With the season half over, awards predictions have kicked into high gear. One of the popular topics in recent seasons has been how much consideration goalies should get for the Hart Trophy. After all, they already have their own award (the Vezina).
Pekka Rinne is bringing up the argument again this year, as he’s one of the biggest reasons behind Nashville’s ascendance to the top of the Central Division. All goalies are important to their team’s place in the standings, but is it fair to… what’s that?
Turns out that hockey writers might be spared the discussion this year, as Rinne will now be out 3-5 weeks. But Nashville is far from the only team who is now worriedly looking at their netminder.
Dubnyk & the Desperate Hope
Last week, the hockey world had a good snicker at the video of Mike Yeo throwing an in-practice tantrum. Since then, his team has still not won. Granted, they’ve played games against three of the best teams in the league in that time (Chicago, Pittsburgh, Nashville), but losing is losing. And there were a couple of really painful losses in that week. It would seem that the outburst failed to improve the Wild’s play.
But what is there that Yeo can improve? The players all agreed that they deserved the tongue-lashing, but there’s little room to improve their already stellar possession numbers. They suppress shots with the best in the league, their shooting percentage and shots on goal are above average. By all indications, this is playoff-level team… until you look at their goaltending numbers.
Mike Yeo berated the entire Minnesota Wild team, but all those expletives won’t do anything about the stench emanating from their net. The Wild have the worst goaltending in the league, bar none. At even strength, even the worst teams have at least a .900 save percentage… except Minnesota. It’s so bad, they just acquired Devan Dubnyk and his career .910 save percentage (he’s sitting at .918 for the season) from the Arizona Coyotes. Dubnyk is having a decent year, and even if he regresses to his career average he’ll still be a marked improvement. The Wild don’t need much — just someone to not be awful.
Jets Holding Steady
How important can a goalie be to a team’s standings? Take a look at the Winnipeg Jets, a team that spent the last few seasons right where the Wild are now: a team that looked good on paper, but bombed on the ice. A lot of reasons were offered for the underperformace, from irresponsible defense to the “rotten” core left over from their days as the Atlanta Thrashers. Sometimes the abysmal play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec was mentioned, but usually in the sense that his team’s defense were unnaturally deflating his numbers.
A funny thing happened this season. Winnipeg started rotating Pavelec with rookie goaltender Michael Hutchinson… and the Jets have the 5th-best record in the West. Hutchinson has been putting up numbers that have him in the Calder Trophy discussion, and even Pavelec has been able to have a good season by his low standards (a 2.52 GAA and .909 save percentage aren’t anything to write home about, until you see Pavelec’s career numbers).
Aside from the change in net, the Jets have otherwise changed little. Evander Kane has lost a lot of ice time due to injuries, but Matthew Perreault has been a shot in the arm. The upgrade in goal has lifted them from a bottom-dwelling team to a team solidly in the playoff picture.
Florida on the Bubble
Let’s keep going with this theme. There are some really interesting battles going on among teams on the playoff bubble, particularly in… well, in every division but the Metro. The line of demarcation between contender and “wait ’til next season” is pretty stark in the Metro. The Rangers are in 4th place with 52 points, and 5th place is the 41 points of the Flyers. That’s a huge deficit with less than half a season to go.
Over in the Atlantic, however, we’ve got a fascinating horse race for the final wild card spot. The Bruins have started to re-assert their position as a playoff team, while the flailing Maple Leafs have dropped below the cutoff. In between them are the Florida Panthers, a baby-faced team being dragged into playoff contention by goalie Roberto Luongo.
It really is a young team. Sure, you’ve got journeyman veterans like Willie Mitchell, Jussi Jokinen, and Brad Boyes. But the core of the team are its youngsters: first-round picks in their third season (Bjugstad and Huberdeau), former Chicago prospects (Hayes and Olsen), and Calder candidate Aaron Ekblad. The odds are against the Panthers, but I’m not-so-secretly hoping they can steal the final playoff spot. There’s still have a season to play, and they’re only three points behind the Bruins (with three games in hand).
