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Inside the Western Conference Standings – December 26

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Every now and then, we’ll take a look at each conference’s standings to see if there are any trends or quirks that explain why some teams are failing and others are overachieving. Obviously, these results will reveal bigger truths once we advance later into this season … but it’s still fun and interesting to take a peek at bigger picture numbers.

Click here for the November edition and click here for the October version.

For this month’s Eastern Conference inside the standings post, click here.

Let’s take a look at some of the trends – both good and bad – in the tough as nails West.

Detroit primed for a slight fall?

The Red Wings are struggling (for them, at least) with a 4-5-1 record in their last 10 and must deal with a month of Datsyuk-free hockey (maybe more). Another bit of bad news: they’ve played six more games at Joe Louis Arena than on the road, so they’ll have to bring their squadron of veterans away from Detroit quite a bit going forward.

I doubt that the Red Wings are in significant trouble, but they might struggle to keep the top seed in the West.

Chicago faces a grind.

After playing quite a few more games than anyone else to begin the season, the rest of the league is catching up to Chicago in games played. The good news is that the struggling defending champs still are in the playoff picture, but it won’t be easy. They will face four more road contests than games at home, but they’ve been OK (8-5-3) away so far.

Los Angeles still has a shot at the Pacific title.

With two less games played and three more home games left than road contests, the Kings aren’t out of the Pacific Division title race just yet. They might need to “learn how to lose” more effectively, though, as their one overtime/shootout loss is the lowest in the West. (Only the Florida Panthers are “worse” at losing, with a big zero in the “otl” category.)

There is hope for Phoenix and Calgary.

While the Coyotes have more reasons for optimism than the Flames since they’ve played in less games (33 to 36) and own more standings points (37 to 33), both teams have more home games in the future. Phoenix will play five more games at home while Calgary will play four more once the season is over.

But not much hope for Columbus.

Conversely, the collapsing Columbus Blue Jackets played 19 out of their first 34 games at home, so they’ll need to play five more road games than home games going forward. On the bright side, they’ve actually been a better away team (8-5-2) than home team (9-9-1) so far this season.

The Ducks have been busy, but inefficient.

While Anaheim’s 40 standings points places them in a virtual tie for eighth place, they’ve played the most games in the NHL with 38 so far this year. St. Louis only needs one win in four games to pass them, while Nashville – the team they’re tied with – got to the 40 mark in four less tries.

In other words, the Ducks’ seem like they’re in better shape than they actually are at this point.

***

After looking over the standings, I feel like the Canucks might have the safest divisional lead in the NHL. The Red Wings should be able to hold onto the Central crown as well, though, unless a heavy amount of road games causes their aging squad to break down.

The Pacific is the division that’s really up for grabs. The Sharks are nipping at the Stars’ heels while the Kings and Coyotes have more home games than road games remaining (and games in hand). Even the Ducks could pose a threat based on their streaky talents, though they are a long shot for the reasons discussed in this post.

While nearly every team has a shot at the playoffs, I think the Blues and Coyotes are two teams outside the top eight who pose the biggest threats to the squads who would make the playoffs if they began today.

While the East seems to be a conference of have and have-nots, no one seems particularly safe in the West. Not even the mighty Red Wings (to some extent, at least).

Need for speed: Sharks, Pens brace for ‘fast hockey’ in Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 29: Brenden Dillon #4 of the San Jose Sharks skates with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on March 29, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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It will be speed vs. speed in the Stanley Cup final between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

San Jose got through the Western Conference the same way Pittsburgh got through the East: with plenty of depth and speed to kill. The final will feature the three top playoff scorers in the Sharks’ Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns against Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s going to be fast hockey,” Crosby said after the Penguins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the East final Thursday night. “Two teams that want to play the exact same way, that want to get their D involved (and) their power play is really dangerous. … It’s going to be quite the series.”

The Sharks are in the Cup final for the first time in their 24-season franchise history and in Peter DeBoer’s first year as coach. The Penguins are back for the first time since winning it all in 2009 and made it after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach in December.

In his first meeting with them, Sullivan challenged his players to be great and told them that’s how they win in the NHL. They’ve won in the playoffs on the strength of scoring from Crosby and speedy wingers Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Game 7 hero Bryan Rust, not to mention the goaltending of 22-year-old rookie Matt Murray.

Kessel is Pittsburgh’s leading scorer with 18 points on nine goals and nine assists after coming over from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade last summer.

“I don’t think you could dream about that. You never could expect this,” Kessel said. “This is a huge moment in my career and my life.”

San Jose is also rolling along thanks to a summer pickup in goaltender Martin Jones, who was the Los Angeles Kings’ backup when they won the Cup in 2014. Couture, Pavelski and Burns are piling up the points, but this run is about aging veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau finally breaking through.

Thornton and Marleau, the top two picks in the 1997 draft, made the playoffs together with the Sharks in nine of 10 previous seasons but had yet to make the Cup final until now.

Crosby and Malkin made it twice, losing in 2008 to the Detroit Red Wings before winning the following season. At the time, it looked like the young core that also featured defenseman Kris Letang would challenge for the Cup every year.

