The Detroit Red Wings are one of the NHL’s proudest franchises, and by season’s end we might see another demonstration of that. Right now though, the Red Wings are kind of puttering along. They have 50 points, which puts them as one of a group of eight teams jousting for five playoff berths in the Eastern Conference (Pittsburgh, Boston and Tampa Bay having separated themselves at the top).
Are the Red Wings destined for mediocrity in 2014, or will we see a turnaround? Let’s take a closer look at what they’ve done and speculate on what might lie ahead.
Detroit had problems offensively all last year, as they barely scraped into the playoffs, before finding themselves to upset 2-seed Anaheim and scare the hell out of 1-seed Chicago. I was willing to write off some of the offensive woes due to the strange nature of the2013 NHL season—the lockout meant minimal preparation, and the shortened season meant not enough games for things to balance out. It was to be expected we would see anomalies.
The early returns this year suggest it was no anomaly. Detroit is 20th in goals scored, and with their ability to generate shots only ranking 17th, you can’t write it off to bad luck. Daniel Cleary is not productive, nor is Daniel Alfredsson, the forward acquired from Ottawa in the offseason to spruce up the attack.
To make matters worse, Pavel Datsyuk, one of the team’s consistent threats over the years, and with 15 goals/34 assists this season, is now out indefinitely with a lower body injury (NHL injury reports are always vague—Bill Belichick would love coaching in this league). The Wings have been further hurt by the loss of forward Johan Franzen to a concussion, and no timetable for his return.
The defensive situation is better, but not sufficient to overcome a bad offense. Detroit ranks 14th in goals allowed, and is marginally better at shot prevention, where they rank 11th. Goaltender Jimmy Howard has dealt with injuries of his own this year, and is only 26th in save percentage, at 91.3%.
If Howard gets healthy and back to being the top ten goalie that he is, that can lift the defensive ranking. And Detroit does excel at killing power plays, a trait that will keep them in a lot of games. Nor can we overlook the offensive contribution that continues to be made night-in, night-out, from the magnificent Henrik Zetterberg, who has 37 assists.
This is still a team that knows how to play fundamental hockey and moves the puck, as the assist numbers of both Zetterberg and Datsyuk prior to his injury demonstrate. The question right now is whether that’s enough. If this were any other organization, I would say no. Because it’s the Detroit Red Wings, we have a reasonable basis for assuming they’ll come up with solutions, and if they sneak into the playoffs as a low seed (6 thru 8), it’s about the last thing any of the favorites would want.
The NHL Metropolitan Division has thus far been defined by dominance from the favorite and injuries holding back other potential contenders. The Pittsburgh Penguins are off and running to another big year, and have a 12-point lead in this division. But in the rest of the Metropolitan leaves this division confined to only the minimum three teams in the playoffs.
With the new NHL alignment having just two divisions per conference, the top three are guaranteed postseason spots, but the final two berths in the East can go either way. As of today, the NHL Atlantic Divisionwould get five teams in. Here’s how the rest of the Metropolitan is shaking out…
*The Washington Capitals are a solid second with 41 points, although that’s only two points better than the fifth-place team in the Atlantic, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
*Philadelphia would be in the playoffs as the third-place team with 36 points, but the Flyers have both the Carolina Hurricanes and the New Jersey Devils just one point back, the New York Rangerstwo back and the Columbus Blue Jackets are at 32.
*The big disappointment is the New York Islanders, a playoff team a year ago, who only have 27 points and a long row to hoe to get back in sniffing distance of the 8-seed in the East.
Injuries are a big factor. Columbus has been without forward Nathan Horton all year, and Marian Gaboriki has also been banged up. Horton and Gaborik were supposed to provide scoring punch to a defense-oriented team, although with Horton’s injury history I’m not sure what else the Blue Jackets were expecting.
The Rangers are missing Ryan Callahan with a knee injury and that won’t change until next month at the earliest. Philly lost defenseman Chris Pronger at the start of the year, and even Pittsburgh hasn’t been immune. The Pens are missing Kris Letang, one of the league’s best passing defenseman.
