With the festive season upon us, it is the sworn duty of a hockey blog to publish at least one (1) post dedicated to creating a profound connection between the sport and the “most wonderful time of the year”. As the exalted leader of Ice Nation UK, I have decided to take on the burden of such a piece, in order that you may read it, absorb it, enjoy it, think about it, talk about it over the water-cooler, get it trending on Twitter, write a letter to your Grandma about it, you get the picture.
In true Bleacher Report style, I am going to take a look at what each NHL team might be hoping to find in their stockings on Christmas morning.
The knowledge that they will just keep rolling along. There isn’t much going wrong for the Ducks at the moment, perched happily atop the Western Conference and going 8-0-2 in their last 10 games, as well as sporting a sterling +28 goal differential. Their stars are scoring, the goalies are stopping pucks, and the young defenders are playing some outstanding hockey.
Our very own Sam Skelding, an ardent Ducks fan, believes the most important thing for the Ducks is that their young D-corps (Fowler, Lovejoy, Vatanen, Lindholm) continue playing at a high level in lieu of Beauchemin’s uneven performances, and the absence of Souray & Sbisa. This is a massive unknown, given the struggles that young defenders often go through, and a lot of pressure to put on them, but at the moment it seems to be working.
Travel sickness pills, and a little something extra to get their scorers scoring. The Bruins are enjoying another good season, sitting at second in the East just behind rivals Pittsburgh, and there isn’t a whole lot to complain about. The team is 25-10-2, their forwards are scoring, the defense corps is holding the fort, and Rask is proving to be an outstanding NHL goaltender once again.
However, there are areas of concern. While scoring goals by the truckload isn’t Boston’s style, they do need better production from their star players. David Krejci is having a very good season, Iginla is proving a nice fit (though clearly not the elite force he used to be) and Reilly Smith has shown he was more than a throw-in in the Seguin trade. The real concern though, comes from the likes of Bergeron, Marchand and Eriksson. All three have excellent two-way reputations, and a history of very good offensive production. The two-way play is there, but the offensive production? Mediocre at best, by their own standards.
I maintain that Eriksson was an inspired pick-up for the Bruins, but Reilly Smith is making him look like the throw-in. Perhaps there is something about the Bruins’ system that he is having a tricky time slotting into? All three players are suffering slight dips from their career shooting percentages, but nothing so bad as to render them this ineffective (perhaps that is too harsh a word, but relative to their usual production that is how it looks).
The other issue worth highlighting is the Bruins’ play on the road. They aren’t exactly bad, but compared to their play in front of the home crowd, there is definitely a difference. Their respective records, 15-3-2 at home and 10-7-0 on the road, speak to this. Their goal difference also emphasizes this, going +22 at home and “only” +8 on the road. This isn’t a killer, but it is something that should be addressed by the team, particularly as the battle for the playoffs heats up in 2014.
Something, anything. Seriously. The Sabres are on pace for a historically horrendous season, with just 21 points through their first 36 games. A -40 goal differential, an inability to win anywhere in North America, and Cody Hodgson as their leading scorer. Nothing against Hodgson, he’s a decent NHLer, but when he’s your top forward? That story isn’t going to end well.
Christian Ehrhoff is a very good defender, and his talent is wasted on this team. Plenty of teams would likely want to take on his services, even in spite of the heavy contract, and a trade involving him would likely garner a decent return for the Sabre’s scorched-earth rebuild.
It doesn’t have to be Ehrhoff, although he is likely the most valuable remaining player on the squad. Ott, Stafford, Myers, Moulson, Ennis, none are likely to have much value currently, but the team is in such a state that something has to be done. At this point their most valuable chip is their first round pick, highly likely to be 1st or 2nd overall and capable of netting a very good young prospect – and no doubt teams will be inquiring about it’s availability.
At this point, I think Sabres fans will be happy with any move, whether it’s bringing in a half-decent NHL player (even the Omark acquisition can be seen as a positive), or acquiring picks and prospects. No where to go but up, right?
