Sunday, January 3, 2010

NHL 2009-10 Midseason Report Part 1

As the calendar flips to 2010, the NHL season has reached its midway point and thus I think we've got enough games played to where we can actually start to look at who the real contenders are and what are some teams' chances for the season.

I'm going to go through each conference to take a look at how things might shake up in the season's second half. I'll present the Eastern Conference today and tomorrow go through the West.

(Conference standings are as of tonight, January 3rd, 2010. Numbers shown are Wins-Losses-Overtime Losses and Points in the standings)

Eastern Conference

The Serious Contenders:

1. New Jersey Devils
(29-10-1) 59 pts

This team amazes me. They're like the Spurs of hockey, just constantly one of the best teams in the league every season for well over a decade now and they never make any huge acquisitions or changes (besides letting good players go: Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer, John Madden, Petr Sykora, the list is endless). And it is just that which fascinates me so much about this team: they shed seemingly vital players almost every season but just keep on filling in the holes adequately enough and their disciplined system of defensive play keeps them competitive no matter what.

I haven't even mentioned Martin Brodeur who, despite the critics, has been the staying factor for all these years of excellence. The Devils' two biggest games so far this year were both against their division rivals, the defending-champion Penguins, and Brodeur did not allow a goal in either game.

Outlook: They should continue to kick ass and, if they maintain such a high position in the standings, will at least win the first round of the playoffs. I don't see them going much farther than that, though.

2. Buffalo Sabres
(26-11-4) 56 pts

A surprise team led by Ryan Miller who's having an incredible season in goal so far. They're currently on a roll, winning their last 4, and their position atop their division looks to be safe until (and unless) Boston gets its offense together. Offensively, this team has to get more out of Thomas Vanek who has only 11 goals so far after having 43, 36, and 40 the last three seasons. Rookie defenseman (and giant--6'8") Tyler Myers has been a standout with 22 points and a plus-7.

Outlook: Miller has almost single-handedly gotten them into this position and it'll be tough for him to maintain such a strong pace for the rest of the season. At least a little bit of regression is expected from him so if the rest of the team doesn't pick it up they will face a tough battle with the Bruins for the division lead.

3. Washington Capitals
(24-11-6) 54 pts

I guess you could say these guys are the "hottest" team this year and probably the most exciting to watch with not only Alexander Ovechkin (26 goals already) but also Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin all over the highlight reels. Second-year goalie Semyon Varlamov was having a spectacular season in net before injuring his groin but he will be back soon.

Outlook: Their division sucks so as long as they don't get complacent (and it's hard to imagine that happening to a well-coached, high-flying act like this one) they'll be in the top 3 teams in the conference. They were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual champion Penguins last year so look for them to exact revenge this time. Strong Cup contender.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins
(26-16-1) 53 pts

The stacked defending champs are slipping a bit after a strong start but still look like they'll be ready to defend the Cup in the spring. Sidney Crosby already has 23 goals but that's 10 more than any of his teammates. Evgeni Malkin missed a few games but look for him to heat up in the closing months.

Outlook: If they can get their powerplay figured out, they're as good as anybody. But it's been a struggle this year when they have the man-advantage which is surprising for such a strong offensive team. They'll be right in the mix though come playoff time. Look for them to be battling in the Conference Finals.

On the Cusp of Contenderness:

5. Boston Bruins
(21-12-7) 49 pts

Last year they finished first in the East and then were upset by the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs. They traded away their leading goal-scorer (Phil Kessel) in the offseason for draft picks and started out shakey this year but look to be picking it up. A strong stretch from back-up goalie Tuukka Rask seemed to help right the ship and, after an emotional win in the Winter Classic (and the signing of Miroslav Satan to help the meager offense), they should be ready to pick it up moving forward.

Outlook: They aren't quite in the mix with the Conference's top 4 teams right now but, with a +10 goal differential so far, they're much closer to the top than the teams with similar records. The defense and goaltending is strong but they need to score more. Alot more. Signing Satan will help but they might also need to make a trade.