The NHL Atlantic Division is out to a strong start as the best division in the Eastern Conference. This is the year of realignment in the NHL, with two divisions per conference, rather than three, and the new playoff format makes division strength a significant issue.
Each division is guaranteed its top three teams in the postseason, with only the final two berths able to float. As it stands today, the Atlantic Division would get the maximum of five teams in the playoffs–Boston, Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Toronto would all qualify.
To further underscore the point of division strength, sixth-place Ottawa would be in fourth in the Metropolitan Division, and only three points out of the playoffs.
The Boston Bruins are setting the pace in the Atlantic with 46 points, and their archrival Montreal is right behind at 43. Montreal was a surprise division winner of Boston in last season’s alignment, and the Canadiens early success suggests they’re back to stay as a contender.
Tampa Bay is sitting on third, but with Steven Stamkos out indefinitely with a serious leg injury, you have to wonder how long that will last. Stamkos is more than just the best player for the Lightning, he’s one of the most electric scorers in the league, rivaled perhaps only by Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
Hockey in the New York Tri-State area has no shortage of excitement going right now, with the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils are battling around the borderline of the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s possible all three could make it, and it’s possible all three could miss. Although neither extreme is likely, it adds to the drama these final seventeen days of the regular season. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will compare all three teams in each phase of the game.
OFFENSE: The Islanders have been one of the league’s surprise teams, as they fight for relevance for the first time since their dynasty of the early 1980s. They’ve done with an offense that’s one of the NHL’s ten most prolific, and the best of the group is center John Tavarez. He’s an elite scorer and a very good passer. Tavarez gets support from forward Matt Moulson, with some complementary help coming from Brad Boyes passing the puck and Michael Grabner lighting the lamp. This team does a good job both generating shots and finishing.
It’s the Rangers who’ve had a lot of problems scoring goals, but the big caveat we have to note is that there is a significant discrepancy between the number of shots they get (6th in the NHL) and the number of goals they score (23rd). Remember, if this were a normal season, we’d only be at about the halfway point, and likely to dismiss this as a statistical fluke that would work itself out, and likely in favor of more goals being scored. That’s got to give Eastern Conference powers pause if they contemplate the Rangers as a first-round opponent.
It’s also an offense that’s undergone some changes. The team acquired Rick Nash from Columbus during the offseason and he’s a solid scorer. Then at last week’s trade deadline they shipped out last year’s main scorer, Marian Gaborik, also to Columbus, completing what amounted to a de facto trade. Derek Stepan and Brad Richards are good passers at the center spot, and Stepan can also score. Ryan Callahan has been an adequate scorer at forward, but is a prime example of a player who can significantly lift his game before this is over.
New Jersey lost Zach Parise in the offseason to Minnesota, and Ilya Kovalchuk has been down with a shoulder injury. Those were the two best offensive players on the team that came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last year, and their absence/injuries really shows. The Devils are below average at getting shots and even worse at converting. There’s nothing positive to speak of at center, where action has to flow from on most good offenses, and while Patrik Elias is a nice player, he’s better served in the complementary role he had last year. Kovalchuk’s expected back in a few days, but with the Devils already being in 10th in the East, that could be a few days too late.
DEFENSE: This segment starts with the Rangers, who are the one team in the Tri-City Trio that really excels at shutting down opponents. Due primarily to Henrik Lundqvist in goal, the Rangers are a top five team in goal prevention. Lundqvist has taken some heat for playoff losses, but don’t overlook the fact that if this year’s team gets in, it will be heavily on his shoulders, because the defense in front of him is mediocre. Some of it is due to injuries at the defenseman spot, but whatever the reason, the Rangers are below average at stopping shots, while being elite in stopping goals. That tells you something pretty good about the goalie.
New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur is a legend in the sport, with three championships to his name, plus a couple more trips to the Finals, including last year. I hold him in high regard, but that can’t stop us from pointing out the obvious—he’s just that not good anymore. His 90.8% save rate might sound good to basketball fans who correlate it to free-throw shooting, but in reality that ranks him at the bottom of regular NHL goalies. The defense is doing a great job limiting his exposure, and in any one-game shot I’d never bet against a proud veteran with Hall of Fame credentials—ask the Florida Panthers about last year’s Game 7 in the first round—but over the long haul, there’s no denying Brodeur’s significant decline.
