Sunday, January 15, 2012

Getting Familiar with the NHL at Midseason

During my recent trip back home to New York I refreshed my perspective on a number of things, most prominently New York City itself (as I detailed in a post around that time). Alongside my renewed appreciation for New York was a brand new appreciation for hockey and the current NHL season. Having spent more than half my life as a hockey player, I've always loved the game and followed the pro hockey season closely. But after a knee injury sidelined me in the summer of 2010 I've been unable to sit and watch hockey games, embittered that I can't play. As a result, I've been almost completely ignorant of what's gone on in the sport, the exception being the Stanley Cup Finals of last June which I watched from within an enormous sports bar in Pasadena, CA while having dinner with a bunch of folks from the James Joyce Conference I was attending (the main buddy I made there was a big hockey fan from Calgary, a professor at the University of Alberta).

Most if not all of my close friends from New York are connected with hockey, we grew up skating on the same teams and continued to be play the game into our 20s. They all remain devoted hockey fans and with the local New York Rangers having their best season in almost 15 years, the hockey buzz was humming palpably during my visit to the city. When my family picked me up at Newark Airport and drove me into Manhattan where I met a friend for dinner, the sounds of the Rangers battling the Philadelphia Flyers blared over the car radio. Later that night, I happened to walk past a crowded post-game Madison Square Garden and some surrounding pubs where blueshirt-clad fans smoked cigarettes out on the sidewalks in the icy winter night.

The next night was Christmas Eve. After dinner I stepped outside to briefly speak to an old friend/nextdoor neighbor out in the street, the gist of our conversation being that I needed to watch the ongoing HBO series 24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic as soon as humanly possible. Thanks to the wonderful human advancement that is on-demand television (and my dad's near-obsession with having adequate cable television in nearly every room in my parents' house), I got to stay up late that night watching the first two episodes of the highly-regarded HBO documentary. The show follows the Rangers and Flyers behind the scenes and through their season as they prepare to collide in an outdoor game, the NHL's recently concocted New Year's Day celebratory match which is played on an outdoor surface. With all of the Manhattan scenes featured in the show, my newly minted perspective on the city was augmented and getting to know the personalities of players, seeing the dynamics of an NHL team, and witnessing the brilliance of Philly's cosmic-minded goalie Ilya Bryzgalov officially re-lit the spark on my hockey interest.

Two weeks later, that interest has exploded and so I'd like to let that all vent here and share my thoughts on the current NHL season, which has just recently crossed its midpoint.

Watching hockey games with a renewed vision has allowed me to see it from a broader, more detached perspective and thus I've been struck by the game's utter uniqueness; it is truly unlike any other sport. Its essence perfectly balances the diametrically opposed elements of grace and grit, smooth aesthetics and crashing collisions, in a manner unlike any other game. Because of this, it has a special pace and flow to it that the hockey fan savors. After watching hockey games every day for a week I woke up one Sunday morning and found that my first thought was "I wonder what hockey has in store for today." I was craving it. 

My hockey viewing has yielded three other general observations about the sport, each in regards to the game's three main positions.

1. It's all about the goalies.
As a kid, even though I skated as a forward, the goalie was always a fascination for me. I've had the opportunity to don the pads and skate as a goalie twice in my life and both times the task felt impossible with over 50 pounds of bulky padding weighing me down. I had a terrible time trying to stop any pucks. With this in mind, the movements of the NHL goalie are awe-inspiring. They also play arguably the most important position in the game.

I realized that one could get a great sense of what's going on in any game (and derive plenty of enjoyment) simply by paying close attention to the goalies. Nobody on the rink moves the way they do: jostling with opponents for a clear perspective of the puck, flailing their padded limbs around desperately when they've gone down on the ice, snatching a shot in their catching glove, sliding dangerously far out of their crease and having to scramble back, or paddling a loose puck away from their eminent domain.

In an attempt to quickly familiarize myself with new players and rosters, I've spent a lot of time perusing the pages of lately. In the process, the advanced statistics have confirmed the massive importance and value of goaltenders in hockey. It's all about the goalies, basically. The site tracks an all-encompassing stat that measures each individual player's total value, similar to Bill James' Win Shares or all of the other current variants of it in baseball stats. It's called Point Shares and looking through each team, the goalie is often the most valuable and important player. In fact, the most productive player in all of hockey right now is a goalie (Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings) and this has been the case for six out of the last eight seasons. We Rangers fans are getting a clear example of this with the sturdy play of our superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist who's actually 2nd in the league in Point Shares at the moment.

