NEW YORK– By Daniel Friedman
Raise your hand if you predicted the Rangers, Islanders and Devils to be separated by four points through 29 games (30, if you’re New Jersey).
If your hand is raised, put it down; you’re bluffing and you know it.
The fact that none of the three locals are a shoe-in to make the playoffs at this rate is quite mind-boggling. After all, one of them went to the Stanley Cup Finals last year and another lost to that team in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Devils got off to a real good start, only to lose Martin Brodeur to injury and then realize at the most inopportune time that, all the while, they’d really been playing way over their heads.
The Rangers have been unpredictable; they’ve looked like the kind of team that can make a serious run in the postseason or at an early offseason, depending on the day of the week.
As for the Islanders, they’re an interesting case because few would’ve thought they’d even be in this mix to begin with.
As a fan of any of these three teams, all you want to know is how this could’ve happened and whether or not it can be fixed.
In order to find the answers, we’re going to take a look at each individual situation and see what we can come up with.
New York Rangers: 15-12-2 (32 points), 8th place in Eastern Conference, 2nd in Atlantic Division
There were very high expectations for this Rangers squad coming into this season, and rightfully so. The team had come oh-so-close to reaching the Cup Finals last year and were seemingly a puzzle piece away from taking that proverbial next step.
Well, they certainly got their puzzle piece, Rick Nash, in exchange for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round pick, and he’s shown up for them. In 25 games this year, Nash has 10 goals and 24 points.
The only problem is, some of the other key puzzle pieces have been strewn across the room. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards have just 17 and 15 points, respectively.
New York has won its last two games and it does appear they might finally be turning that corner. However, if Gaborik and Richards continue to struggle, so to will the Rangers.
Broadway’s marquee stars absolutely need to shine brighter, but here’s another thing to consider: Rangers’ brass had been counting on neophytes Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller to contribute.
Unfortunately, Kreider recorded just two points in 11 games before being sent down to the AHL and Miller has just four in 21 contests. The Rangers recalled Kreider this afternoon, so perhaps he can rise to the occasion this time around.
In any event, both players were rushed; there’s no doubt about it in my mind.
At least, other role players have stepped up. It’s hard to ask for much more than what you’ve been getting out of Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin this season. All three of those guys have done a nice job.
Different theories have been tossed out there, whether it be on the airwaves and newspapers, or on Facebook and Twitter.
Some have suggested that head coach John Tortorella has “lost the room,” that the players on this team no longer buy into his style or his expectations of them. I can tell you right now, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Rangers are seventh in the NHL in blocked shots (465), third in hits (876) and have given up the fifth-fewest goals (68). They’re ranked ninth on the penalty kill.
Sounds an awful lot like Tortorella hockey to me.
Another explanation that’s been offered is that Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t had as terrific a year as he usually does. Technically speaking, that’s an accurate statement. However, the idea that he’s not having a terrific year at all is absolutely ludicrous.
In 25 appearances, Lundqvist sports a 2.23 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. That’s actually comparable with his numbers in two of the last three seasons, both of which were good years for him.
That 13-11-1 record of his has more to do with his teammates’ failure to execute than it does with his own play.
Let’s be honest; this is a Ranger defense that is very capable of shutting down the opposition. Henrik Lundqvist does not necessarily have to be a Vezina-caliber goaltender every single year, nor does he have to be in order for the Blueshirts to be a Cup contender.
He’s still one of the best in the business and has played like it this year. It’s not his fault that he gets little run support. In today’s NHL, 1-0 hockey games are practically an endangered species.
The Rangers also need to fix their power play woes which can be done by improving their entry into the offensive zone and by going out and getting a defenseman who can actually quarterback that unit.
It has to be someone who skates well, moves the puck well, and is a dual threat to either fire a rocket or pass. Michael Del Zotto is a solid offensive-defenseman, but he is simply not that go-to guy.
If the New York Rangers can find some offense, the wins will follow. I expect them to work out the kinks and solidify a playoff spot.
New Jersey Devils: 13-11-6 (32 points), 9th in Eastern Conference, 3rd in Atlantic Division
It wasn’t too long ago that the Devils were one of the better teams in the conference. New Jersey roared out of the gate and were firing on all cylinders. When Adam Henrique returned from his injury, the red-hot Devils turned it up a notch.
My, how the table have turned.
New Jersey has sputtered out of control, having lost five of their last ten and, previously, six in a row. They were without Martin Brodeur until last night, when he backed up Johan Hedberg during a 3-2 loss to the Rangers.
