NHL season causing chaos early

Editors Note: All stats current as of Nov. 8

If the regular season ended today and the playoffs started, everyone would freak out because it's only November and the NHL season just started last month.

But, in addition to everyone freaking out, four of last year's eight Western conference playoff teams would be out. Those teams include the dynastic Chicago Blackhawks, the star-studded Minnesota Wild, the young Colorado Avalanche, and the bromantic Dallas Stars.

With all of those teams struggling, people start wondering why that could be. Well, no worries, I got some answers. In fact, I am going to identify a problem and the solution for all of these teams.

Chicago Blackhawks

Problem: With 2.43 goals scored per game average, the Blackhawks just aren't scoring enough goals.

Solution: Mix up the line combinations and put 6' 4'' left-winger Bryan Bickell on the top line so he can screen the goalie and give Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews better goal-scoring opportunities.

For the Chicago Blackhawks, they are just outside of the top eight with a 7-6-1 record that is good for 15 points. A record like that indicates mediocrity and that's just what the Blackhawks haven't been. Instead, they've been a team that plays great defense with a brickwall (Corey Crawford) for a goaltender. The Blackhawks have been so good on defense that they lead the lead in goals against per game with 1.86.

That being said, they have an exceptionally hard time scoring the puck. They've been shut out twice in a row at home this season, against the Anaheim Ducks and the Winnipeg Jets and they're also a paltry 2-7 in non-shootout games decided by one goal. So, when the Blackhawks win, they win big, which is the reason why their goals scored average exceeds their goals against average, despite their record.

My solution of putting big power forward Bryan Bickell in front of the net would distract opposing goaltenders and make seeing the puck almost impossible. This in turn would mean more goals for all-stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Let's make it happen head coach Joel Quenneville.

Minnesota Wild

Problem: The Wild have a 5.3% success rate on the power play, good for 29th in the league. That's a spot away from last people!

Solution: Play a more conservative, dump and chase style instead of the possession-based style they have been playing.

The Minnesota Wild's 7-5 record would be good enough for eighth in the Eastern Conference. But that's a totally meaningless statement since they're in the Western Conference in 10th place. The more you know, you know? Anyway, the Minnesota Wild have been a top 10 team in both goals per game, at 2.92, and goals against average, at 2.08. With numbers like that, you would think that the Wild would have a better record than 7-5. However, their power play has been holding them back.

In the NHL, where every player has talent and a good ethic and games come down to the bounce of a puck, excelling when you have a one-man advantage is extremely important. And as I said earlier, the Wild just haven't been doing that with their 38 power play opportunities. So far, they've only found the net on two of those PP chances thanks to some bad luck plus poor strategy and play.

Playing a more conservative dump and chase style would allow the Wild to keep the puck and get into position on the power play. With great offensive players like left-winger Zach Parise (who is currently out with a concussion), fellow left-winger Thomas Vanek, and offensive-minded defenseman Ryan Suter, one would think that a possession-based style of play would be better. However, that has clearly not been the case. So, maybe going conservative would be the Wild's best bet because something has to be done if the Wild want to make the playoffs again this year.

Colorado Avalanche

Problem: In almost every major team statistic category, the Avalanche are ranked in the bottom third of the league.

Solution: Mix up the line combinations so that the struggling sophomore Nathan Mackinnon has less pressure on him, while paying attention to what made last year's team successful.

Last year's Colorado Avalanche exceeded everyone's expectations last year when they made the playoffs by winning the Central Division with 112 points. This year, they have yet to discover the magic they had last season. Their record of 4-6-5 this year illustrates that fact. From goals per game (2.40) to goals against per game (2.93) as well as their power play (14.6%), the Avalanche have struggled through almost every facet of the game.

The Avalanche could just be regressing to the mean after their incredible success last year. However, that doesn't mean that head coach Patrick Roy should just stand pat and expect failure from his team. In interviews, Patrick Roy has stated that he wants his team to continue playing fast, offense-minded hockey, so their last resort appears to be changing up the lines.

