As we hit the last two days of the NHL regular season, now should be a time to finally get excited that the Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us. Instead, news broke out that the NHL will no longer allow their players to freely play for their countries in any future Olympic Hockey tournaments. Money was clearly a factor here as the NHL felt like it was in their best interest to get some form of compensation from the IOC as a result of releasing their players and taking a three week break from generating all forms of revenue during every Olympiad. It was unbearably obvious that the World Cup of Hockey existed to be the perfect alternative to the players to determine a world champion in the best way possible for the NHL owners and top of the food chain leadership.
Still, this tournament took place in September when all the players were at their most rusty and it consisted of a “Team North America” and a “Team Europe”. I know you can’t have it in May like the IIHF World Championships because that’s when NHL players are too focused on or are physically and mentally recovering from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But now it is determined that a true world championship can not be during anytime in the regular season. No matter what, hockey loses.
I love when the British and Irish Rugby teams that hope to defeat one rugby team from the southern hemisphere (and usually one of the best rugby nations in the world) every four years, but combined National Teams are nothing short of a sideshow here in North America. It was not even funny how much I was rooting for a North America vs. Europe final just to shove it into every owner’s face. Until you get a Switzerland, a Slovenia, a France, a Germany and so forth competing in this thingamajig, this tournament screams cash grab and power grab by the owners and Gary Bettman; forcing each and every player to do what their told and to remember their place while they are “privileged” to get paid millions. It’s having the smaller countries to compete, regardless of whether or not they lose 5-1 or 10-0 to stronger opposition that made the Olympics, by far, the best way to truly determine the best hockey nations in the world.
Just keep ignoring that every major sport is leap-frogging, lapping ten fold and then-some over you when it comes to TV ratings and understanding basic concepts in the 21st century. Examples include how to promote the sport of ice hockey in the most global way imaginable and trying to appease fans by having much simpler, yet much stronger social media, video highlight and out-of-market television coverage of all your games. That includes stopping at nothing to make sure the likes of Japan and China can embrace the sport the same way the NBA has. Until then, the most expensive players in the NHL will continue to struggle to make seven figure contracts at a time where baseball and basketball players are making three-fold and most NFL players are making two-fold.’
Lastly, with all due respect to Sam Donellan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, future Olympic Hockey Tournaments WILL be tainted and see a decrease in viewership because we will not know now how the United States or Canada will perform without putting out their best players. Just look at what happened to Olympic baseball or what’s happening to Olympic men’s soccer to see how that’s turning out. Also, what happens if the Russian government or KHL officials force their players to stay in their league like the Red Army days if they ever want to compete in their country at any senior level ever again? This may or may not result in them winning championships, but without knowing if they truly are the best in the world. Either way, power and money just had to take over here and both sides of the table couldn’t come to an agreement to make things work the best for everyone. As a result, once again, everybody loses.
Hockey truly is a great sport to watch live and enjoy on television. The postseason is truly the best time of year in the sporting calendar and it is nothing short of cringe worthy every time the board of governors and general managers make such decisions that feel like generational-scarring moments. It’s just quite difficult for me to see how this is not one of them.
30. Colorado (82-game Standings Points Pace: 48 points, Last Week: 30) 29. Arizona (Pace: 71 pts, LW: 29) 28. Vancouver (Pace: 71 pts, LW: 28) 27. New Jersey (Pace: 72 pts, LW: 27) 26. Detroit (Pace: 78 pts, LW: 26) 25. Buffalo (Pace: 80 pts, LW: 25) 24. Florida (Pace: 79 pts, LW: 23) 23. Dallas (Pace: 78 pts, LW: 24)
Let’s get this part out of the way. The Buffalo Sabres are still a terrible hockey team. They will struggle mightily to reach 80 points if they make it there, their adjusted puck possession is still in the bottom five of the league at 46.4%. What’s also worrying is while the offense has improved in their shot generation, the team defense seams to be worsening a well to the tune of 58.2 shot attempts per hour.
You would think that Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe would be the biggest bright spots on the defense corps for the Sabres, but they might end up being the most detrimental. Both players have played close to 1,500 minutes and 1,200 minutes of even strength time, respectively and are giving up well more than the team’s average of on-ice shot attempts when they step on the ice. If anything, Cody Franson has been the star on the blue line thanks to only having 51.5 on-ice shot attempts per hour, but he’ll be a free agent this summer. Rightfully so, he should consider his options to play somewhere else as this will be his last chance to get a major contract and on any team he wants while still in the prime of his career.