Most people are surprised by this dramatic reversal but, in my view, it was the excellent start to the year that had me baffled.
Yes, the Devils went to the Finals last year and put up a real spirited fight against an LA Kings team we all knew no one was going to beat. But even then, were those New Jersey Devils really as good as advertised?
Let’s be honest, there were far better teams, far deeper teams, far stronger teams. The Devils got on a roll at the right time and, as the old adage goes, anything can happen if you make the playoffs.
Then, Zach Parise jumped ship, signing a 12-year lifetime contract with his hometown Minnesota Wild.
I looked at this team after Parise left and I saw a bare cupboard. Sure, Ilya Kovalchuk was still there, Patrik Elias was still there, Henrique and Travis Zajac were still there. After those guys, there wasn’t much else.
On defense, they’re paper-thin. You were never going to convince me that Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, a budding Adam Larsson and Marek Zidlicky were going to help this team get to the postseason a second year in a row. You’ll still have a hard time convincing me of that.
The Devils fan will tell me that Brodeur’s injury is the reason for this series of unfortunate events that has occurred. I’ve got news for you: If this team is completely helpless without No. 30 between the pipes, that says a lot about their true nature.
I expect New Jersey to miss the playoffs this year. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s at all possible, but that it’s rather unlikely.
New York Islanders: 13-13-3 (29 points), 10th in Eastern Conference, 4th in Atlantic Division
As I said before, the fact that the Islanders are even in this race is somewhat of a surprise to most folks, Isles’ rooters included. That doesn’t shock me though, because I predicted they’d be in playoff contention this year and, to this point, they have been.
It’s a very positive sign for a young team on the rise, and 2013 Isles are the best version this franchise has had in a while, certainly since the start of the rebuild.
Progress is a good thing, but there are more steps that these young Islanders must take before they become “the real deal,” as one might phrase it. Like their regional foes, the Islanders have been mired in inconsistency and have had trouble turning that corner.
The Isles are poorly coached, and I’ve written extensively about why I feel head coach Jack Capuano needs to be fired.
His line changes make little sense and are poorly timed, he doesn’t seem to have a feeling for the pulse of that locker room and often can’t really explain why things go wrong when they do. His team constantly blows leads and starts slow, which has everything to do with the environment you create and the tone you set as a coach.
Personally, I believe the Islanders are a coach away from being a playoff team.
Defense has been an ongoing issue as well, but as I’ve said before, it doesn’t take Bobby Orr to clear the zone. The guys they have on that blue line right now are serviceable enough to be a solid unit, at the very least.
Between Mark Streit, Lubomir Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic, this defense is better than what we’ve seen on the ice thus far.
I’m not going to pick on the Islanders too much, because they are still in that learning stage and, unlike the Rangers and Devils, they were not necessarily expected to be in playoff contention.
Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t work left to be done. There’s still plenty, but the Isles will get there.
By Adam Davis
One would think that in a lockout-shortened season consisting of only 48 games, an NHL midseason report would be rather lacking. After all, how much can there really be to discuss after less than 30 games?
The answer is simple: A ton.
The Chicago Blackhawks only losing 0.07% of its games.
The Montreal Canadiens’ rise from last to first.
Sidney Crosby scoring so much he’d be on pace for a 138-point campaign over a full 82 games.
I know! Awesome, right?
My initial NHL picks this season included the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues being the regular season champs in each conference. While I could still be right about those two, it’s not looking very likely as some unexpected clubs are destroying the competition.
Montreal is leading the Eastern Conference after finishing dead last in 2012. The Carolina Hurricanes, who currently sit in third in the East, have risen from 12th. Out West, the Anaheim Ducks have jumped from 13th to 2nd.
As last year’s NFL and NBA season proved, seasons shortened by lockouts are still bursting with drama and excitement and the recent play of these teams is evidence of that. Montreal, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Anaheim all have rosters which include a core group of young, talented players who have meshed extremely well in a short amount of time.
These players are leading their teams early on in the season and will help them to separate from the chaff as the games in March and April are played out.
It’s tough to think about any team being able to beat either the Penguins or the Blackhawks in the playoffs, but as we saw last season, anything can happen.
Reaching the playoffs as the 8th and final seed in the West, the Los Angeles Kings came out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup in 2012. Who will be the Kings of this season?
My prediction for the underdog teams would have to be the New York Islanders in the East and Edmonton Oilers in the West.