If the Islanders don’t make the playoffs it will be because of their goaltending, and whenever they lose it will be because of it. Evgeni Nabokov’s save percentage is down there with Brodeur’s, and in this case, there’s no reason to think the Islander netminder could gut it up for one big game when it really mattered. The defense in front is decent, but not dominant enough to bail out a bad goalie.
5-ON-5/POWER PLAY: The Rangers and Islanders are the study in contrasts here. The Rangers have the most success in regular 5-on-5 play, while being subpar in both converting their own power plays and killing the oppositions. The Islanders aren’t very good in standard play and are mediocre killing penalties, but have excelled when they enjoy a man advantage. New Jersey just hasn’t played very well in any situation, which explains why at this writing, they are the one team of this group that would miss the playoffs.
I prefer the Rangers’ numbers when it comes to projecting long-term success, with the precondition that the team must improve its ability to kill penalties. But when your offensive is reliant on the power play to score, that places you at the mercy of how a game is officiated, and as the playoffs progress, it’s less likely that a good team will give you a lot of chances.
CONCLUSION: If you had never followed hockey before and looked at these teams’ basic statistical profiles, I’d suggest that you would say the Rangers have the best long-term potential, with the Islanders close behind and the Devils a very distant third.
If you do follow hockey and have some context, I’d say the Rangers’ edge becomes even wider—we can reasonably assume their offense will get better and there’s at least a decent chance the penalty kill will improve. And with that same context, I’m hesitant to dismiss the Devils, especially with Kovalchuk’s return imminent. But if anyone in the Tri-State area makes noise this spring, it’s going to be the Rangers. Now, it’s just a question of whether they earn the chance over these next 2 ½ weeks.
It’s been quite a dry spell for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The franchise last won the Stanley Cup in 1967 and in the intervening years they’ve never made it back to the Finals, and only reached the conference finals a total of four times. An even bigger mark of ineptitude is the seven straight years they’ve missed the playoffs—let’s call it the ‘Curse of Gary Bettman’, since that covers the entire period since the 2005 season was cancelled. Today though, Toronto is hanging in the NHL Eastern Conference playoff race, in the #7 position. TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis today will focus on whether the Leafs are finally for real as a playoff team.
Let’s begin by looking at the foundation point: the play of last year’s Leafs. They finished 13th in the Eastern Conference, five spots and 12 points out of the postseason and were never really acontender. The defense was awful, the second-worst in the NHL at allowing goals. On a directly related point, the ability to kill penalties was non-existent and on the offensive side, Toronto tended to rely on the power play. They were one of the NHL’s worst teams in standard five-on-five play, meaning their chances of winning games basically depended on how a game was going to be officiated.
Everything in the sport of hockey ultimately points to the goaltender, so it won’t come as a shock to note that the biggest factor in Toronto’s improved play is much better work by the goalies. James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have split duty, and while neither is going to remind anyone of Jonathan Quick anytime soon, the Leafs are at least getting competent work. The penalty kill now ranks in about the middle of the league.
Toronto’s offense is an upper-third unit in terms of overall rank in the NHL, just as it was last season. What’s more important though, is that the Leafs aren’t nearly as dependent on the power play for producing goals. They now rank in ninth in the NHL in five-on-five action, giving them a much better hope for consistency each night.
When you break the offense down individually you find a unit that doesn’t have star power, but does have pretty good balance. Nazem Kadri at center, and flanked by forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk and all rank in the top 60 of the NHL in points. Kadri and Kessel have done it by passing, while van Reimsdyk has scored 11 goals. If you dig into the second, third and fourth lines, you find contributions from two left-wingers, Clarke MacArthur (five goals) and Nikolai Kulemin (10 assists), right-winger Matt Fratton (seven goals) and centers Tyler Bozak and Mikhail Grabovksi, who have combined for 11 goals and 10 assists.
