Quarter Mark: In Depth Analysis of Exciting Start to Shortened NHL Season

Roy Ben-Joseph  Journal Staff

Matt Bacon  Sports Editor

It seems like yesterday when the NHL and NHLPA reached an agreement to end a weary three and a half month lockout. As a matter of fact, the first puck was dropped only 30 days ago. Usually, the first month of the NHL season wouldn’t even be worth talking about because it would be barely 15 percent of a full season. But the result of a redundant lockout was more than just misery to all the loyal hockey fans across the US and Canada. It also resulted in a shortened season, one that instead of 82 games will end after only 48. Thirteen games into the 2012-2013 NHL season, we are past the quarter point mark, which means predictions, expectations, and playoff pictures can be made.

Both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins have the best winning percentage in their respective conferences. Both teams also had the best start to a season in each franchise’s history throughout 10 games. Chicago is featuring an explosive offense and power play that involves all-stars Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. The team’s 42 goals are second in the league, only one behind Tampa Bay’s 43.

The Bruins boast a steel defense; the same unit that helped the Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011. Led by their Slovak captain, standing at 6’9”, Zdeno Chara is the tallest player to ever play in the NHL. The Bruins defense has been playing the most physical game in hockey featuring the same strong and sometimes reckless, style that earned them the top spot in the penalty minutes category last year. It is safe to assume that the Bruins will once again lead the league in fighting due to their big bodies in the back and front. This outstanding defense managed to keep top scoring teams off the board and shut down opponents’ top players.

The New York Rangers are the Las Vegas favorites to win their first Stanley Cup since Mark Messier and company did it in 1994. The Rangers fell short in last year’s conference finals to arch rival New Jersey. Doubting the Rangers’ strength would be an act of ignorance. The team, led by 2004 Stanley Cup winning coach John Tortorella might be stricken with one of the worst power plays in the NHL, but with Vezina trophy winner goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and the addition of forward Rick Nash, who was the entire Blue Jackets franchise by himself for the last decade, the Rangers look like a scary contender. With the loss of Brandon Prust to free agency the team might have lost some of its physical abilities, but the return of a healthy Marian Gaborik is more than enough to make sure a Rangers offense would be a nightmare for every opponent. Gaborik scored over 40 goals for the team last year and his torn labrum muscle in the playoffs may have cost the Rangers their chance for the Cup.

With that being said, it is time to look at how things are coming together as well as the picture that is being drawn for the 2013 NHL season just past the quarter point mark. Had the season ended today, trophies would be distributed in the following order:

Hart Memorial – Most Valuable Player: Thomas Vanek. It is time to acknowledge one fact; as much as Ryan Miller has consistently been the entire defense for the Buffalo Sabres, Thomas Vanek has been their entire offense. The Austrian born winger currently leads the league in both total points and goals (11G, 12A, 23P.) There is no one more valuable to his team than Thomas Vanek.

Vezina: Craig Anderson. The Vezina trophy is given to the best goaltender in hockey. If the season ended today, nobody has played better throughout the first 13 games than Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson. Allowing on average 1.49 goals per game, Anderson is simply picking up from where he left off after the Senators were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by the New York Rangers. Anderson was the “Achilles Heel” for his team during the 2011-2012 regular season, but he came up huge for Ottawa in the playoffs, and the only reason his team was eliminated was because he was outperformed by the best goaltender on the planet and the Vezina winner in 2012, the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.

Norris Trophy: Zdeno Chara. Given to the best defender, Zdeno Chara is very familiar with winning and being a final candidate for this prize. When Chara came to the NHL the league had to change the rules regarding the limitations of the stick length due to his height. Chara not only has the longest reach in the league and a very physical style of play, he also holds the record for the hardest shot ever, recording a velocity of 108.8 MPH at last years All-Star Game. Chara has been mentioned many times as the best shutdown defenseman in the league, due to the low offensive numbers that top players averaging while playing against him. On top of his stellar defensive capabilities, Chara’s hard shot and great vision make him one of the better offensive defensemen in the league.