Now they have a chance to add to their legacy, but it won’t be easy even with home-ice advantage in the series that starts Monday night in Pittsburgh. The Sharks are the Penguins’ deepest opponent yet.

“The Penguins should expect a team that’s deeper, quicker than Tampa, and a team that’s playing with a lot of confidence,” NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk said.

Confidence isn’t lacking for either team. The Sharks knocked off the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues to get here, while the Penguins beat the New York Rangers, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals and defending East-champion Lightning.

Devils sign star French d-man Auvitu

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 05:  Rapahel Herburger (R) of Austria and Yohann Auvitu (L) of France battle for the puck during the IIHF World Championship group A match between Austria and France at o2 Arena on May 5, 2015 in Prague, Czech Republic.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
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New Jersey has won the Yohann Auvitu sweepstakes.

On Friday, the Devils announced they’ve signed Auvitu to a one-year, two-way, entry-level contract for the upcoming campaign. The 26-year-old Frenchman had previously garnered widespread NHL interest, largely due to a ’15-16 campaign in which he won the Pekka Rautakallio Trophy for the best defenseman in the SM-Liiga — an award that’s previously gone to the likes of Sami Vatanen and Brian Rafalski.

Auvitu had six goals and 15 assists in 48 games, then six goals and seven assists in 18 playoff games.

There were only three French-born players were in the NHL this season: Philadelphia’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Detroit’s Xavier Ouellet, and Dallas’ Antoine Roussel. It’ll be interesting to see if Auvitu can make it a quartet. He recently played alongside Bellemare for France at the Worlds, scoring three points in seven games.

Dethroned? Kings reportedly strip Brown of captaincy (Updated)

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Dustin Brown
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Dustin Brown, who captained the Los Angeles Kings to the only two Stanley Cups in franchise history, has been relieved of his leadership duties, per TSN.

Brown, 31, was named the 13th captain in team history back in 2008, and has worn the “C” ever since. He’s also served as an alternate captain for Team USA’s silver medal-winning side at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

While there’s been no confirmation or report, one has to think this paves the way for Anze Kopitar to assume the club’s captaincy. Kopitar signed an eight-year, $80 million extension with L.A. in January, and has been Brown’s alternate captain since ’08.

While Brown achieved great things during his run as Kings captain, the tenure ended badly. He’s been largely ineffective over the last two seasons, and his lackuster play has been called out by head coach Darryl Sutter on a number of occasions (see here and here and here.)

Compounding things is Brown’s contract. Despite the fact he’s now essentially a bottom-six forward, he’s still owed a whopping $5.875M annually through 2022. That’s a lot of scratch for a guy that’s posted career-lows in goals (11) in back-to-back seasons.

Compounding that is the fact L.A. doesn’t have a ton of cap space moving forward. Brown’s hit could prevent them from re-upping with pending UFA Milan Lucic, or finding some blueline help in free agency.

Perhaps we should’ve seen the writing on the wall for Brown a couple weeks ago, when Kings GM Dean Lombardi extended Sutter’s contract.

Lombardi admitted the Kings are in “uncharted waters,” and “not where we want to be.” He also suggested there would be significant changes throughout the team, and that those changes would be difficult.

“To get this back on track,” Lombardi said, “there’s going to be some minor punches in the gut as we fight our way through.”

If TSN’s report holds true, the first punch has already been thrown.

Update:

For Pete DeBoer, San Jose was the perfect landing spot

San Jose Sharks Name Peter Deboer Head Coach
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In Pete DeBoer’s first season as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, he went to the Stanley Cup Final with a roster that was headlined by two pretty talented players in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise.

For DeBoer and the Devils, it never got better than that. By the time he was fired, the team had missed the playoffs two years in a row, Kovalchuk and Parise were elsewhere and the roster was looking pretty, darn barren.

Now, in his first season with San Jose, DeBoer is once again off to the final, this time with a Sharks team that’s headlined by Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

Why, you could almost draw the conclusion that a head coach has a much better chance to win with a roster full of talented players.

Certainly, the teams DeBoer had in Florida wouldn’t hurt that theory.

A motivated roster is nice to have as well, and DeBoer definitely had that when he took over in San Jose.

“I inherited a similar team in New Jersey when I went in there,” DeBoer said Wednesday. “First time they missed the playoffs for a long time the year before I got there.

“I think when you go into that situation, when you have really good people like there was in New Jersey when I went in there, like I was with this group, they’re pissed off, they’re embarrassed by the year they just had, and they’re willing to do and buy into whatever you’re selling to get it fixed again.”

DeBoer was also the benefactor of some fine work by GM Doug Wilson, who signed veterans Joel Ward and Paul Martin in free agency and got goalie Martin Jones in a trade. Wilson also signed Joonas Donskoi out of Europe, a year after he did the same with Melker Karlsson. Throw in a few draft picks that have come along — youngsters like Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney, and Matt Nieto — and it’s hard to find a real weakness on the roster.

“The additions that Doug made, it just came together,” said DeBoer.

“They were coming off a down season, but they were coming off a decade of great hockey. They’d been well-coached. Todd McLellan and the previous staff are as good as there are in the business. These guys had a great foundation. Right place, right time.”

Related: DeBoer predicts ‘big bounce-back’ in San Jose