Up front, Evander Kane and Brian Gionta are unmitigated disasters analytically. While the former gives up on-ice shots the likes of which make even Thomas Vanek blush, the Sabres captain simply can’t put up any offense anymore and is even worse when he’s not around any offensive minded teammates. Gionta will be a free agent after this season and it might be to the benefit of everyone if he retires. He’ll still get to 30-40 points every season, but at 38, his underlying play and his overall skill set are only good enough for teams like Arizona or even Las Vegas to give a shot and no one wants to see the former cup winner ride into the sunset like that.
That being said, Ristolainen, Gionta and even Matt Moulson have put up numbers that are well beyond what they should be producing because of the lethal power play that they have produced this season. It will be very difficult for any team to match the Sabres’ 24.8% efficiency in these last two days as their underlying numbers have improved massively over the past year in this department. This season, Buffalo is sixth in the NHL at 106.7 shot attempts per hour while on the man advantage according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com. But as mentioned previously, it is the shot quality that makes this power play unit go as 59.6 of those attempts per hour go towards the net and it has resulted in a shooting percentage above 15%. Only the league-leading Philadelphia Flyers generate a higher rate of shots on goal.
With such a lethal unit, it has resulted in comical numbers like Ristolainen’s 24 assists from the man-advantage to Matt Moulson recording 11 of his 14 total goals in that unit this season. It makes you wonder what would happen to this hockey team if they focused the rest of their game with the same elite focus as the power play. For starts, getting much more two-way forces will be critical to make this Sabres team better or enforcing their young corps of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart to better puck managers than they have been previously.
One thing that is certain is that this team won’t be the same without Kyle Okposo back in full fitness and in good health. It was quite scary seeing such a young man needed to be taken to intensive care this week for an undisclosed illness and we can all hope that a player with such talent on the ice and a good role model off the ice is not going through anything serious.
22. Carolina (Pace: 86 pts, LW: 20) 21. Philadelphia (Pace: 87 pts, LW: 21) 20. Winnipeg (Pace: 86 pts, LW: 22) 19. Tampa Bay (Pace: 92 pts, LW: 19) 18. Los Angeles (Pace: 85 pts, LW: 18)
- 17. Ottawa (Pace: 98 pts, LW: 16)
Those were some scary times for the Ottawa Senators right there. After recently clinching one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, the luckiest team in the NHL looked like clock was striking midnight on them really hard. Since I last reported on them back on March 11th, the Senators won only one game in regulation in their next 11 games and only went 2-7-4 during that span. Overall, Ottawa has only been able to score three goals or more in three of their last 13 games and their penalty kill has given up 12 goals in their last 34 opportunities.
Amazingly, their underlying play has improved somewhat during this bad run of form. While Ottawa has been out-shot by 54.7-58.8 adjusted attempts per hour at even strengths all season, both numbers have improved to 55.6-56.8 during this poor run of form. The problem continues to be Ottawa’s inconsistency of putting the puck in the pack of the net as their shooting percentage has dipped to 6.8% during that span.
With the seedings not being completely set in the Atlantic Division, Ottawa is in complete trouble in that they will either face the best underlying play team in the NHL in Boston or the best overall team in the NHL in Washington in the first round. But hey, just making it into the playoffs is about as fluky as it can be for a team that has never really shown complete commitment to funding a playoff contending roster in the past decade. Here’s hoping Erik Karlsson can at least provide some sparkling magic over looking like somebody that is desperate for offseason surgery this spring.
- 16. New York Islanders (Pace: 92 pts, LW: 17)
- 15. Calgary (Pace: 95 pts, LW: 15)
- 14. Chicago (Pace: 109 pts, LW: 13)
- 13. St. Louis (Pace: 97 pts, LW: 14)
- 12. Toronto (Pace: 95 pts, LW: 10)
- 11. Nashville (Pace: 95 pts, LW: 12)
- 10. San Jose (Pace: 98 pts, LW: 7)
- 9. Anaheim (Pace: 104 pts, LW: 11)
With Ottawa and Boston being shoo-ins for the playoffs now, it is coming down to Tampa Bay, Toronto and the New York Islanders for the final spot in the Eastern Conference bracket. It is looking like the last survivor of these three will face Washington in the first round, but it is a real struggle now to see how the Islanders become that final wild card team.
Despite winning their last four games just to get back to where they are right now, Brooklyn was going through a horrible patch this past month. From March 3rd to March 30th, the Islanders went 5-7-1 while giving up three goals or more in nine of those 13 games. At even strength, they have given up over 58 shot attempts per hour during that span, which is a much worse measurement than what they were putting up under head coach Doug Weight previously.