Just hang on long enough to finish above Edmonton in the standings. Not a lot is breaking right for the Flames this year, except for the fact that after taking a break last season, they are back in position ahead of the hapless Oilers in the standings, even if only just.
The likes of Giordano, Hudler and Russell are pretty much the only things worth turning up for at a Flames game – Monahan has cooled considerably since his hot start, Baertschi is not matching expectations, and the team in general, whilst full of heart, just doesn’t have the talent to get things done.
Finishing above Edmonton would not only give the Flames’ fans bragging rights once again, it would also make a considerable embarrassment of their rivals to the north given the extraordinary talent on that team.
Secondary scoring! Also, a better bottom six and a healthy Cam Ward. The Hurricanes are currently 13th in the East, although they are only 2 points out of 8th, so the sky isn’t falling yet. That said, this isn’t a team poised for greatness. Beyond Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner, no-one is scoring. That is a huge issue. And this isn’t because they lack talent. Alex Semin, Jordan Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, all have a history of decent-to-great scoring ability, but it just isn’t happening for them. Semin and Ruutu in particular are experiencing some awful shooting luck, and the team has to do something to get them going.
The issue isn’t helped by the team’s no-name bottom six corps. There’s a couple of decent veterans on the team, like Dvorak and Malhotra, but the depth just isn’t there. If there are issues with scoring in the top six, the bottom six has to be able to pick up the slack, but the team hasn’t put together a good enough collection of capable players.
Finally, Cam Ward. Aside from one spring many moons ago, he hasn’t really ever been a truly elite goalie, but he’s been at worst solid, and many times outstanding behind some pretty bad Canes teams. This year however, things aren’t going his way. With just 5 wins in 17 games, a .901 SV% and 3.04 GAA, he appears to be losing his grip on the position to backup Justin Peters, whose .926 SV% and 2.30 GAA really stand out, even with a 7-9-3 record in 19 games. In fairness, both this season and last Ward has struggled with lower body injuries, and seeing how that might effect a goalie’s movement in net, it’s fair to say it’s likely still effecting his form.
A new penalty kill system, and a Stanley Cup repeat. There is no reason that I can think of that suggests the Blackhawks aren’t once again a legitimate contender this season. Sitting one point behind the Ducks in the battle for first place in the Western Conference, the team is scoring by the bucket load, dominating at home and on the road, and are largely healthy.
That said, there are always things to improve. The team’s penalty kill is sitting at a lowly 75.6%, third worst in the entire league. With the two-way talent like they have – Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa – not to mention the defensive specialists – Oduya, Hjalmarsson – they should be better than they are, but buddy it ain’t working. Their powerplay and 5v5 efficiency eases the pressure somewhat, but the PK is currently a major hole in the wall that needs fixing up.
Of course, the team ultimately is looking to become the first team since the 97/98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Cup champs. In the salary cap era, teams are torn apart quicker than a Shawn Thornton apology letter, as the Hawks already experienced in 2010, but the team is far better managed this time around and with much the same talent as last season are poised better than perhaps any previous winner in the last decade to repeat.
An improved D-corps. Colorado have cooled off some since their hot start, but sit comfortably at 7th in the West with a 23-10-3 record. Ben Callaghan on Twitter, (@slapshot6032) believes the team needs to improve their defensive unit, with the acquisition of at least one top 4 defender. I would have to agree, looking at their roster. Erik Johnson is playing well, but they are not getting much offense from the back-end; even if they are playing well, improving the blue-line would really help elevate this team to where they want to be.
Alternatively, our very own Melissa Geschwind states that the Avs already got what they wanted – Semyon Varlamov’s charges to be dropped. Varlamov is having a very good year in between the pipes for Colorado, and is one of the biggest reasons for their success to-date.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Bobrovsky. As suggested by INUK’s own James Proudlock (@JamesProudlock), the single biggest need for Columbus is a healthy Bobrovsky. Last season’s Vezina Trophy winner would go a long way in improving the team’s -5 goal differential, despite Curtis McElhinney filling in admirably at times. Prior to his injury, Bobrovsky hadn’t been nearly as dominant as last year, but the guy has talent and the BJ’s badly need him to be that guy again.
