Yesterday was the East’s turn. Today we go West and peer into the fortunes of the fine fifteen in the NHL’s Western Conference.
There’s a greater separation from the bottom three to the pack, with a dozen points from the staggered Wild to the Ducks who this season invented the staggered and flailing look. And it’s another eleven points down from the 13th place Ducks to the cellar-dwelling Blue Jackets. In between sits Edmonton, thankful that they can joke that Taylor Hall is the boy who lived.
But for the dozen who are fifteen or fewer points behind the Red Wings, it’s time to decide on their course of action and February will prove to be clarifying. Teams like the Stars who have games in hand on the teams they are chasing though they are outside the playoffs now can control their own destiny to a degree.
Below the fold we’ll take a look at what the top eight contenders in the NHL’s Western Conference need to do during the month of February. Tomorrow morning we’ll wrap up the rest of the West.
Detroit Red Wings – Holders – Detroit looks out on its western skyline and surveys the challengers to its dominance. Make no mistakes, since the 1991-92 season, the Red Wings have only finished first or second in their division. They have never as a team tallied fewer than 93 points in every 82 game season played (the truncated 94-95 season lasting a mere 48 games still saw an impressive 70 point season) and oh by the way, they’ve won 4 Cups in that span. Thus endeth the 40 plus years in NHL wasteland that Detroit endured and the true rebirth of Hockeytown.
The Red Wings remain super loaded with depth throughout their lineup and defensemen who both lock down their end and contribute on offense as well. Then there is Jimmy Howard, who already has 30 wins on the season and a sparkling 2.03 goals against average.p
On offense, they have Pavel Datsyuk, of whom Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara thinks quite highly, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Henrik Zetterberg and Jiri Hudler. All of whom have put up at least 30 points to start the season. On defense they continue to be quarterbacked by Nicklas Lidstrom, who remains a top flight blue liner into his forties.
With their talent, they don’t need to buy. If they wanted to do a little window shopping, they might seek a stay at home defenseman to help on their slightly below average penalty kill. Barring injury, the Red Wings will not only make the playoffs, but they’ll have home-ice for some chunk of them and quite possibly nab their fifth Cup in the last 15 years. They certainly have the talent to do so. Luck, which they can’t deal for, or spend Mike Illitch’s pizza bucks to grab, will be the biggest factor in how far they go.
St. Louis Blues – Buyers – Thirteen games into this year the Blues were incredibly average. A middling mediocre squad about whom none would dare write effusive praise. And then the boom dropped on Davis Payne and into town strode Ken Hitchcock. Fortune favored the daring, and Doug Armstrong’s decision prompted a run to the top of the Western Conference. To call it a turnaround is to insult your run of the mill 180. This was a 540, with panache.
Few teams boast the youthful depth that powers the Blues. Averaging the ages of their top eight scorers and you arrive at 26 years old. Excise elder statesman Jason Arnott from that group of seven and you have an average of 24.4 years. Better still these Blues not only possess skill with the puck, they aren’t afraid to collide with their foes.
My fellow Puck Drunk Love scribe, Laura Astorian who follows the Blues on her own blog, observed the way the physicality, in particular shown by Barret Jackman has been contributing to the increasing frustration of their opponents.
That’s similar to the aggressive and frustrating play exhibited by the Bruins of Boston who blend scoring depth from all over the ice with a depth of bruising bangers, again from all over the ice, even the crease.
The Blues emergence is due in no small part to the increased skill their players are showing both in the neutral and attack zones. But they could benefit from another playmaker either up front or along the blue line to give them an increased chance of converting power play opportunities (13.45% good for 28th in the league).
Will Armstrong be bold in this opportunity as well? He should, but only if the talent available fits those needs and can be had at the right price. Carolina’s rumored asking price for Tim Gleason prior to signing him long-term yesterday was prohibitive. With all the potential buyers on the market, sellers are asking the world now, fully aware some will fade. The Blues are unlikely to dip out of contention, so waiting out their competition on the trade market will prove shrewd. But they can’t wait so long that they lose out on the puzzle piece that helps get them beyond the first round.
Vancouver Canucks – Holders though possibly (should be) Buyers – Vancouver continues to be a vexing opponent. But even more vexed are their passionate fans. Such talent, such ability, so close and yet so far. In 41 seasons, they have made trips to the post season 24 times and only thrice have they advanced to the Cup Finals. Only in their most recent appearance last June was it fair to say they were prohibitive favorites.