And when we say Toronto has no star power, that’s based on current production. Kessel is a very talented offensive player and if he were to break out and elevate his game, it brings a whole new dimension to the Leafs’ offense.
That’s all the good news. The bad news is this—we’ll start with the number of games Toronto has played, second-most among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. In a league where the standings are done by point total rather than winning percentage, additional games skew the results. The Leafs have played three more games than the nearest contenders just outside the playoff bubble. In fairness, they have a five-point lead, so that means teams that aren’t playing well would suddenly have to win all three. Nonetheless, it means that while Toronto’s play to date is legitimately playoff-caliber, it’s closer than the point standings alone would indicate.
The second concern is how much of the play to date is going to be sustainable. The stats that concern me the most are that Toronto is 24th in the NHL at both generating shots on goal and preventing them. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to continue scoring enough to win at that rate, and on the defensive side it puts a lot of pressure on Reimer and Scrivens on goal—pressure neither has show the ability to handle for a full season.
You can tell I’m skeptical of seeing Toronto finally break their playoff drought this year, but next week will be an important testing time for them, with four games against legitimate playoff-caliber competition. The Leafs host New Jersey on Monday, then play back-to-back games against Northeast Division rivals Ottawa and Boston, the latter of which is on the road. Then on Saturday Toronto comes back home to face Pittsburgh. By late Saturday night, Leafs fans will have a good sense of whether to get their hopes up, or just to redirect their attention to baseball and the new-look Blue Jays.
But whether you’re skeptical or not, whether this team meets its test or not, at least the Toronto Maple Leafs have given the fan base some hope as the season reaches the halfway point. That, in of itself, says plenty.
We’re almost one-third of the way through the lockout-shortened NHL season and the Washington Capitals have to feel a sense of urgency. The Caps are only four points behind in the race for the last playoff spot, and as this article goes online, they play head-to-head with the New York Rangers, currently the team holding the cutoff spot at #8. But Washington also opened Sunday in 15th place among 15 Eastern Conference teams, meaning it will take some sustained winning to leapfrog everyone else. Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with the Caps this year and how it compares to the last two years.
The problem isn’t on the offensive end. While Alex Ovechkin hasn’t really cut loose yet, with five goals and five assists, he’s at least productive. And the rest of the Washington front line is very balanced and deep when it comes to scoring threats. Joel Ward has five goals on the opposite wing of Ovechkin, as does Troy Bouwer. The passing is excellent, with centers Mike Riberior and Nicklas Backstrom, along with forward Jason Chimera, doing a good job getting the puck to the scorers. Washington can attack from any point on the ice and do it two lines deep.
Washington is 10th in the league at lighting the lamp, so clearly it’s not goal-scoring that’s the problem. That only leaves one other possibility and the defensive end has been a disaster in the early part of the season. The Caps are 29th in a 30-team league at stopping goals. Most of the blame for this falls, as you might expect, on the goaltenders. Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have split time and been equally ineffective.
Furthermore, the defense in front of the goalies has not exactly been stellar. While the Caps aren’t rock-bottom awful at preventing shots, they’re still in the lower half of the league. Thus, you have a team that leaves it goalies exposed, and those goalies aren’t any good. Yes, that would qualify as a problem.
If we flip back to the offensive side, you might say things are actually going to get worse, because Washington’s scoring ranks significantly above its ability to generate shots on goal, normally two stats that merge together. However, I’d go to bat for the Caps on this one—the same phenomena existed last season, and it’s not unusual for teams with a signature offensive star (in this case Ovechkin) to be able to convert goals at a rate higher than their total shots would suggest. And in fact, Washington is doing a better job getting shots this year than was the case a year ago.
What’s most alarming about this franchise though, is the way the defensive play has fallen off steadily for two consecutive season. The 2011 Caps were a vintage team that got the #1 seed in the East before losing in the second of the playoffs. Last year’s team got some respect for winning a playoff round over Boston as an underdog, but it was still a second-round exit and the team was obviously worse throughout the regular season, coming in as the #7 seed. Now the Caps are sitting on #15. Their ranking in goals allowed has gone from 4th to 21st to 29th over this timeframe, with the ability to prevent shots going from 9th to 16th to 19th.
