself), only that they are not exactly a force quite yet.
Detroit- The most successful franchise of my lifetime (the past 20 years) certainly in hockey, perhaps in sports definitely needs to be considered among the elite, at least until it is proven that they don’t belong there. This year, though, I see them taking a step back. More on that later.
San Jose- I have made no secret about it, I do not pretend to be objective when it comes to the Sharks. Being as objective as I can, though, I really think that the Sharks have the best chance to be a dominant team in 2009-2010. The Sharks have more than enough scoring if they stay healthy. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see 45 or more points from at least 5 of the 6, perhaps all 6 of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe and even Rob Blake (sounds crazy, but consider 3 points through 6 games, 45 last year…less so at least for the 40 year old future HOFer).
As with the Penguins, depth is the issue. Boyle, Blake and Marc-Eduard Vlasic are all good enough to be in Team Canada contention, but major questions loom for the Sharks about the 5 and 6 slot on the blueline. These are only going to get worse if Doug Murray can’t recover quickly from what has been rumored to be swine flu. Youngsters will certainly fill out the slots, but there is any number of directions that coach McLellan could go with them.
Derik Joslin and training camp standout Jason Demers (who seems fairly entrenched, and has seen time on special teams) were in the lineup for Thursday night’s showdown in Washington, but other youngsters like Nick Petrecki and Mike Moore (excellent move, by the way, going with Mike rather than Michael) could potentially be called up to the big club. While all of these guys project to be good NHL defensemen, thus far only Demers has given them reason to believe that he is ready to not only stand in, but contribute to the D core.
Sharks fans were extremely harsh on Christian Ehrhoff, but the more astute patrons of HP Pavilion will likely miss his anticipation playing the rush (not many players were better at anticipating the dump in, and a large reason for the animosity was the glaring turn overs the Germany native was prone to, but they were largely a function of Ehrhoff being so adept at getting back to the puck and starting the play up ice, making the turnovers he did make much more obvious, but ultimately being invaluable to the breakout). While Lukowich never brought a whole lot to the table, and the salary dump enabled the Heatley deal, losing Ehrhoff may hurt (although having defended him countless times to less enlightened Sharks fans, his point per game pace in a bigger role in Vancouver is somewhat vindicating).
Up front, primary and secondary scoring aren’t an issue, but the third and fourth lines still leave some to be desired. With Pavelski and Tori Mitchell out of the lineup, and longtime cog Mike Grier back in Buffalo, summer additions Jed Ortmeyer, Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol will need help from a number of largely unproven Sharks. McLellan will need a combination of skilled guys like Benn Ferriero, Steven Zalewski, and possibly Logan Coture or Ryan Vesche (who are currently in Worchester) and grittier guys like Frazer McLaren and Brad Staubitz if they are going to have success beyond the Marleau and Thornton lines. It could happen, but it is way too early to say it will.
More importaintly, you probably haven’t heard of anyone on their blueline not named Mike Green (maybe Milan Jurcina or Tom Poti, but the point stands). Add that to shakey goaltending, as Varlamov has underwealmed this year after a strong post season last spring, opening the door for Jose Theodore to play in 6 of their first 8 games, just a few months after they decided he wasn’t the guy to take them to the cup. The end result is a good team, extraordinarily talented team at the top end, but with major issues, that will need a lot of guys to step up (and maybe an acquisition or two) if they want to be mentioned at the top of the NHL.
So to answer the original question, I really don’t think there is. I am, by all means, willing to admit to nitpicking here. These are all very good teams. The problem is that to be a great NHL team you need to be able to withstand the nitpick test. Right now, no one can do that
Piling On- More Problems in Michigan
The Wolverines are in the midst of what appears to be their second consecutive of spread-option-with-smash-mouth-players mediocrity, The Tigers couldn’t get out of the ALDS, the car industry is in trouble and the Lions are the Lions. Now, the residents of Michigan have yet another problem. The Red Wings are better than the 10 spot they occupy in the West, but I am not sure by how much.
This year’s Red Wings has serious issues. The first of which is clear and simple. Chris Osgood has always played great when it matters, but he is old and truth be told, was never a great player, just very good in the playoffs. The fact is, though, he isn’t going to get it done for the Red Wings between the pipes in 2009. It is no secret that the Red Wings had hoped to turn the franchise over to former Maine goaltender Jimmy Howard, but in the two games he has played this year, he has been quite frankly dismal. The end result is that the Red Wings are left with two goalies with save percentages below .900, and will probably need to make a move in net if they are going to have any chance to contend this season.