Last year, Nathan Mackinnon scored 63 points on 24 goals and 39 assists as a rookie, which was good enough to win the Calder Trophy. In addition, last year's Avalanche had completely different lines that depended more on chemistry than ability. I suggest that the Avalanche should go back to the lines that made them successful last year while at the same time allowing Mackinnon to play against second and third line centers of the opposing teams.

Dallas Stars

Problem: Their 3.38 goals against average is 28th in the league. That number indicates poor defense and terrible goaltending.

Solution: Find better backup goaltending, whether from current backup Anders Lindback, their AHL team, or the waiver wire.

Out of all of these teams, the Dallas Stars have the worst record at 4-5-4. They're currently 14th in the Western Conference, which is one measly spot above the beyond atrocious Edmonton Oilers. The Stars have only won once at home and are only .500 on the road at 3-3. Their team statistics point to a team that has been able to score, at 2.8 goals a game, but not do much else. Their 17% success rate on the power play is 19th in the league and their 77.1% success rate on the penalty kill is even worse at 25th in the league. All of that being said, their defense has been atrocious with 3.4 goals given up per game. That number is 27th in the entire NHL.

That's a lot of numbers in one paragraph. But the Stars have all the pieces needed to succeed in the NHL. So, using numbers helps me comprehend just why they've lost so many games early in the season. Center Tyler Seguin continues to score and Jason Spezza has dished out the assists. The defense hasn't been that good, but the Stars have been a team focused on offense, so that's to be somewhat expected. Really, the only explanation for the Stars' terrible record has been the goaltending.

Kari Lehtonen, the Stars starting goaltender, has lost five games straight with a 2.94 goals against average that is 49th in the NHL. That being said, Lehtonen is the starting goaltender and those aren't exactly easy to come by. Especially when your backup hasn't exactly picked up the slack. Anders Lindback, former Tampa Bay Lightning starting goaltender, has not been able to stay in front of the puck this season. He has played in only two games this season, but he has given up nine goals already. These goaltending issues signal a team that needs to find a goaltender that can give this team a chance to win.

Predictions on the NHL award winners

Just as Nostradamus prophesied the end of times (with the help of misinterpretations and mistranslations by us), I will skillfully predict the end times of the NHL. 

No, just kidding. After covering five NHL veterans who will make a big impact with their new teams last week, my NHL season preview will wrap up today with predictions on the award winners of this upcoming season.

Calder Trophy: Jonathan Drouin, left winger, Tampa Bay Lightning

Coming into this season, Drouin possesses both hype and a proven track record. While playing with the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year, he scored 29 goals and 79 assists, while proving himself to be an offensive threat. This year, he'll have to prove himself to be capable of producing at the NHL level. I think he'll be able to do that next to All-Star center Steven Stamkos on the first line.

Selke Award: Patrice Bergeron, center, Boston Bruins

Bergeron winning another Selke would be no surprise. This award, given to the best two-way forward in the NHL, was won by Bergeron last year. He posted 30 goals and 32 assists while having the best overall season of his career. On a team where some of last season's offensive production was not replaced, Bergeron will have to bear the brunt of the goal scoring. Thanks to this, I foresee him having an even better season than last year with a full-season of Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith on his line.

Hart Trophy: Sidney Crosby, center, Pittsburgh Penguins

Despite being regarded as the best player in the league, Crosby has only won two Hart trophies (the NHL's MVP award) through nine NHL seasons. His health has hampered him at times, but his production has not suffered a decline. Last year, he finished with 36 goals and 68 assists, leading the league in both assists and points scored. Crosby's performance and team record (51-24-7) were good enough for Crosby to win his second Hart trophy last year. I think he'll be able to win another this year thanks to good health, continued production at the highest level, and more responsibility as the leading scorer on the Penguins.