Thus, while the loss of goalie Semyon Varlamov after 2011 obviously hurt, and seeing last year’s main goalie Thomas Vokoun performing at least respectably in Pittsburgh, the Caps can’t ignore that the defensive play has been a team-wide problem. Maybe the 22-year-old Holtby is just going through some growing pains and can find the insanely hot mojo he had in the Boston playoff series a year ago. Because that’s what it’s going to take. Fixing a team-wide defensive epidemic takes time, and time is not something that’s on Washington’s side in a season where there’s no time to dig out of a hole.
Eight more days. That’s how much time is left in the NHL regular season, which wraps up on Saturday, April 7. The Eastern Conference race looks to be stabilizing, while the West appears ready for a wild crackup in the Pacific Division. The SportsNotebook summarizes the landscape for fans distracted by March Madness and the onset of baseball season…
Washington and Buffalo are tied for the last playoff berth in the East, and it’s fair to say these two cities haven’t been on each others’ minds this much since the Redskins and Bills dominated the NFL all year long in 1991 and ultimately met in the Super Bowl. This historical reference is my coping mechanism as a Redskins fan. Our present state of affairs is so porous that I’m desperate for any reason I can find to insert 1991 into a discussion and the year that ended with a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 37-24 win in the Super Bowl.
While the Capitals and Sabres are tied in points, Buffalo does have one additional game left. They play Pittsburgh tonight. Then on Saturday, both contenders are in action, as the Sabres get NHL Network coverage in Toronto at 7 PM ET, and Washington hosts a Montreal team that’s in disarray. As a Bruins fan, seeing Montreal in disarray is only slightly less enjoyable than seeing the Lakers and Cowboys in disarray. Which is only slightly less enjoyable than seeing the Yankees in disarray. And once the latter happens, I can die in peace.
Anyway, back to hockey and away from my personal musings, the rest of the East is pretty well set. The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins appear to have staved off divisional challenges from Pittsburgh and Ottawa respectively and will likely be seeded 1-2 in the East bracket. Florida’s comfortable in the Southeast Division and will probably be #3. The Penguins and Flyers look headed for a 4-5 series, and while Pittsburgh holds a two-point lead right now, home ice is very much up in the air for that one. New Jersey is settled in at #6. It’s possible any of these could change, but with just a handful of games left, it would take a dramatic move to upset the applecart beyond who’s #8.
Now that wild, wild, wild West. Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose are still separated by one point. There’s still only room for three of the four in the playoffs and that number could be reduced to two. Some of the pressure has been eased by Colorado’s four-game losing streak. The Avalanche are still just two points back of the Pacific quartet, and Calgary’s three points back, but in this race, being up two points seems like a lot. Of the Pacific Four, Dallas and Phoenix are tied for first at 89 points, while Los Angeles and San Jose are at 88. The division would pick up the 3, 7 & 8 seed positions if they can hold off Colorado and Calgary.
Dallas is the team under the gun this weekend. They visit Vancouver tonight and then have a road trip to San Jose. Even stealing one win from this road swing would be a huge relief for the Stars. Phoenix’s next game is on Sunday against lowly Anaheim. Los Angeles is the team you have to wonder about—they have the opportunity in front of them, with games against Edmonton and Minnesota, both non-contenders. But both games are on the road and teams like the Kings are ultimately in the position they’re in because they haven’t been consistent. Los Angeles needs to step up and get two take-care-of-business kind of wins. On the outside of this group, Colorado visits Calgary tonight in a game that has all the earmarks of a de facto elimination battle. The best case for the Pacific teams would be for Calgary to win there, and then go lose at Vancouver on Sunday, with the Canucks playing well, sitting at #2 in the West and still just two points back of St. Louis and New York for the best record overall.