The sheer abundance of good goalies has also struck me. Obviously, they don't all play their best at the same time but there are is a large population of talented goalies in the league right now covering almost every single team. If you look at all of the top teams right now, each one has a terrific goalie in net (with the possible exception of the Chicago Blackhawks). Out of the thirty teams in the league, most of them have either a very good or formerly very good goalie:

The Rangers (Lundqvist), Bruins (Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask), Canucks (Roberto Luongo), Red Wings (Jimmy Howard), Predators (Pekka Rinne), Kings (Quick), Blues (Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott), Wild (Nicklas Backstrom), Sharks (Antti Niemi), Capitals (Tomas Vokoun), Canadiens (Carey Price), Coyotes (Mike Smith), Ducks (Jonas Hiller), and Flames (Miikka Kiprusoff) all have goaltenders that are either elite level or playing extremely well this season.

The Flyers (Ilya Bryzgalov), Panthers (Jose Theodore), Devils (Martin Brodeur), Sabres (Ryan Miller), Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury), Hurricanes (Cam Ward), Oilers (Nikolai Khabibulin), Avalanche (J.S. Giguere), and Islanders (Evgeni Nabokov) all have goalies that have once been considered elite level but are currently playing below their best.

The Senators (Craig Anderson), Blackhawks (Corey Crawford), Jets (Ondrej Pavelec), and Stars (Kari Lehtonen) have solid-but-unspectacular netminders. Anderson in particular is a favorite of mine because of his unorthodox style of coming far out of the net to challenge shooters.

And that leaves just the Blue Jackets, Lightning, and Maple Leafs with goalies that are nothing to write home about (and two of those teams are among the worst in the league). With this in mind, my advice for anyone wanting to learn about hockey would be (to paraphrase Seinfeld) "look to the goalies."

2. Forwards, as a whole, have gotten obscenely talented with their puckhandling.
Watching all of the best-of highlights for the past couple weeks, one thing that really strikes me is the sheer number of different players who appear in the clips doing acrobatic stickhandling maneuvers. It occurs to me that there are probably between 20 and 30 different forwards in the game right now who possess such a high degree of finesse skill that they'd have been among the very best puckhandlers in the game just 10 or 15 years ago. The overall talent level is simply soaring right now.

I'm talking about guys like Matt Duchene, Patrick Kane, Alexander Semin, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Ribiero, Bobby Ryan, the list goes on and on. They may not all be among the game's best players, but their ability to handle the puck and artfully shake defenders is otherworldly.

3. Influx of great young defensemen
So we've already said that the league is filled with great goalies, the forwards are growing incrementally more adept as a whole, and now I'm saying that there's suddenly a rush of young superstar defensemen flooding the league. It's true. Hockey as a whole is in a great place right now. Even the officiating has gotten more precise as the league has been the first of any of the major sports to adopt a "control room" of people monitoring every single play in every game as they happen so as to make sure they get things right. The only blemish on the game right now is the massive amount of concussions, this has become a very serious problem with the rapidly increasing speed, strength and violence of gameplay causing dangerous collisions.

When I stepped away from the game for about one full season it seems like a dozen or so rookie defensemen suddenly snuck in under my nose and started dominating. Now I'm just getting to know their names:

The Senators have probably the best Swedish defensemen since Nicklas Lidstrom, his name is Erik Karlsson and he broke into the league at age 19 two years ago. Now he has the second most assists in the NHL and sits second on his team in Point Shares behind only their goalie. The Rangers have a 21-year-old stud named Michael Del Zotto who is one of their best players and already one of the best defensemen in the entire league (he's 5th in plus-minus and leads the league in Defensive Point Shares). The St. Louis Blues' two best players right now are young defensemen I'd never heard of before: Alex Pietrangelo (22 years old) and Kevin Shattenkirk (23). The 6-foot-8 blueliner for the Sabres, Tyler Myers, has slipped a bit from his excellent rookie season two years ago but he's just 21 years old. The Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic's name is a mouthful but he's 24 years old and already has five strong seasons under his belt, right now he's sit behind only the Rangers' Del Zotto on that Defensive Point Shares list. Drew Doughty seems like he's been around for a while but he's just 22 years old and finished second in Defensive Point Shares last year.

I find myself often grousing that all the four major American sports have too many teams. I like to follow leagues as a whole in addition to rooting for individual teams and it becomes a nuisance to muster up any interest in, for instance, the Charlotte Bobcats or Phoenix Coyotes. Looking at the overall makeup of teams in the NHL, though, one thing's for sure: there's plenty of talent to go around and fill up 30 teams' worth of rosters.

Now, for a few words about those teams.

Eastern Conference
I am a big Rangers fan and have been for my whole hockey-loving life, but I have to be honest and say that the Boston Bruins are the top team in the East right now, if not the top team in all of hockey. They are quite clearly a team that opponents must be afraid to face because not only have they blown a number of teams right out of the rink already this season, but they're also tough and dirty. They love to fight and they've got quite a collection of players who can both score goals and pound someone's face in. They don't seem to have any one single superstar but instead they've got a deep roster with two excellent goaltenders, a deep defensive rotation led by the towering Zdeno Chara, and plenty of offense up front (as I type this they're tied with Chicago for most goals scored while having allowed the fewest goals). Their best player is only 20 years old and they've got plenty of youth throughout the roster as well as plenty of room in their salary cap, so these defending Stanley Cup champions are really the team to beat.

