Monday, January 26, 2009

What to Watch for: The Second Half

Some quick hits on what to keep an eye on as we head into the second half of the NHL season:

**Can Boston and San Jose continue their torrid first halves? More importantly, can they translate their success so far into the postseason? The Sharks have long been a top team in the regular season but fade - or fall flat - in the playoffs.

**I know Detroit is really good, but right now, I don't think they're a Stanley Cup-winning team, not until they get their defense and goaltending straightened out. They gave up 184 goals in the regular season last year (2.24 average) and are already at 133 through 46 games this year (2.89). Chris Osgood has not been as good as last year and is now in a virtual 50-50 split with Ty Conklin.

**Just one point out of a playoff spot, what will Florida do with Jay Bouwmeester? About six weeks until the trade deadline, so plenty of time for the Panthers to make it over the hump or return to the bottom. If they're within a couple points of the No. 8 seed, do they move him? What kind of return will they get?

**Can hot rookie goalie Steve Mason carry Columbus into the playoffs? With a league-best 2.05 GAA, a .926 save percentage and league-leading six shutouts, Mason rudely kicked Pascal Leclaire to the curb and has the Blue Jackets two points of a playoff spot with two games in hand on No. 8 Anaheim.

**Speaking of the Ducks, how is this team only the eighth seed? Same with Detroit - the goaltending has been subpar. While Jean-Sebastien Giguere was an All-Star starter, that was only because he's from Montreal. He's not even in the top 35 in GAA (3.08, 38th) and is 28th in save percentage (.904). If he wasn't making $6 million, he would've long ago lost his starter's job completely to Jonas Hiller (2.04 GAA, .930%).

**The playoff push in general. In the West, it's hard to say anyone is out of the mix. St. Louis is in last, and while nine points may seem like a lot of ground to make up, it's possible. The Blues have also been hit hard with injuries to key personnel (Andy McDonald, Erik Johnson to name two) but will get some of those players back. All-Star Keith Tkachuk could be moved, but with the likes of Patrik Berglund, Brad Boyes, David Perron and the return of McDonald, St. Louis has some gifted offensive players. The Blues also have three games in hand on Anaheim. It's not likely they'll sneak in but you never know. If you want to tighten the gap, only four points separates No. 8 from No. 12, and again, Anaheim has played more games than the four teams below it in the standings.

In the East, it's a little more clear. The Islanders will not make the playoffs and it's a long shot for Atlanta, with 39 points, to come close. Ottawa also has 39 points and still boasts studs in Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. Goaltending and secondary scoring have been the concern here, though Antoine Vermette is starting to get hot and rookie Brian Elliott has grabbed the goaltending reins. The Senators still need a miracle, but no one will want to play them.

It's hard to think they'll make a run, but both Tampa Bay and Toronto are nine points out of a playoff spot. But they are also eight points back of the two teams in front of them, Florida and Pittsburgh. If Tampa trades Vincent Lecavalier, which is a ridiculous notion to me, they'll join the Islanders and Thrashers as "out."

**Both the Penguins and Panthers are one point back of No. 8 Carolina. Few people expected either team to be in that position; most figured Florida would be way lower while Pittsburgh would be way higher.

Pittsburgh is a difficult team to figure out. The Penguins started 14-6-3 for one of the best starts in team history but have collapsed since. With the league's top two scorers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, no team should want to play Pittsburgh in a seven-game series, but secondary scoring has been minimal and the play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been below average since his return from injury.

I think it's still possible for Pittsburgh to get into the playoffs, but I don't see the Penguins winning more than a round or two, if that. Injury to Brooks Orpik, who may be out for weeks instead of days, will hurt the cause, since he is one of the few tough guys they have. There is not enough grit or overall talent on this team to make a long run. I also do not think GM Ray Shero will make a major move at the trade deadline, because this team is more than one player away.

**Which brings us to the trade deadline. Who will be moved, for what, and who will stay? Rumors again have circulated of Marian Gaborik to Pittsburgh, while the Lecavalier and Spezza talk continues to fly around. Some other marquee names being thrown around in trade talk include Chris Pronger, Heatley, Nikolai Khabibulin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Martin Havlat, Milan Hejduk and Martin St. Louis just to name a bunch.

**The individual races. Can Malkin hold off Alex Ovechkin for the Art Ross? Can Steve Mason sweep the Calder, Vezina and Hart trophies? Should they just change the name to the Lidstrom Award, or will San Jose's Dan Boyle or Nashville's Shea Weber swoop in and snatch it?

Other candidates for the Calder include Berglund, Chicago forward Kris Versteeg, Anaheim's Bobby Ryan and Boston's Blake Wheeler, with honorable mention to Blue Jackets center Derrick Brassard, who was having an excellent year before suffering a season-ending injury.

Nik Backstrom could be the frontrunner for the Vezina; Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez could steal votes from the other (the "you're not the best goalie on your team" argument), while others like Roberto Luongo, Henrik Lundqvist and Evgeni Nabokov have had good years, yet subpar for the high standards they have set. Miikka Kiprusoff may lead the league in wins, but only because he plays every game for a good Flames team; a 2.82 GAA should not win the Vezina.

Other MVP candidates include Ovechkin, Malkin if he remains atop the scoring lead and gets the Penguins into the playoffs; Zach Parise and Ryan Getzlaf. That's just a few. We'll add Backstrom to the list as well.

Some Jack Adams nominees would include Claude Julien (Boston), Todd McLellan (San Jose), Lindy Ruff (Buffalo), Wayne Gretzky (Phoenix) and Peter DeBoer (Florida) if he gets the Panthers to the playoffs. This will get thinned out as the season progresses.

**Finally, which coaches will be fired? Michel Therrien's seat in Pittsburgh is rumored to be heating up, despite assurances from ownership (which are often anti-assurances); Craig Hartsburg (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Dallas) and Randy Carlysle (Anaheim) maybe shouldn't plan any major home renovations just yet.

It should be another fun playoff push to watch, and trade deadline day will be as exciting as last year's. That's all from me for now.



Unknown said...

People give the Sharks a lot of crap (and rightly so) but the Bruins haven't won a playoff series yet this millennium, though a good portion of that time they did have Joe Thornton. (2004...vomit)

Ms. Conduct said...

Good work, Kev. And not just because I love the word "torrid."

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

I was going to mention something about Boston and its playoff history, but recently I think the Sharks have been a much bigger disappointment compared to the Bruins, who have been downstrodden the last few years and sometimes don't even make the playoffs.

Boston has disappointed for sure (twice a division winner earlier this decade and out in the first round), but the B's have won Stanley Cups. Granted, none since Bobby Orr, but that's better than the really good teams the Sharks have had to not even reach the Finals.

Anonymous said...

I wish we had Spezza...