Their problems go past goaltending though. In order to contend, a team needs their best players to play like their best players. For Detroit, at least at forward, that meand Pavel Datsyuk and Henrick Zetterburg. So far, through 8 games, they have combined for exactly 1 goal. That simply won’t get it done. Detroit notoriously finds production from call ups like Darren Helm or Justin Abdekader, but those kind of players can only provide depth. Detroit lost 40 goals from Marian Hossa, 23 from Jiri Hudler, and doesn’t know when they will see the 34 from Johan Franzen again. Because of that, Detroit needs to see production from those two if they are going to have any chance to compete this season. They well could, but the Red Wings are no longer a sure thing in Detroit or atop the NHL standings.
There are guys who rack up a ton of shots because they will put it on net from anywhere, whenever they can (not that this is a bad thing). While he certainly loves to shoot, Ovechkin, who leads the league with over 7.2 a game (a pace that would shatter Phil Esposito’s record of 550 in a season) is not one of those guys. Alex is such a great player, his shots are a result of getting into a position where he can create a shot on goal every time he picks up the puck. He really should lead the league in both goals and shots for a long time because he is so good with the puck, even racking up assists despite not necessarily being a plus passer because of where he leaves it. It isn’t even fair to call him flashy, he is just incredibly quick and skilled. Impossible as it sounds, he has come a long way in the past year as a player, and is still getting better. At this point, I would be much less surprised if #8 doesn’t score 60 than if he scores 70. He is that good.
So that was my disgustingly gushing review of unquestionably the best goal scorer in the world. I am not prepared to call him the best player, because I still think Crosby does more things for his team, but Ovechkin has come in to his own offensively that no one could have seen coming, good as he was in his first couple of years.
Rather, Crosby simply seems to be developing (not unlike Ovechkin) to the effect that he has the puck more often in scoring position. This is a logical and natural progression for Sidney. He certainly has the talent to top 40 goals, and he will probably find 50 at some point in his career. The assists number is likely to rise, as Crosby is a once in a generation playmaker, but as Crosby becomes a better player, don’t expect it to be at the expense of his goal number.
The thing that caught my eye though was the distribution of teams, and the difference between the two conferences. In the West, Colorado actually has pulled out of the pack slightly, but beyond that, just two points separate the 2 spot from the 10. Out east, you have teams with 18 and 14 points (New York and Pittsburgh respectively), and the team in 9th place (Montreal) has just 10. There are also 2 teams below 5 points in the east, none in the west.
I was always a proponent of keeping Marleau with the captaincy. I wasn’t thrilled, frankly, when the C got taken off of his chest. I am happy to say, at this point, that I was wrong. I still think that Marleau is a leader on the team, and I think that anyone in the room would agree, but without the letter, Marleau is playing like a weight has been lifted.
Even without the center he started the year with, Marleau is looking primed for a career year. As I write this, he is tied with the two guys I am raving about as the best goal scorers of our lifetime (the second is down in the quick thoughts) for the league lead at 9 goals. Patty is unquestionably benefited from having two elite goal scorers, and perhaps the best playmaker in the league, on the Sharks top line, taking away the oppositions top defenders, but he is also playing the best hockey of his life, night in and night out. Marleau has points in 8 of the Sharks 12 games, and multiple points in 5 of them.
I saw something I found very interesting a few weeks ago with regards to Marleau. When asked who the best player on the Sharks was, Dany Heatley responded without hesitation, naming Marleau. I am really starting to believe that Marleau could be one of the 5 or 6 best players in the world, and that despite the production he has unquestionably brought in San Jose, he has underachieved the last few years. He took the captaincy right as he should have entered his prime, and it will be interesting to see if he becomes an even more productive player now that it is gone. Here’s hoping that I wasn’t just wrong about wanting him to keep the C, but way, way off.
With about 3:30 left in last Saturday’s game with Maxim’s old squad, the Russian swung across the defensive zone, picking up the puck along the blueline, and swinging to the boards as he picked up speed through the neutral zone. He went into the zone 1 on 2, and when Sabers defenseman Henrik Tallinder picked up the trailing Vyacheslav Koslov, 19 year old rookie Tyler Myers was overmatched on the ensuing 1 on 1. Afinogenov went from the outside, drew the puck through Myers, walking around him easily, and slipping to the net, roofing it past Patrick Lalim’s glove before Tallinder could get over and help Myers.
The goal received a fair smattering of boos from Afinoganov’s old fans, but personally I look forward to the 17 more goals he will get this season, 10 of which will be almost as extraordinary.