The Mix of Mediocrity:

6. Ottawa Senators
(22-16-4) 48 pts

The Sens are doing pretty well at the moment after a dominating win against Philly today (in which Alexei Kovalev scored 4 goals) but, with Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson out for a while and an unspectacular goalie corps, they aren't really going anywhere but down from here on out.

And thus they've been lumped in with this big pile of closely packed mediocre teams. Excluding the Maple Leafs, there's 8 teams with similar records vying for the final three playoff spots. It's unlikely any of these spots will advance past the first round of the playoffs but, I guess once you get there ya never know. 

7. Montreal Canadiens
(21-20-3) 45 pts

8. New York Rangers 
(19-17-5) 43 pts

9. Atlanta Thrashers
(18-17-6) 42 pts

10. Tampa Bay Lightning
(16-15-10) 42 pts

11. New York Islanders
(17-18-8) 42 pts

12. Philadelphia Flyers
(19-19-3) 41 pts

13. Florida Panthers
(17-18-7) 41 pts

Tough to differentiate between so many closely-bunched teams but let's give it a try and see who we should look for to grab the 6-7-8 seeds in the East.

I've already excluded the Senators, they won't finish as one of the top 8 teams in the conference with the team they're putting out there. We can forget about the Islanders who have played more games than any of the other teams and have a minus-27 goal differential. The Thrashers are sinking fast, they've lost 8 in a row and their captain and best player does not want to stay with them so he'll probably be traded before the deadline. So they're out.

That leaves us with 5 teams for 3 spots: the Rangers, Canadiens, Flyers, Lightning and Panthers.

The Flyers were many people's choice to go to the Stanley Cup this year with a deep, well-balanced team but they've fallen off a cliff the last couple of months. They took a chance (a flyer?) with putting Ray Emery between the pipes for a team hoping to contend but he didn't do much and then got hurt. His replacements have performed admirably, particularly Michael Leighton and I think their coaching change will spark them to ascend back into the mix. I foresee them picking it up in the second half and fighting their way into the playoffs. They probably represent the best chance for an upset if they do make it there.

The two Florida teams haven't done anything special this year but they are both in the mix for the final spots. The Panthers have a couple good young forwards in Stephen Weiss (18 goals) and Nathan Horton (14) but not much else. Even though the Lightning have been outscored by 18 in the first half, with so much offensive depth (Stamkos, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Malone, Tanguay) it's hard to imagine they will continue to struggle to score goals for much longer. They also have a strong goaltending duo in Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki. Look for the Bolts to pick it up and ascend upwards into one of the final 3 spots. They've got a tough schedule this month starting with three games in a row versus the Sabres, Devils, and Flyers this week. Their performance in these games will probably dictate whether they can hang with the real playoff contenders.

That leaves the Rangers and Canadiens. They've got similar records and similar goal differentials but I have to take the Rangers. It's not unforeseeable that Marian Gaborik could singlehandedly propel them into the playoffs and Henrik Lundqvist is an elite goaltender. The Canadiens do have more scoring depth but, as this is almost a toss-up between the two, I'll take the team with Gaborik and Lundqvist.

The Basement Dwellers:

14. Toronto Maple Leafs
(14-19-9) 37 pts

They weren't expected to contend for anything besides maybe the Number 8 seed but they won't be sniffing that. Their leading scorer is a defenseman with 3 goals (but 32 assists). They've got 22-year-old Phil Kessel going for them but not much else, although Jonas Gustavsson looks like a great find in net.

15. Carolina Hurricanes
(11-23-7) 29 pts

This team's pathetic play is one of the biggest surprises of the season thus far. They upset the #1 seed Boston Bruins last year and made it all the way to the Conference Finals before bowing to the eventual champion Penguins, they barely made any changes to their roster, and now they are the worst team in hockey.

I saw this team in person against the Ducks in Anaheim (at that point they hadn't won a road game yet, they've since won 3) and they didn't look THAT bad. Alot of people were blaming the injury to Cam Ward for their demise but Manny Legace looked great in net when I saw him. His numbers certainly don't reflect that, though.

I've always liked this team but they are an absolute mess this season and their doesn't appear to be any signs of hope. There is a depth of suckitude (not one player has a positive plus/minus) and thus you can expect there will be some big changes to their roster.

(Photo credits: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

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