Vezina Trophy: Carey Price, goaltender, Montreal Canadiens

Along with defenseman P.K. Subban, Carey Price was integral to the Canadiens (and the Canadians in the Olympics) success last season. He had his best statistical season last year with a .927 save percentage and a 2.32 goals against average. While I don't think he'll surpass those numbers, thanks to continued high production on a great team, he'll get more recognition as a top goaltender. 

Norris Trophy: Drew Doughty, defenseman, Los Angeles Kings

Through Doughty's six NHL seasons, he has four top-10 finishes for the Norris Trophy. But this year, I'm predicting he'll finally get over the hump and win the trophy for himself. Last season, Doughty's performance as an offensive-minded defenseman was integral to the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup win. He held his own and proved that defensemen don't need gaudy offensive statistics to be hugely effective for their team. Thanks to Doughty's incredible 2014 performance in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he'll have the momentum necessary to be recognized as the top defenseman in the NHL.

Stanley Cup: Boston Bruins

Last season, the Bruins were defeated by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. For the winners of the President's Trophy (the NHL's best regular season team), being knocked out of the playoffs so early was a disappointment. Due to salary cap constraints, the Bruins were unable to retain right winger Jarome Iginla and were forced to trade defenseman Johnny Boychuk this off-season. However, I think the Bruins will come back strong this year thanks to their Holy Trinity (center Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Zdeno Chara, and goaltender Tuukka Rask) and a weak Eastern Conference.

Why to follow the NHL

As you may have noticed, both the NBA and NFL have had their share of controversies. The NBA has dealt with two racist owners, former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson, and the NFL is continuing to deal with a storm of incompetence and player misdeeds. However, the NHL has kept its nose clean. Basically, what I'm saying is that, if you want a guilt-free sports entertainment experience, watch and follow the NHL.  But, of course there are more reasons why you should divert your attention from the controversial NBA and NFL and instead pay attention to the NHL.

First of all, the sport is absolutely insane. Thanks to 45 second shifts for players, an average speed of 23 mph for skaters (compared to 16 mph for an average NFL running back), and a hard, rubber puck flying around, there is plenty of pandemonium to be in awe of. All game long, mobs of players crash the nets attempting to get the puck out of trouble or into the net. All game long, skaters are looking to grab the puck on a breakaway after a failed line change. And, all game long, fans are kept at the edge of their seats. For the fan who is bored by constant commercials in the NFL and never-ending timeouts and fouls at the end of NBA games, the NHL is definitely the sport for you. There is beauty in the chaos.

Another reason to like hockey? Canadians are nice. That sounds weird, but hockey is Canada’s gift to the world and its players are incredibly likable. Take for example, superstar player Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. After being named the EA Sports NHL 15 cover athlete, he still went home to Quebec in the summer to raise $100,000 for children in his native city. So, while he could have basked in the glow of his achievements, he instead chose to give back to the community. This example of Patrice Bergeron is not an isolated case, but one that exemplifies the effort hockey players give off the ice.

The biggest reason to like hockey has to be the playoffs and the chase for the best trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup. As soon as the regular season ends, players on playoff teams start growing their beards and getting ready for the most intense playoff experience in sports. Players play differently in the playoffs, as they are more aggressive offensively, defend more tightly, and hit more often. The NHL playoffs are most definitely an intense experience. And this doesn’t even take into account the anxiety and emotion fans feel as their team bears down in the final minutes of an elimination game that has gone into overtime. Oh, and don’t forget about that Stanley Cup. It’s huge, weighs about 35 pounds, and players cannot wait to put it above their head in triumph after a hard-fought playoff run. Ordinary players are made heroes when their names are engraved into the trophy after winning it all. The Cup is everything.

If any of this sounds good (and it should), you’re in luck. You can start the NHL season fresh as it returns in a few weeks on Oct. 8. 