PASS OF THE WEEKS
From Afinogenov’s old chum, Derek Roy. On October 13th against the Red Wings, Roy picked up the puck with space in his own zone. Looking up ice from the top of his own left faceoff dot, Roy saw a streaking Thomas Vanek, but also saw 3 Red Wings blocking his passing lane. With a nifty toe drag, Roy flipped the puck over two outstretched arms, settling right on the stick of Vanek. The Sabers went in 2-1, and a centering pass bounced in, putting Buffalo up 3-1 en route to a 6-2 win.
This time, it was from an unlikely source. The overachieving (so far) Ottawa Senators were playing host to the Predators. Nashville had lost six games in a row, and in desperate need of a couple of points. They looked as though they were coming easily, as three first period goals put them in a comfortable position, holding a two period lead of 3-0, kept at 3 only by a number of brilliant second period saves by Patrick Lalime, who kept the Sens in the game.
In the third, though, things blew up. A two man advantage for the Senators let Chris Campoli tighten the game to 3-1 early in the third, and just three minutes later Nick Foligno brought it to 3-2. Just 8 minutes into the period, Milan Michalek continued the tear he has been on in Canada’s capitol, taking a pass at the top of the circle and beating Pekka Rinne to tie the game.
Shea Weber continued the scoring in the wild third, only to have Ottawa strike right back, making it 4-4 with 4 to play. After a delay of game and an unforgivable too many men penalty, Ottawa handed Nashville a 2 man advantage. The Predators capitalized, seemingly icing the comeback attempt by Ottawa with a Ryan Suter blast, with just 60 seconds to play.
The game appeared over, with the too many men penalty having 40 seconds more on it than remained in the game. Then, after many of the Senator faithful had already filed out to their cars, Rinne turned the puck over to Daniel Alfredsson. The vet fired the puck to the center of the slot, where Chris Phillips banged it home with just 2 seconds on the clock.
The overtime saw The Preds resume the powerplay, but Lalime was up to the task, and Ottawa and Nashville traded opportunities 4 on 4. Finally, the Predators got the two points they desperately needed, when Shea Weber scored his second of the game, and despite an incredible comeback and a 7 goal third period, the Senators took just 1 point, with Nashville getting the win on the road.
As for the end of the play, Don Cherry was quick to criticize “the Swedes” for avoiding the dust up and going for the scoring chance, but with due respect to Cherry, I kind of agree with the announcers that Sedin may have had a point about the scoring chance being taken away. There would have been someone there if not for the fight, but it probably could have been a 1-1, 2-1 or even partial breakaway.
- It took Colin Wilson a while, but he finally found the scoresheet for his first goal in the NHL. He has been playing well though, and if he goes to the net like he did on the tally more, he will find plenty more goals.
- Not too much in here about the standings. New York’s start is obviously interesting, but I can’t read into Detroit being in 12th in the Western Conference, or Colorado leading the West. If you want to talk about the standings, talk to me in a month, but feel free to make it two.
- If you have been watching sportscenter or anything of that nature, you have probably seen the fluky goal scored by Jeff Schultze the other night against Atlanta. If you didn’t, Schulze tried a long stretch pass from the corner of his own zone. The pass couldn’t be handled, but the puck started to skip at some point, and it bounced passed the Atlanta goaltender Ondrej Pavlec, who had just replaced Johan Hedberg.
There really isn’t much to say about the goal itself. The puck was bouncing, it happens once or twice a year. Obviously Pavlec would like to have the play back, he didn’t really get in front of the puck which allowed the puck to skip past him, andhaving come off the bench just 4 minutes earlier certainly didn’t help, but like I said, it happens once or twice a year.
To me, the interesting thing, although unsurprising, is that Washington then scored two goals in the next two minutes (that’s two more, three in total). There is nothing more demoralizing than a soft goal. NHL hockey games are hard enough to win as it is, and if your goaltender lets in shots he should stop, it makes it feel like an uphill battle. If a team doesn’t feel like they can win by doing their job and keeping the shots to the outside, the effect of a goal like that can be two fold. The long goal certainly swung that game, and at the end of the day it is actually pretty impressive that the Thrashers rallied enough to bring it to 5-4.