Elsewhere in the West, the biggest note would be that Chicago has finally given its fans room to breathe. The Blackhawks had been sitting in the 6-spot and had the Pacific Four at arm’s length, but a strong 7-1-2 run in their last ten games have put seven points of distance between Chicago and the end of the playoff ladder. It looks like the Blackhawks will pair up with whoever wins the Pacific. The Blackhawks could move up to #4—they’re only two points back of Detroit. But here’s the question: Given that the #6 seed gets the Pacific champ even though the division winner will be one of the three worst teams in the draw, are you better off being there, rather than moving up to the 4-5 matchup? It would certainly seem so. I never like to suggest teams should lose, as I think an anti-competitive mindset within is more dangerous than any opposition from without. But if you’re a fan with vested interests in the Detroit-Nashville-Chicago trio, there’s no reason to get too worked up about being #6, unless you’ve got access to playoff tickets and want the 4-spot and an extra home game.
The NHL’s regular season only has two weeks left, ending on Saturday April 7, and the Pacific Division is nowhere closer to being settled, with four teams stacked within two points of each other, and current playoff standings allowing only three of them to survive. The Pacific Division race is just the biggest highlight, as TheSportsNotebook seeks to make sure readers don’t lose sight of hockey amidst the Madness that is March.
Los Angeles and Phoenix are tied atop the West with 86 points, a point up on Dallas and two on San Jose. Here’ the rub—the LA/Phoenix loser and Dallas hold the last two playoff spots, so not only is San Jose out, but to get in there’s no getting around they have to take out a fellow Pacific member. Which I’m quite certain troubles no one in NoCal, but it’s rare for the NHL to have a division championship race of such high consequence. Saturday will be a big day in this race. Dallas faces Calgary—who by the way is only two points out of the playoffs. Los Angeles hosts Boston, who will not playing up to their #2 in the East standing, have stabilized a bit over the last week. San Jose and Phoenix go head-to-head in the Bay Area in a huge hockey game that would be worth for Center Ice subscribers, given that the puck will drop out west after the NCAA’s regional finals action is over. Then on Sunday there’s no rest for Phoenix who has to quickly come home and face St. Louis—who happens to be the best team in the league.
Oh, and if all this doesn’t make the four-team Pacific race dynamic enough, Colorado is joining Calgary in the fight to push a second division team out of the postseason. The Avalanche are tied with the Stars for the 8-spot, even if they’d lose a tiebreaker today. Colorado has a stiff test at home against Vancouver on Saturday night. I know the good people of Denver got some good news on the NFL front this past week, but don’t forget your hockey team when they need you.
The East’s race for the bottom isn’t nearly as packed, but the battle between Washington and Buffalo is no less intense. The Capitals hold a one-point lead and host Winnipeg tonight, while the Sabres have a tough trip into Madison Square Garden to play the East-leading New York Rangers. Then the Minnesota Wild will try and be a spoiler in the East, as they go to Buffalo on Saturday, then Washington on Sunday.
While the unpredictability of the NHL postseason make the race just to get in the most important, and while seeding position might not carry the same weight it does in the NBA, you’re surely better off with home ice then without, and there’s more races within the playoff teams that look likely to go to the wire. Pittsburgh has closed to within one point of New York in the Atlantic Division, and the winner of that race gets the #1 seed. The loser will be slotted at #4. The Penguins are still the hottest team in hockey, 9-0-1 in their last ten and with the return of Sidney Crosby, a sure favorite for NBCSN when the playoffs start. Boston keeps holding off Ottawa—the standings still show these teams will meet in a 2-7 series, although Florida continues to nip at Boston’s heels for the two-spot. Ottawa plays at lowly Montreal tonight, but then has Pittsburgh in town on Saturday. The Bruins wrap up a west coast trip with the aforementioned Saturday game in the Staples Center, then a visit to a bad Anaheim team.
And is any team skidding backwards into the playoffs faster than Detroit. Once the toast of the league and indeed a lot of the sports world for their record home winning streak, the Wings have lost six in a row, have been blown out by St. Louis in the Central Division and may no longer have home ice. With 93 points, they hold down the 4-spot, but Nashville and red-hot Chicago are both just one point back. Although with the winner of the shaky Pacific guaranteed the 3-hole, it bears wondering if the loser of the Detroit/Chicago/Nashville race is best off going into the 6-spot.