My Picks for the 2013 NHL Awards

Just two games remain in the 2013 NHL regular season, and it’s about time to start thinking about which players will be taking home the goods this year. Here are my picks to be the 2013 award winners.

Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP):

Alex Ovechkin (31G, 22A) - The Caps were pretty lethargic to start the season, going 12-16-1 in their first 29 games despite a roster loaded with talented playmakers. Ovechkin and his sizzling stick is the No. 1 reason they turned the tables and have now locked in the third seed in the East. The slow start woke up a sleeping giant and the rest was history – the last month has been one of the best of his career. Watch out for them in the playoffs.

Art Ross Trophy (NHL points leader):

Steven Stamkos (29G, 27A) - Wow! What a race between Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis (16G, 42A), Stamkos and the Pens’ annual representative for the award, Sydney Crosby (15G, 41A). This will be a photo finish – both teams have two games remaining (although the bolts won’t be in the playoffs). I like Stamkos to take home the Art Ross for the third time in his career. I think he’s been the most balanced player of the three this season – he’s a more capable goal scorer than St. Louis, who might be the game’s best creator, and Crosby has had a down scoring year by his standards thanks to injuries.

Maurice Richard Trophy (NHL’s top goal scorer):

Alex Ovechkin (31G) - This was another tough one for me. It’s pretty much down to Stamkos (29G) and Ovechkin. While I am supremely confident that Stamkos can easily score two goals in his Tampa Bay’s last two games, there is a greater of chance of me winning the lottery than Ovechkin not scoring at least one goal in his last two games. His stick is just too hot and his team is playing too inspired for its player not to get the puck enough to make it happen.

Vezina Award (NHL’s top goalie):

Sergei Bobrovski (2.06 GAA, .930 SV%) - Another close race here. Several other goaltenders are worthy: Tuuka Rask, Craig Anderson, Antti Niemi, etc. In the end, for me, it came down to which of these goalies was most important to his team, and that’s clearly Bobrovski. He has been a boulder all season for the Jackets and this team has no chance in the West playoff race without his stellar play over the last two and a half months.

James Norris Award (NHL’s best defenseman):

P.K. Subban (11G, 25A) - This pick might surprise some people, as the Pens’ blue line force Kris Letang is considered the favorite. I’m going with Montreal’s Subban because I like his scoring and ability to pitch in on offensive ice a little more than Letang’s. Both guys have masterful defensive stick range and are bulldogs physically, given the fact that they are both only 6-foot, 200-pounders.

Calder Memorial Trophy (NHL’s best rookie):

Jonathan Huberdeau (14G, 14A) - This is another shocker to a lot of people. Compared to the other candidates, Florida’s 19-year-old center had the by far the least line talent to work with, and scored more goals in spite of this. I love Brandon Saad, but you definitely have to factor in the advantage he has by playing in the Hawks’ goal factory system.

Jack Adams Award (NHL’s coach of the year):

Bruce Boudreau - In his first year as the Ducks’ skipper, he has completely changed the culture in Anaheim, going from a sneaky defensive system to a bruising, direct offensive attitude. In this league, taking your team from last one year to first the next automatically earns you a spot in the race for this award.

If NHL players are allowed at the Sochi Games, look for the U.S. to make a run

They won gold in 1960. It took a miracle to win it again in 1980. They came within minutes of victory in 2008. But 2014 might be U.S. hockey’s best chance ever to bring home the gold – that is, if its NHL stars are allowed to play again.

We are just about a year away from the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and one major question remains unanswered: Will NHL players be allowed to represent their countries at the games?

For the past few days, representatives of the NHL, the Players’ Association, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee have been meeting to discuss this question. Talks are scheduled to continue Friday.

As they always do, several concerns have surfaced: If NHL players are allowed to go overseas for a month to represent their countries, will league television ratings suffer? Many of these departing players are all-star caliber, so how does that affect attendance? These are all legitimate questions to consider.