Long lingering whispers of goalie Roberto Luongo’s heart should have been dispelled by the march to last year’s Cup Finals. But again he protects the crease both from opposing scorers and the assaults from scribbling critics who continue to snipe about him. He continues to thrive, though at 32, he shares more time with Cory Schneider than any previous backup. Recall the stretch of four seasons between 2003 and 2008 when Luongo played more than 90% of his team’ games. Schneider seeing time in 19 contests is most assuredly a sign that things are a little different this year in Vancity.
What remains the same is the skill players and their quality. Henrik and Daniel Sedin continue to produce at a better than a point per game pace each. Alexandre Burrows adds a feisty punch to their line. Ryan Kesler’s second line keeps up the intensity of the first. And on defense their top two pairings are very good, with Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis providing a balance of two way play.
The Canucks are better than average both in scoring and defense. Their power play (23.04%) is best in the league. Their penalty kill (85.41%) is in the upper fifth of the league. They win faceoffs. And if they are up after two periods, they don’t surrender the lead. They don’t need anything.
As noted by the Fourth Period, Mason Raymond may be on the trading block, which suggests a willingness to shake things up some. Towards that end, I see some toughness as an ingredient the Canucks could benefit from.
Carolina’s Bryan Allen plays that lock down, stay at home defense with enough of a tough guy edge that prompts Cory Sznajder of Shutdown Line to opine, “[Y]ou could make a case that Allen has, in fact, outperformed [Tim] Gleason in some areas and would be also be a great addition to a team looking to make a final push towards the playoffs.” Pairing Allen with Edler would enable him to participate in more playmaking opportunities. Additionally, it would add a touch of toughness, that while not lacking, would benefit the team, especially if they encounter the Blues on the road to the Finals or if they make it and face another bruising physical opponent like the Rangers or the Bruins.
Nashville Predators – Holders, though possibly Buyers – The ability of the four teams atop the Central Division ensures that despite the four of the top five point totals in the Conference, two of these capable squads will likely square off in round one, in an epic battle of the ages. If the season ended right this moment that battle would pit the Predators and the Blues. Nashville’s quality offense is the unstoppable force and St. Louis’ defense marks the immovable object. A nice little matchup and one we should be lucky enough to enjoy.
We’ve talked about the Blues and the challenges they have on offense and in particular on the power play. Nashville is more balanced. Only Vancouver is better a man up. On the kill, the Preds are not world beaters, but they are better than average and if pitted against St. Louis’ inferior attack unit, they would shine.
So what else is working? Well for starters, Shea Weber. Quite possibly the guy with the inside track on this year’s Norris Trophy, Weber has been a force going both ways. He’s logged over 26 minutes of ice time a game and tallied 10 goals with 24 assists. With Weber on defense is Ryan Suter, posting another quality season, and exceeding his partner’s time on ice. Martin Erat leads a balanced scoring attack. And Pekka Rinne has been downright stingy in net.
Let’s get this out of the way, the Predators have been negotiating with Suter on an extension. As in all such instances, the inability to get a deal done allows whispers to persist that if negotiations are unsuccessful, he’ll be dealt. It’s possible. But their inspired play leading to this past weekend’s break suggests they push all in, rather than cash in their best known chip for tomorrow. Weber’s play has been outstanding. To separate the pair and not ride that play as far as it takes you is a wasted opportunity.
One area of weakness that often is exposed in the post season is on the faceoff. The Predators are mediocre in controlling the dropped puck. They have plenty of depth centering lines, so an upgrade their may involve moving one of their younger centers for a character guy who can provide an upgrade on faceoffs. Somebody like Gregory Campbell, who is unlikely to be moved by Boston.
Chicago Blackhawks – On a Buying Spree – Picking up Brendan Morrison from the Flames helps fix a second line that was unable to keep up with the Viktor Stalberg–Jonathan Toews–Patrick Kane first unit. With Toews, Dave Bolland and Jamal Myers entrenched on their respective lines; the second unit saw an assortment audition with none winning the award.
Dealt away was Brian Connelly, whose 126 points in 211 regular season AHL games as a defenseman makes him a good bet to earn minutes on the Flames blue line through the balance of the season. But he wasn’t going to crack the Chicago pairings. Especially as his skillset is a more offensive minded defenseman.