I'm confident in my Rangers though, too. For years now, ever since they've had Henrik Lundvist in net, they have been among the best defensive teams but have had much trouble balancing that with enough scoring. Now they've solidified the offense enough to step up into the league's elite with Marian Gaborik among the top scorers in the league and Brad Richards not far behind him. They've also developed two excellent young forwards of their own in Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan. They're on a collision course with the Bruins for the Eastern Conference finals and it should be a great match as the Rangers are also tough enough to not back down from a physical team (they currently lead the league in fighting majors, the Bruins are in third).

The main challengers to the dominance of the Rangers and Bruins appear to be the Flyers, a few up-and-coming teams, and the disappointing Capitals. The Flyers revamped their team before the season and have had some trouble getting all the pieces to come together in harmony (plus they've suffered a bunch of injuries, mainly concussions) and yet they're still in the mix. Even though they're the Rangers' main rival right now, I have a fondness for this Flyers team because they combine finesse and roughness as well as any team out there. They're always good for plenty of fights and tough physical play but they can also score. Their top line of Jaromir Jagr, Claude Giroux, and Scott Hartnell is an exciting trio and they've got a handful of other young forwards contributing as well. Their defense is pretty stacked and, of course, the quirky Bryzgalov plays goal. He's had a rough first half but I expect him to get it together as the playoffs near.

The Florida Panthers have an interesting mix of mercenaries but they've actually been outscored overall this season by 12 goals and I don't think their ceiling is anything higher than a low playoff seed and quick first round exit. The Ottawa Senators are the big surprise team thus far and I do think they've got a chance to stick. They play a pretty exciting style that's fun to watch. I've already praised their goalie a few times in this piece, they've also got one of the best two-way defensemen in the sport, and plenty of scorers up front.

The only other team in the East worth caring about is the Capitals and they've just kind of floated along thus far whereas most people expected them to dominate. This is the kind of team they are. Last year's HBO special followed them around and it was clear they've got problems getting motivated for games despite their great collection of talent. Because they've finally got a top-notch goalie, I'm confident they'll stay in the mix but I don't think they'll make any noise in the playoffs.

(Edit: Originally I didn't mention the Pittsburgh Penguins because they're currently 7th in their conference and losing key players left and right. As of this typing, though, they've won three straight and scoring machine Evgeni Malkin looks to be heating up. If he can carry the team on his back until Sidney Crosby comes back, this team shouldn't be counted out.)

Western Conference
So many interesting teams out west right now and they're all pretty closely bunched up. Even after letting go of many important parts from their Stanley Cup run in 2010, the Blackhawks remain strong and currently sit atop the conference. They can put up goals with the best of 'em but I don't think their goaltending is good enough for them to keep pace with the elite and their weak goal differential (+17 which is fifth in the West) reflects that. Their rivals in Detroit never seem to be anything but awesome, they are sort of like the San Antonio Spurs of hockey. In addition to a core that's as good as any group in the league (led by Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Nicklas Lidstrom), their young goalie has stepped his game up and is now one of the best in the league. The constantly churning wheel of successful hockey teams in Detroit never ceases to amaze me and we should expect them to once again be in the mix for the Stanley Cup this spring.

Staying right up there with the Hawks and Wings is one of the more interesting teams in the league right now, the St. Louis Blues. What intrigues me is that they are led by two defensemen in their early 20s while their goaltending situation is a rare 50/50 split between Halak and Elliott who are both playing very well. Their offense is carried by the seemingly ageless Jason Arnott and one of the league's more underrated forwards, David Backes (who wears the number 42 on his back which is extremely rare for hockey). The Sharks have made an interesting transition from a team that relies mostly on a powerhouse offense to one of the league's best goal-preventing teams. Their defensemen are strong and goalie Antti Niemi is one of the better netminders in the game right now. The offensive workload is gradually being passed down from the veterans Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton to youngsters Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture.

The Canucks are back to their old ass-kicking ways, they look primed for another deep run in the playoffs. They are one of the more entertaining teams to watch as Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin play in what I see as a very unorthodox style. They often look nonchalant and perhaps too smooth, constantly curling back or otherwise shocking both viewer and opponent with some anachronistic move. It certainly seems to work for them, though, as they're among the top producers in hockey. Besides the Hawks, Wings, Canucks, and Sharks, the Los Angeles Kings are a team that interests me even though they're sunk in mediocrity right now because of a season-long scoring slump. Their goaltending and defense are both rock solid but the offense just hasn't produced. The personnel is certainly good enough; Anze Kopitar is one of the league's most exciting young forwards and they added Mike Richards to the mix but something just isn't clicking for them and I haven't seen enough of their games to ascertain what that may be. If they can manage to get it figured out, they'll certainly catapult right up into that mix of Western contenders and make things interesting in the playoffs.

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