Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mark Your Calendars!

Rookie and training camp schedules are up, with dates and times open to the public noted. Bring your running shoes to shuttle back and forth between the rinks for the first week of training camp. There are a lot of special activities on the agenda...

Pickin' stuff

Well, we’re getting close, now. We’ve seen some team predictions, we’ll start to get some individual award predictions before too long. But there is an interesting take on individuals, courtesy of Paul Kukla, blogging over at NHL.com (thanks to A View from the Cheap Seats for the directions). The Peerless humbly offers his own take on these, with a few of his own thrown in…

Best one-on-one offensive player -- Pavel Datsyuk. I’ve got to go with Kukla’s choice here. Datsyuk is an artist; he can make a lot of moves late that will turn a goaltender into a soft pretzel.

Best one-on-one defenseman – Nicklas Lidstrom. The Peerless likes a big hitting defenseman as much as the next guy – such a player can change the momentum of a game on one shift, and Dion Phaneuf is establishing himself as the standard for that specie. But brains works over brawn, even in hockey, and Lidstrom is the smartest there is.

Assist man – Joe Thornton, for now. This isn’t even really all that close. Sidney Crosby had more to work with as far as offensive talent goes last year along the roster (although one could reasonably ask if Crosby made those players better). Still, Thornton had 92 assists in 82 games (1.12/game), while the kid had 84 in 79 (1.06). And, Thornton did that on the heels of 96 in 81 games in 2005-2006 (1.19/game). Crosby might surpass Thornton this year, but that isn’t by any means a certainty.

Best pure goal scorer – This is another one of those, “until the whipper-snapper proves he’s clearly better” ones…for now, The Peerless will take Ilya Kovalchuk. But there is a fellow named Ovechkin lurking close by.

Power-play specialist – If he returns, this one belongs to Teemu Selanne. 88 power play points over the last two seasons. And, he was a big finisher for Anaheim last year, scoring more than twice as many power play goals as any other player with the Ducks.

Shorthanded specialist – Four players in the last two years have finished in the top-10 in shorthanded scoring (including ties for tenth). Justin Williams and Matt Pettinger were tied for highest total points among these players. Martin St. Louis had as many points last year as each of the four players (11), but he had Vincent Lecavalier for support, too. Of the four, Matt Pettinger scored his points in 16 fewer games – Pettinger.

Need one save – Roberto Luongo. Until last year, we would have gone with Martin Brodeur, if only for his moxie earned in so many pressure situations. But Luongo – who has always been among the best pure puck-stoppers among goaltenders – made the leap last year.

The guy you never heard of – We’ll go way off the charts here. A guy who had 23 points in only 49 games last year and was +6 on a struggling club. More games this year, and he might get on some folks’ radar – David Backes, St. Louis.

Biggest impact on a new team – Big-dollar signings are the most overrated personnel item in the NHL. I’d be looking to role players as much as the high-wattage deals. Consider….the days of Martin Brodeur playing 75-plus games and 4,200-plus minutes are coming to an end. Having a goaltender who can spell Brodeur can be the difference between being a playoff team and falling out of the top-eight. Kevin Weekes will be the player with the biggest impact with his new team.

When it gets chippy -- Derek Boogaard. He tied for 19th in the league in fighting majors (10). Those were ten guys (actually, nine, since Eric Godard thought it would be a good idea to go twice with him) who lost their minds. Guys like this who don’t get as many fights as you’d expect are guys even tough guys avoid. Boogaard is the scariest guy in that class.

Coach for a must-win game – That’s a tough one among current coaches, since earning tenure to build that kind of a reputation has been hard to come by. Lindy Ruff is the longest-tenured coach with one team in the league; Bob Hartley has as many seasons as Ruff. Both have had three conference finalists. Ruff has also had a Stanley Cup finalist; Hartley a Cup winner. That’s the difference. Hartley.

Get under your skin guy – Sean Avery….and The Peerless is pissed just thinking about it. But there is a dark horse here who might challenge this year – Colby Armstrong.

The home crowd – this is another hard one, since The Peerless has not visited all the NHL venues. But if a club loses only four games at home in regulation in a season, the crowd can’t be a detriment. Detroit.

And here are some other categories…

Most likely to be a bust among new free agents – Daniel Briere, Philadelphia. Briere was a decent, if unspectacular player through his first season-and-change in Buffalo. After the lockout, his performance improved significantly. Was this the product of maturity?...of the “new” NHL?...of the best situation for a player like him, where he was the best of an ensemble cast? The Peerless is betting it’s the last. In Philadelphia, where booing underperformers is an art form, he could be in for a rude awakening, especially as the new big man on Broad Street.

Most likely to score a goal that matters – Alexander Ovechkin. His nine game-winners (including overtime goals) tied for seventh in the league and were the highest percentage of his club’s wins of any player (32.1 percent).

Club likeliest to have the biggest turnaround for the good – Philadelphia. When your basis is 56 points, and you make as many moves as the Flyers did, you stand a good chance to win this category. Still, a 30-point turnaround, were it to occur, would not get the Flyers into the top-eight. But it will be the biggest turnaround.

Non-playoff team most likely to make the top-eight this year – Colorado. They need only improve one point (and adding Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan should provide that), but the team with the furthest to go with an excellent chance to qualify is Washington. As we noted in a benchmark, 22 points is the threshold for the Caps. Folks might forget two things about last year. First, they were solidly in the playoff mix almost half way through the season, when injury, illness, and a lack of depth exposed them as not yet ready for a playoff push. Second, they were arguably the worst club in the shootout last year, 1-11 (Carolina was 0-5, but that is fewer than half the games the Caps played in that situation). The Caps have improved their depth and talent, and there is reason to expect that the kids will take another step up the development ladder. 22 points is not out of the question.

Team that will fall the farthest in the standings – This will be a horserace between the New York Islanders in the East and the Nashville Predators in the west. Picking the Islanders in this category is a dangerous pick. The Peerless had the fish sticks finishing 30th last year, and they finished eighth in the East. But they lost players such as Jason Blake, Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov, Richard Zednik, Ryan Smyth, Sean Hill, Alexei Yashin (ok, that might be a plus), and Aaron Asham. They added Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin, and Josef Vasicek, and Andy Sutton, but this might be like trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. Last year, it worked – this year? As for Nashville, they have the look of the Chicago White Sox or Florida Marlins of baseball a few years ago. Eventually, the fire sales those ball clubs undertook were turned around into champions, but that’s not the fate that awaits the Predators this year. They do not have a true go-to scorer (although Alexander Radulov might grow into that role), nor do they have a top-end playmaker. And, Steve Sullivan is out as many as three months with a back problem. Chris Mason had a fine year in goal last year in relief of Tomas Vokoun, but he has to shoulder a larger burden this year, and this was a club that gave up a ton of shots last year. And it's not a team looking at sinking money into the roster in the short term. In the end, it will be Nashville.