- Even despite the amount of attention that he gets, Ilya Kovalchuk continues to be the most underrated player in the NHL. Kovalchuk is in his 8th season in Atlanta, having amassed over 300 goals, and he is only 26 years old. That is with a lockout. He has a very good chance of getting to 500 by the age of 30, something that only two people in the history of the National Hockey League has accomplished (Kovalchuck, Bossey and Gretzky…a list that could soon be upon us, truly mind bending). At 26 years of age, it is entirely possible that his 9 goals in 7 games pace is simply doe to him being that good, rather than some small hot streak.
- The implications of that last paragraph are that Russia will have the services of the two best goal scorers in a generation this February in Vancouver. That team will have more flaws than people realize, but that sort of firepower is staggering.
7. Washington Capitals- A good start, but they are relying too much on offense. I can’t put them too high until they figure out a goaltending situation.
6. San Jose Sharks- An inconsistent start is keeping them out of the top 5, but I would be shocked if they aren’t back there in the next rankings two weeks from now.
5. Chicago Blackhawks- The only team at the top of their division that wouldn’t shock me if they stayed there, plain and simple.
4. Calgary Flames- A hot start from the Aves has put them in the 4 seed. They will take over by mid November.
3. Buffalo Sabers- Lead the Northwest Division, despite having played just 8 games. They have had a lot of talent the last couple of years, it may be coming together.
2. New York Rangers- Great start, would be in first place if not for division rival…
1. Pittsburgh Penguins- The title defense is off to a great start. They are the best team in the NHL until proven otherwise.
24. Tampa Bay Lightning- Is it possible to be a paper tiger at 10th in the conference?
25. Carolina Hurricanes- They won’t be here for long, but a hot start from some bad teams has them on the naughty list.
26. Nashville Predators- An early 6 game losing streak has them in the same position as the ‘Canes.
27. Minnesota Wild- It is hard to blame losing Gaborik when he missed so much time the last few years, but he was an extraordinary talent that they don’t have at their disposal.
28. Florida Panthers- Jay Boewmeister is a big loss on the blue line. People weren’t joking when they said it was probably a one year window for last year’s team.
29. New York Islanders- Probably 2-3 years away, more if they can’t figure out DiPietro. Only 1 win for the team with the best prospect since Crosby (Tavares).
30. Toronto Maple Leafs- A truly terrible hockey team. 0 Wins is very appropriate. More on them next column.
Honorable mention- Patrick Marleau, Anze Kopitar
Honorable Mention (same criteria)- Jason Demers, Matt Duchene, James VanRiemsdyk
Honorable Mention- Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson
Buffalo, as I said in the top/bottom, has had some potential for the last couple of years. Craig Rivet is one of the best captains in the league, and players like Drew Stafford, Roy and Jason Pominville are legitimately underrated. I will be very curious to see where they are the next time I am writing this.
Finally, a note explaining this whole debacle (since I hate doing the short posts explaining things)
I watch a ton of hockey. Most of it is online, because the combination of the NHL’s TV contract and Santa Clara University’s cable system results in a hellish quagmire rivaled only by the American healthcare system (games are being recorded, I have the means of watching those recordings, and they have the means of providing these recordings but I can’t get them, just like we have doctors, we have medicine and we have sick people, but somehow we can’t get sick people doctors and medicine as evidenced by my trip to 5 different medical centers for a broken hand…but I digress), the effect of which is between zero and zero NHL games being on my cable each week. None the less, as a resourceful user of the internet, I manage to watch my share (fine, 2-3 games a night and highlights for at least 90% of games is way more than my share, but whatever) of hockey in the form of bootleg ustream broadcasts, Yahoo’s webcasts, and NHL.com highlights.
In addition to that, I understand hockey. I may not be the leading expert on the game, or anything like that, but I have played a lot of hockey, and I have watched even more. On top of that, I love breaking down the game. Anytime I watch a hockey game with someone, I will likely fill their head with useless information that they, unfortunately, can’t unlearn. But that is their problem. And now it is yours, because from now on, I am going to be posting a bi-weekly wrap up of all things hockey. In fact, that’s what I am calling it (unless/until I think of a better name).
The goal of this column is (roughly) to emulate Peter King’s MMQB. Obviously, I don’t want to rip off King directly, and I fully intend to make it my own. Equally obviously, I don’t have the wherewithal, experience, time or contacts to actually replicate King’s column, but what I am doing will be heavily influenced by that column. Once again, it is not in any way a rip off, but that would definitely be the comparison I am looking for.
The fact is, I don’t have time to churn out 5000 words a week, and honestly, it would get a bit dull when some teams have only played 2 games in an 82 game schedule, but I will do my best to go every 2 weeks, at the least it will be every 3. Anyways, hope it is enjoying and informative.