That being said, their current four-game winning streak sees them giving up four goals total. They might be able to continue this defensive run in their remaining two games because they are against the New Jersey Devils and the erratic Ottawa Senators that may want to rest their best players. You could argue that in their 13-game slump, the Islanders had to play nine playoff teams during that span, while their last six games of the season only involve three playoff teams; including New Jersey twice.
Such is a time to find some spots to nitpick, but it is also a time to assess how healthy certain teams are and boy are the Islanders not a fit bunch right now. If they are going to make the playoffs, they will have to do it without John Tavares who could even miss the postseason due to a hamstring injury if Brooklyn makes it. They are also without Casey Cizikas, Travis Hamonic (who has only played 49 games all year), Nikolai Kulemin, Ryan Strome and Shane Prince do to many other ailments. I just named you one-third of New York’s skaters that should be getting sweaters every night and this is a major contrast to the fact that Weight and former head coach Jack Capuano has only given sweaters to 18 forwards and nine defensemen all year. Seriously, it took me until 6:12pm today to know who Connor Jones is!
The Islanders still have enough firepower to maybe take this down to the wire and pressure a Toronto Maple Leafs club that will have to close their season with a Pittsburgh-Columbus back-to-back. That is brutal for them, especially with a fan base where belief and confidence are at a 50-year low. Still, all the Maple Leafs need is one overtime loss and they’re in. But hey, miracles do happen in this sport.
- 8. Edmonton (Pace: 102 pts, LW: 9)
- 7. Montreal (Pace: 104 pts, LW: 8)
- 6. New York Rangers (Pace: 103 pts, LW: 5)
- 5. Columbus (Pace: 109 pts, LW: 3)
- 4. Pittsburgh (Pace: 114 pts, LW: 6)
- 3. Boston (Pace: 96 pts, LW: 4)
- 2. Minnesota (Pace: 105 pts, LW: 1)
If there is one team Washington better be scared about outside of the Team Walking Dead Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s the Boston Bruins. They have gone 18-7-1 with ex-Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy at the help. Yes, Caps fans, that is the same Bruce Cassidy that blamed pregnant wives and sick children as the reason why the players did not play well for him, leading to a mass revolt if he didn’t get fired. That being said, Cassidy was 37 at the time he was fired from the Capitals and did not take another NHL head coaching gig until he was 51. In other words, he has taken the Darryl Sutter and Alain Vigenault route to get to where he is today. Though an extremely small sample size, that has statistically lead to very positive results behind the bench. It seriously would be the most DC Sports thing ever that the man that ruined the Jaromir Jagr era and was considered one of the worst head coaches of his era would kill off the Alex Ovechkin era if the two teams were to meet in the postseason.
So can we find any weaknesses in this Bruins team now? Welp, Tuukka Rask has played 64 games and the fifth highest minute total in the NHL at 3,660 while only producing a 49.2% quality-start percentage. There is no other goaltender that will play in this postseason, play over 3,000 minutes in the regular season and generate a quality start-percentage less than half. Along with that, only Henrik Lundqvist (waaaaah!?!?) will make the playoffs from that same cohort and have a worse goals allowed relative to league percentage and a goals saved above league average (104 and -5.07 for the supposed King, respectively) than Rask (99 and 1.68, respectively). At 29, you would think that the Fin would be hitting the absolute prime of his career. But at 394 career games, would this be the beginning of the end by having two straight seasons of seeing his save percentages and non-traditional numbers hit career lows since becoming a full-time starter?
Along with that, scoring depth will continue to be an issue for the Bruins if their star players will be held in check. Frank Vatrano, a supposed Connor-Sheary-in-training has only had two assists in his last 15 games. Along with that, the 22-year old is only in a group of Dominic Moore and Ryan Spooner as the only Bruins players to hit double digit goals beyond the top five goal scoring forwards.
In defense, it looked like Torey Krug suffered through a lower body injury in Wednesday night’s loss to the Senators. It’s rumored that he’ll sit out Saturday’s game against the Caps as a precaution, but is the injury worse than first reported and will it affect his play in the postseason? If it does, will any other defenseman pick up the slack or will 39-year old Zdeno Chara have to do it all by himself?
There are plenty of small questions to ponder about this hockey team, but it’s better to ask these types of questions rather than wondering if this team is able to win a lot of hockey games.
- 1. Washington (Pace: 119 pts, LW: 2)
Wait the playoffs are less than a week away. Pardon me while I….