Whatever it takes to keep Seguin going. The Stars haven’t had two high scoring studs like Seguin and Benn since the days of Modano and Hull. The acquisition of Seguin is looking like a stroke of genius on behalf of new GM Jim Nill, as the pairing of himself and Benn have not stopped filling the net, tallying 30 goals between them. Seguin is on pace for 89 points over a full season, by far the best of his young career, and while there is a long way to go in the season he doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. Whether this is an outlying season, or the start of something special from Seguin remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the Stars have to begin building around the kid, pronto. Whatever it takes to keep it going.
DETROIT RED WINGS
The Fountain of Youth for Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Not because the team needs them to be better, but because the team should want to keep these two forever and ever and ever and ever. Unfortunately neither have managed to stay completely healthy this year, but both are nearly at or above a point-per-game level whilst contributing their usual elite-level two-way play. Along with Nick Kronwall, these guys are the major reason for the Wings’ success this year, as always, and it doesn’t seem like they’re getting any younger even as they enter their mid-30s. The dominance of the Wings may not be what it used to, but I’ll be damned if these two don’t drag the team along for a few years yet.
Chris Pronger. It’s been written many a time, but the Oilers really aren’t going to get anywhere without that 25 minute-per-night workhorse who can do it all on the blueline. They don’t have to be Pronger good, but the problem for Oiler fans is they all saw just how much difference a player of his calibre can make, and nothing less will suffice.
Jeff Petry is probably Edmonton’s best defender at this point in time, and whilst he is most definitely a good NHL top-4 guy, who can step into that top-pair role on occasion, he is simply not dominant enough to carry a team. Andrew Ference and Nick Schultz are really struggling as the veteran performers in the group, the team inexplicably traded shutdown defender Ladislav Smid, Anton Belov has been impressive at times and poor at others, and Justin Schultz shows flashes of sheer brilliance but at this point in his career is a liability far too often to be effective. Philip Larsen appears to be a favourite of Coach Eakins, and has shown great puck-moving ability, but defensively he is not hugely better than Schultz.
The team’s pipeline has a veritable tonne of talent: Martin Marincin is perhaps the closest to an NHL career, with potential as a two-way top-4 man-mountain, while Oscar Klefbom retains excellent potential to be a top-pairing player in a few years but has struggled in his North American transition; Martin Gernat, a very similar player to Marincin, has adjusted well to the pro game, as has David Musil despite the latter having footspeed issues; Taylor Fedun has made a remarkable recovery from a shattered leg two years ago to become a truly dominant AHL defender, and an NHL career may be in the cards even at age 25, but his window of opportunity is short; Dillon Simpson might be the most underrated guy in the system, quietly rounding into an outstanding all-round player in the NCAA, and looking more and more like a potential NHLer; and Brandon Davidson and Joey Laleggia also have good things going for them.
Of course, Darnell Nurse is currently the big hope for a Pronger-repeat. The hulking 18-year old delivered an outstanding training camp, looking every bit the quick, talented, snarling bruiser the Oilers and their fanbase have so desperately desired since 2006. He is enjoying a brilliant season in the OHL, and despite his WJC snub should be considered one of the top blueliners in junior hockey. He could be plying his trade for the Oilers as soon as 2014/15, but regardless of whether that is a mistake or not, it is going to be several years before Nurse is able to shoulder the load for an NHL team.
The best thing for Edmonton right now would be to look at trading one of their considerable assets – Gagner, Yakupov, Eberle, 2014 1st Rounder, Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry – for immediate help on the back-end. As the events on Sunday night proved, the fanbase is not at all happy, and whilst bringing in an Ehrhoff or a Coburn won’t cure everything that ails the team, it can only help.