The fact remains that NHL players have participated in the last four Winter Games. Despite their absences, league-wide revenue has increased in each of the past six years. So it’s safe to assume that the NHL players should be allowed to participate in next year’s winter games, right?

We’ll have to leave that up to the negotiators, but for now, let’s assume that the NHL players will be attending the 2014 winter games. This US squad might be America’s most talented team ever. There are a number of great players that the US can select from, and that number has been growing since 2008. Here is the US team I’d like to see on the ice for the 2014 games.

Line 1:
C: Joe Pavelski (San Jose)​​​​
RW: Patrick Kane (Chicago)
LW: Zach Parise (Minnesota)
This is a world-class scoring line.

Line 2:
C: David Backes​ (St. Louis)
RW: Phil Kessel (Toronto)
LW: Max Pacioretti (Montreal)
All three of these guys can easily score 30+ goals this season.

Line 3:
C: Derek Stepan (New York Rangers)
RW: Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings)
LW: James Van Riemsdyk (Toronto)
Van Riemsdyk is currently the Leafs’ (8-6-0) leading scorer. An NHL team-leading scorer on the US third line is a testament to the depth this squad would have.

Line 4:
C: David Legwand (Nashville)
RW: Jamie Langenbrunner (St. Louis)
LW: Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay)​
Old-timer Jamie Langenbrunner will provide invaluable leadership and international experience.

Jack Johnson (Columbus)
Alex Goligoski (Dallas)
Ryan Suter (Minnesota)
Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg)
Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis)
Rob Scuderi (Los Angeles Kings)
Keith Yandle (Phoenix) ​
This is an elite defensive staff – they are all physically-imposing two-way defensemen.​​​​

Craig Anderson (Ottowa) – arguably the best goalie in the league right now. Has a .949 save percentage.
Ryan Miller (Buffalo) – 40+ saves vs. Canada twice in the 2008 winter games. Currently holds a .915 save percentage on weak defensive team.
Those are two of the league’s best between the pipes.
This proposed US squad would be supremely talented and competitive. There aren’t any holes and each player contributes a great deal to the team. The 2014 US team should look something like this proposed team. If so, I expect them to play very well against the world next year. Not all of these players will make the team, but as American hockey fans, we can hope.

For the second time in eight years, there may not be a NHL season.

The National Hockey League, considered one of the four elite professional sports leagues in the country along with the NFL, NBA and MLB, is on the brink of yet another player lockout.

In a sports landscape suddenly ripe with collective bargaining troubles, the NHL is the only league that has recent precedent for losing a substantial number of games.

The NBA encountered a lockout this past season, but each team still played a 66-game schedule ­­— only 16 less than a full year after a deal was struck. The NFL dealt with a lockout of its own last summer but only lost one game in total, the preseason Hall of Fame game.

Hockey, on the other hand, locked out for the entire 2004-05 season.

Another missed season could be devastating to the sport. But the question is, would the loss of hockey be felt by the student body here at the University of Texas? The first place to look for students who would be affected is the UT hockey team.

“I would care a lot,” said Chintan Prakash, a biology junior from Houston who recently joined the team as a winger.

Prakash, who lived in Montreal for six years of his childhood, watches “a lot of hockey; 90 percent of [the Montreal Canadiens] games.”

An NHL lockout would hurt him. But how many other students would be as perturbed as Prakash if there were no hockey this year?

Jonathan Espinoza, a journalism sophomore from Long Island, N.Y., says although he’ll occasionally watch the New York Rangers play, he is “not invested” in following the NHL. Espinoza admits that he “didn’t know until right now” that there was an impending lockout in the NHL.

TUNOSHNA, Russia — A private jet carrying a Russian professional hockey team to its first game of the season crashed shortly after takeoff Wednesday, killing 43 people — including European and former NHL players — in one of the worst aviation disasters in sports history. Two people survived the accident.

The crash also was the latest tragedy to befall the sport of hockey — following the sudden, offseason deaths of three of the NHL’s tough-guy enforcers that has shocked fans.