A Whole Lot of Bubbles in the West
Over in the West, we’ve also got a fascinating race for the playoffs. In the Pacific, you have the Anaheim Ducks, followed by four teams that are all within a few points of each other (with Calgary currently on the outside looking in), followed by Dallas and Colorado in the Central. The Calgary Flames are the West’s version of the Panthers: an upgrade in goal, veterans on a new team, young guns playing exciting hockey. But the odds are also against the Flames, who lack depth and spend a lot of time on the ice without the puck.
The Dallas Stars are a different story. They were a playoff team last year, their GM made some snazzy moves to improve their forwards, and then the Stars tanked in the early part of the season. Dallas scores too many goals to be completely out of contention, but until their blue line and goalies can consistently keep pucks out of their own net. From December 13th through end of the year, the Stars went 7-1-0, prompting a lot of wondering if they’d finally bounced back. Going 2-2-2 in 2015 has cooled that talk.
Around the same time, the Colorado Avalanche went on on a tear, so now everybody’s wondering if the Avs are rounding back into form. Coming into this week, they’d gone 8-3-1 over their previous 12 games. Their goalie made a statement with a 54-save shutout against the Blackhawks. Maybe there was something to Coach Roy’s strategy of letting opponents open up a shooting gallery against his net, so long as they were low-percentage shots. Maybe all the eggheads were wrong when they said that over the course of a single game, luck was a bigger factor than shot quality. As long as Varlamov sees the puck, the Avs will ride him into the playoffs!
This week has rained on Roy’s narrative. First they lost to Ovechkin and the Capitals, and then they took a shootout loss against one of the NHL’s worst teams, the Hurricanes. The math is not kind to the Avalanche. They have 38 games left this season, and are only 4 points behind the final playoff team. That seems like a lot of games and not a lot of points to overcome. But the reality is that they also need at least three teams in front of them to start to flounder: Dallas, Calgary, and one of the Pacific teams clustered around the 50-point mark. Over the last ten games, all those teams earned 11-12 points, except the Sharks and Kings, who earned 8 and 9 — but have a bigger lead over Colorado than the rest of the field.
Because teams that lose in OT or the shootout still get a point, outpacing ALL those teams over multiple 10-game stretches is more difficult than it would seem at first glance. Again, it’s possible, but Colorado will need… oh, what’s the word? Ah, yes. Luck.
Can We Get a Break?
I could talk about the All-Star Game in Columbus, but I’m honestly having difficulty remembering what one was like. It’s been three years since the last NHL All-Star Game (due to the Olympics last year, and the lockout the year before), and my memory is fuzzy. I remember the skills competitions of seasons’ past, but the game… Meh. The fact that a Columbus theatre company is putting on a hockey musical over All-Star weekend, though? Now that’s interesting. The Great One is an original musical that takes place the day of the infamous Wayne Gretzky trade. If I were attending the game that weekend, that’s what I’d actually want a ticket for.
The All-Star weekend provides another benefit: time off. Watching Blackhawks games of late, the team seems like it could really use it. The team is 3-3-0 in 2015, and they look listless for long stretches. Teuvo was a healthy scratch for a game before he came back to log 14+ minutes in the last two games. No points for the Finnish rookie yet, but he looks likes he’s starting to find his feet in NHL games. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Versteeg returns — the veteran winger has had a great year, and his return leaves only one spot open for Teuvo, Carcillo, or Nordstrom. It’s a good problem to have.
Revisiting the Alma Mater
Winding our way back to goaltending, I had to make sure I mentioned the success of my alma mater in NCAA hockey this year. BGSU is now ranked #7 in the country (or #8, depending on which poll you follow), and they have a huge pair of games against a conference opponent this weekend. Michigan Tech is ranked just outside the top ten in the country, and if BGSU can secure at least 3 points from the weekend, that would be huge for solidifying their ranking and their standing in the WCHA.
BGSU’s only conference loss has come against the #1 team in the nation, Minnesota State, and they don’t have a standout scorer on the team. Instead they rely upon all their lines to score, as well as the success in net of Chris Nell and Tommy Burke. Freshman Nell, in particular, has some gaudy numbers in his 7 games this season. This is all from a hockey program that was on the verge of disappearing a few years ago, which is now poised to take part in the Frozen Four if they can keep going strong. Ay Ziggy Zoomba.