A time machine to speed up development of the kids. The Panthers have built up an enviable system of talent, the likes of Huberdeau, Barkov, Bjugstad, Gudbranson, Markstrom and Kulikov all having supreme talent that could vault the team into playoff contention down the road, and have even surrounded them with some pretty good NHL players – Campbell, Gilbert, Goc, Boyes, Upshall, Fleischmann, Gomez, Thomas, all these guys have a history of playing very good (sometimes elite) hockey at the highest level, but the problem is they have overpaid for that veteran talent, and not been able to fill the gap in the middle as of yet, namely the star-in-his-prime talent who can help along the development of the youngsters present.
General Manager Dale Tallon has never been afraid to make moves, controversial or otherwise, but other than making moves to bring in more complimentary players he should probably remain patient, at least with the team’s young forwards. Unlike Edmonton, the team doesn’t wholly rely on them yet, and the team still doesn’t really know what they have yet in all of them. Perhaps offloading Gudbranson or Kulikov packaged with their draft pick might bring in another highly regarded player, but staying the course seems like the smart move here, as difficult as it can be for fans who want to see immediate success.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Some gosh-darned scoring. An obvious one for the Kings, but I mean come on. A team with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Justin Williams, et al should be scoring a tonne of goals. Unfortunately, they’ve decided to emulate a Jacques Lemaire team and become incredibly boring. Things do seem to be picking up in that department admittedly, but they should be a powerhouse, a la Chicago, not a stifling sauna of yawn. Of course, it’s working well for them as they sit 3rd in the West, but this is hockey, not… ummm…. a really boring version of hockey.
A grant from the NHL to play all their games in St Paul. The Wild have an excellent 14-3-2 record at home. The problem is, they’ve completely squandered any opportunity that might afford them by going 6-11-3 out on the road. After a good start to the year, once again the Wild are slipping, even despite this being a season where they actually looked like the real deal – both on the surface and with the underlying numbers. Few, if any, teams in the NHL have posted such disparate numbers home vs road: they are +16 at home, but a shockingly awful -25 in other arenas. Perhaps they rely on having last line change too much, but even so it’s shocking a team can maintain such a Jekyll & Hyde persona.
The NHL equivalent of the Cy Young Award. Cy Young Award winners in baseball traditionally had a very high win-record compared to their loss record, and many in NHL circles have stated, tongue-in-cheek, that a player with an abnormally high number of goals compared to assists should win the hockey equivalent. Max Pacioretty is the perfect example of such a player. Take a look at his point totals – 19 in 29 games, and it looks like he’s experiencing a down-season by his standards. Yet his goal total, 15, tells another story. On pace for 42 goals over a full year, he’s having an unbelievable season in that department, but for whatever reason he’s not registering many apples. It’s probably a luck thing that will even out over time – the rest of his team-mates are scoring well enough, and I’m sure given the number of goals he’s netting nobody is complaining much.
Pekka Rinne. One of the best goalies in the league over the past several seasons, Rinne is a hard loss to take, particularly on a team that relies so much on its defensive ability rather than scoring prowess. Marek Mazanec and Carter Hutton aren’t exactly household names, although they’ve actually not been too bad. Still, the loss of a consistent Vezina Trophy challenger is tough for any team not named Boston to overcome. It’s not likely to get better any time soon, with Rinne out for the considerable future.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
At least one exciting forward prospect to look forward to. The Devils have forever been a team more reliant on it’s defensive conscience than any kind of scoring power – though Patrik Elias is criminally underrated in this area – and it doesn’t look like anything is changing there. Relying on veterans such as Elias, Jagr, Ryder and Zubrus to deal with the scoring is all well and good, but they likely don’t have a lot left in the tank after this season, and especially with Parise gone and Henrique struggling the future up front is looking bleak for this team.
Unfortunately, Lou Lamoriello hasn’t done much to ensure the team will get fresh talent down the line. Their prospect depth at forward is dire to say the least – they might produce some decent two-way guys but none have the look of a future star. They may have an outstanding pool of defensive talent, but you need some scorers, surely?
***EDIT: Melissa has informed me that Reid Boucher is a highly notable forward prospect, and indeed he has been excellent since his draft day two years ago; still one forward with genuine top 6 NHL upside does little to alter the fact that the system lacks depth at the position overall.***
Part 2 to come later today!