The chartered Yak-42 jet was carrying the team — Lokomotiv Yaroslavl — to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where it was to play Thursday in its opening game of the Kontinental Hockey League season. Of the 45 people on board, 36 were players, coaches and team officials; eight were crew.

The plane apparently struggled to gain altitude and then hit a signal tower before breaking apart along the Volga River near Yaroslavl, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Moscow. One of the blue-and-white plane’s charred engines poked through the surface of the shallow water.

“This is the darkest day in the history of our sport,” said Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. “This is not only a Russian tragedy — the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from 10 nations.”

One player — identified as Russian Alexander Galimov — and one unidentified crew member were hospitalized in “very grave” condition, said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl’s Solovyov Hospital.

Among the dead were Lokomotiv coach and NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian; assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, one of the first Russians to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the New York Rangers; and Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain.

Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey yells to his team during an NBA basketball game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in Oklahoma City last December. Casey is the new coach of the Toronto Raptors.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TORONTO — Dwane Casey hopes to bring a rugged, NHL-style of defense to his newest job in the NBA.
The Toronto Raptors hired Casey as their coach Tuesday, nine days after the Dallas assistant helped the Mavericks win the championship.

Casey succeeds Jay Triano, a Canadian who became a consultant after the Raptors finished 22-60. Casey was the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves from June 2005 to January 2007, compiling a 43-59 record.

Casey said his No. 1 goal is to give the Raptors a “defensive identity.” He partially credited the Mavericks’ performance against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA finals to the breaking down of hockey video.

“Because we felt we were playing too soft against Miami to start the series,” he said. “And it really set the tone.”

“I don’t know a lot about of hockey. I know I’ll learn about it. But we spliced in those guys checking players up into the window, into the boards and that type of thing and that’s the way we want to play,” he said. “We want to make sure people feel us when they cut through the lane. And that’s a mindset, and that’s having a disposition — a bad disposition — when people come through your paint.”

Poor on defense, Toronto missed the playoffs for the third straight season. The Raptors have made it past the first round only once in their 16-year existence, doing it in 2000-01.

The Raptors want to start their improvement Thursday with the fifth pick in the NBA draft.

Casey won’t have much input on who the Raptors pick.

“I’ve learned over the years to step back from the draft because you have to hire trusted people with your scouting department and trust their knowledge,” Casey said. “You can give them your input into what you need and what you want, but the bottom line has to come from the scouting department.”

The 54-year-old Casey, who also was an assistant for 11 seasons in Seattle, is the eighth coach in Raptors’ history.

Triano stood quietly at the back of the news conference announcing Casey’s hire. Casey said he intends to use Triano as a “resource” and build on what he sees as a core of young talent that includes guards DeMar DeRozan and Jerryd Bayless, center Andrea Bargnani and forward Amir Johnson.

“Defensively, I’m going to be a hands-on control freak, so to speak,” he said. “Offensively, I’m going to trust and give them freedom.”

Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo said he got a call from Dallas coach Rick Carlisle in the wee hours after the Mavericks won the championship.

“Rick Carlisle said, ‘Bryan, I want to know what it’s going to take to get Dwane that job in Toronto. It’s right for him, it’s right for you, it’s right for the situation. You need to strongly consider it,’” Colangelo said.

“He comes with exceptional support from people in very high places,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that are rooting for Dwane to do well here. They think it’s the right time,” he said.

DeRozan was at the news conference and said he and his teammates welcome the new commitment to defense.

“I think everybody’s definitely going to buy into it because we’ve got a young team and we could cause a lot of havoc on the defensive end,” DeRozan said. “I want to improve as a person and as a team player.”

Casey promised a free-flowing approach with the ball.

“The last time I checked, the reason why you win games is scoring, so we’re going to put a high premium on that too,” he said. “We want to keep the pace up-tempo with our young team because we have the athleticism.”