Jack Adams Award: Randy Carlyle. Randy Carlyle, as for now, is the best coach in hockey. That might be shocking, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are the most valuable team in hockey, valued at $521 million U.S. dollars. Has the franchise been that successful? Quite the opposite, they have been far from that. Over the years the Leafs have been involved with questionable trades and signings, firing a GM days before the beginning of a season. The Maple Leafs have not made the playoffs since 2004, and have a Stanley Cup drought of 46 years. In 2013 the team is ranked second in the Northeast Division and is very much within the playoff picture, all thanks to Carlyle who was appointed as head coach before the end of the 2012 season. They will make the playoffs if they keep up this pace. Division title? That might be too soon. The Maple Leafs will probably keep trailing their hated rivals from Boston who have won seven straight games against the Leafs. Boston looks too strong for Toronto for now.

Calder Trophy: Vladimir Tarasenko. The Russian winger from the St. Louis Blues has been nothing but a blast this year. He leads all rookies in scoring (5G, 5A, 10P.) The Blues have fallen into a recent slump, but if the season ended today, their 22 year-old winger would win the Calder trophy, which is given to the best rookie.

Most exciting team: Edmonton Oilers. No, it’s not the time for the Oilers to make the playoffs yet. But the Oilers are the youngest team in the league and boast young stars like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Justin Schultz. The team is over .500 and their young core will only continue to get better. The city of Edmonton is no stranger to young and exciting teams. After all, in the 1980s they had arguably the greatest dynasty in NHL history led by future Hall of Famers Mark Messier and the “Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. That Oilers team won five Stanley Cups in the 1980s.

Most Disappointing Team: Los Angeles Kings. Nothing else needs to be said. When you are the defending champ and you start the season under .500 people will talk and mock. Captain Dustin Brown is far from being on top of his game and defenseman Drew Doughty has been playing so bad that his +/- record stands at -10, totally unacceptable from a defending champ. Major offensive players like Anze Kopitar are struggling, last years Vezina runner-up Jonathan Quick has been off to a slow start, and the team’s defense has been plagued by injuries, most notably to alternate captain Matt Greene.

Double Strength: St. Louis power play and Bruins defense. The St. Louis power play has been off to a white-hot start, leading the NHL with a conversion percentage of 34.8. Forwards Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund have each tallied three goals with the man advantage to account for six of St. Louis’ 16 power play goals this season. The Bruins defense has limited MVP candidate Thomas Vanek to a one shot on goal in a full game. It seems even though the Bruins switch between their two backup goalies from last years after the leave of absence from 2011 playoff MVP goaltender Tim Thomas, they still manage to defend so well that the team allowed only 2 goals in the last 3 games. The Bruins have the highest average height and weight among players in the NHL, and their defense is more physical and scary than ever.

Double Weakness: Rangers’ power play. The New York Rangers power play has been so weak in the last two years that it gets the “Double Weakness” trophy from us conclusively. Despite having an offense boasting the likes of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Rick Nash, and young up-and-comers like Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin, the power play has been completely unable to click, wallowing consistently in the bottom three power plays in the league. It might be time to bring in a power play specialist as an assistant coach, something Tortorella has voiced opposition to in the past.

Best Signing: Jaromir Jagr. When you play the most violent and physical sport in the world, nobody would be surprised when your career ends in your early-mid 30s. But when you are a former NHL MVP and won awards for top scorer in 1992 and 1993 and you are still playing in the age of 41 and scoring for the Dallas Stars, you have to win this category. The Stars made a bet on Jagr and won it. Jagr is ranked eighth in points all time and since the seven people who precede him in this category are Canadian nationals, Jaromir Jagr is officially the top non-Canadian scorer in NHL history.

Worst Signing – Olli Jokinen, It is certain that the Winnipeg Jets had good intentions when they signed Jokinen to a two year, nine million dollar deal. After all, the 34-year-old Jokinen had 61 points for the Calgary Flames last year. But with two goals and four points after a quarter of a season, Jokinen has not lived up to expectations.

Despite its length and the drama preceding it, this season has already proven to be an exciting one. Some new players and new teams are establishing names for themselves, and the stakes are getting higher with each game. While it is still too early for anything to be set in stone, it is always exciting to analyze the ups and downs of teams and players around the league. The rest of this season should prove to be just as eventful as the first 12 games, and before we know it, it will be playoff time once again.