What the Blackhawks need is a lockdown defenseman to pair with either youngster Nick Leddy or veteran Steve Montador, with Niklas Hjalmarsson squaring off with the other. GM Stan Bowman acknowledged defense was an area of concern following the Morrison acquisition. They might be done, but there are solid odds, they are just getting started.
San Jose Sharks – Holders – The Pacific Division leaders find themselves in a similar spot as the Caps down in the Southeast Division. With two points between them and their divisional rival Kings (about whom you merely need glance down to read all about), the Sharks are the third seed but could easily find themselves the seventh seed or worse bounced entirely from the post season.
The talent remains unquestionably good. Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski lead the scoring attack. All four are natural centers, but due to the depth, Marleau and Pavelski find themselves on the wing. Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss have been a reliable tandem, with Greiss putting up better numbers than Niemi in about one-third the time. Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are three solid two-way defensemen. The talent doesn’t seem to need too much improvement.
But the Sharks need to concern themselves with improvement. The underlying numbers suggest they are growing more toothless. Their powerplay is a touch above average, but they are drawing 3.38 power play chances per game, which is less than the league average of 3.51, which means they are slightly less effective because they do not draw as many power plays.
By the same token, they mitigate the lack of effectiveness on the kill by not committing many penalties. They have allowed 134 power play opportunities against or 2.85 per game, significantly below the league rate of 3.51 per game. What those numbers suggest is a lack of aggressiveness, which could prove to be more lethal than any lack of talent or depth.
A character guy to anchor their energy line would help in that regard. Go out, give them a spark alongside Brad Winchester and frustrate an opponent into making a few mistakes. I’m not confident San Jose is thinking that way, so I suspect they’ll stand pat.
Los Angeles Kings – Buyers – The Kings recent upswing, jeopardizes San Jose’s spot atop the Pacific, but it also makes the Kings more enthusiastic shoppers as the deadline approaches. The Kings do have some needs. On balance, they have been laggards on offense and Jonathan Quick has been pressed to bail them out time and again. They have scored the same 111 they have allowed. And their ten losses either in overtime or the shootout suggests that they are much closer to mediocre than they should be comfortable with.
But then there’s Quick. He’s been the goalie of record for 84% of Kings games, posted the following insane numbers: .934 Save Pct., 1.93 Goals Against Avg., and six shutouts. Katie Baker talked Quick this week for Grantland and while she tabbed his season “frustrating”, with cause, what’s worth noting is that Quick’s season is why the Kings should buy at the deadline.
That he’s been every bit the brilliant guy that the Kings have needed him to be makes them a very dangerous playoff team. A hot goalie in the post season is the biggest determining factor in long Cup runs.
So what’s to blame for the mediocrity to date? The aforementioned uninspiring offense, leading to so many overtimes and shootouts, even when Quick has stood on his head and stopped almost all comers. The obvious solution is scoring depth. A few teams have cashed their chips in already. And as noted earlier today, Toumo Ruutu is available. Jeff Carter may be. With so many teams looking for blue line help, some skill up front may prove less costly than it normally does this time of year.
Minnesota Wild – Sellers, but possibly Holders – The tenuous grasp the Wild have on the eighth playoff berth has all the experts declaring the race for eighth in the West the one to watch down the stretch. There’s reason. Looking at their roster of talent and the competition, there isn’t a wow factor that jumps out like there is for almost all of the other Western Contenders – Datsyuk in Detroit, the Sedins in Vancouver, Weber in Nashville, the Toews line in Chicago, Quick in LA, Thornton and company in San Jose. And then you get to Minnesota.
And it’s wilderness.
Sure Mikko Koivu is a nice player, but he’s hurt and he’s not a franchise player. There’s Dany Heatley, and I guess you could make a case that he was that guy, but he’s running his lowest per game goal average of his career and the trend line is way, way down. Their lone all-star game rep was Nick Johnson and the big reason he was there was because he was a rookie (and, oh yeah, Koivu was hurt). You can talk about Niklas Backstrom, but point of fact, he is no Jonathan Quick. It’s a nice team, but there isn’t enough there there.
If I’m the Wild, I take the longview. The run to start the year was mighty fine. Build on that. Continue to develop players. But don’t mortgage your future because in your first 25 games you netted 33 points and in the 24 that followed you only grabbed 22. That’s not a team to go all in with. Smart moves at this deadline and in the offseason will make next year’s team the one you go all in with.
The rest of the West is due up next.