Both clubs have an insane amount of talent that they have been stockpiling over a long streak of disappointing seasons. Without a doubt, this season is their best chance to sneak into the playoffs, as their young players will still have their legs under them come April.
Ok, so there are some excellent hockey teams out there, but what about the players? Scoring seems to be coming in pairs in the NHL this year:
Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis: 74 points and nine power play goals combined.
Carolina’s Eric Staal and Alex Semin: 60 points and +39 combined.
These are incredible stats, but the real scoring gods are Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz: 86 points and +43 rating combined = WOW.
And don’t even get me started about goaltending.
Remember Boston’s backup goalie, Tuukka Rask? Me neither. Well he’s leading the league in wins and is top five in shutouts, save percentage and goals against average. Insanity.
Or how about Chicago’s goalies: both the starter Corey Crawford and backup Ray Emery have won 10 games for the incredibly unstoppable Blackhawks.
The league may have gotten off to a rocky start, but there’s no doubt that 2013 is one of the most exciting NHL seasons in recent memory. And it’s only starting to heat up. With just over two weeks until the trade deadline and just over six weeks until the playoffs begin, it’s officially crunch time in the NHL. And despite the lockout, I say I’m just as excited as ever.
By Adam Davis
Hart – League MVP – This one is a toss up – I’m making it a tie right now between Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Chicago’s Patrick Kane. Both have been playing incredible hockey both by scoring and with solid plus/minus totals. Kane’s Blackhawks are playing some of the best hockey ever right now, but it’s tough to argue with Crosby’s 40 points.
Art Ross – Highest Point Total – this one is purely a prediction, but I think that Sidney Crosby will continue to remain on top of the league’s point race. The Penguins have a very solid team that has been playing together for quite some time, and when Crosby is on fire there’s really no stopping him.
Adams – Coach of the Year – Michel Therrien, Montreal Canadiens. This choice is a no brainer considering how Montreal finished dead last in the conference last season and is currently 1 point out of first. Not only that but they’re winning tons of games without any superstars. The Canadiens don’t have a single player in the top 30 in scoring in the NHL (their highest is 40th overall) but are one of the best teams in the league right now. Thanks to solid goaltending, a good work ethic and the ability to win games no matter what is why the Canadiens are rolling. All that should be attributed to Therrien’s coaching.
Norris – Top Defenseman – This one is also a tie for me – between Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and Toronto’s Cody Franson. The Norris trophy shouldn’t be about points scored because it’s for defense and should focus on plus/minus much more strongly. That’s why Franson should be recognized. The young Leafs’ player has 16 points and a +11 rating – not the highest in the league but it puts him second among the top-20 defenders in scoring. Letang has helped the Penguins achieve a very solid record and is leading all defenders with 25 points. We’ll see how both these players’ totals vary as the second half of the season plays out.
Vezina – Top Goaltender – Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. Rask has shown spots of brilliance in his short career, but has always been a backup to the solid Tim Thomas in Boston. This year, with Thomas’ retirement (?) Rask was thrust into the starting role and has excelled. Rask has won of his 17 starts, two of which were shutouts, all while maintaining a goals-against-average of under 2.
Calder – Rookie of the Year – Brendan Gallagher, Montral Canadiens. As I said above the Canadiens are playing great hockey without any true star, but Gallagher has emerged as an excellent prospect for Montreal. He is one of two Montreal rookies in the top 10 in scoring, but he was drafted four rounds after his teammate Alex Galchenyuk (and is out-scoring him too). Having a 5th rounder produce 13 points in 20 games and at the same time record a +10 rating, is something that GMs dream of in the NHL. This kid could really be something.
By Adam Davis
1) Not to detract from any of the skilled skaters who are scoring at a torrid pace this year, I believe that the key to success so far in 2013 has been goaltending. The Chicago Blackhawks are making history with their streak of not losing in regulation – thanks largely to the skills of their netminders. Starting goalie Corey Crawford was off to a solid start and when he went down with injury, backup Ray Emery has been stellar winning eight of nine and posting a shutout last night. Over in Boston, youngster Tuukka Rask was promoted once the Bruins’ brass found out their starter Tim Thomas was sitting out the season and the young Finnish goalie is leading the league in wins. Not too shabby.
2) Another huge aspect of teams’ success is secondary scoring. Sure the usual suspects are atop the rankings in the statistics department, but there are a few second tier names scatter there too. Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz and Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek are tied with 24 points, Nazem Kadri has 21 for Toronto and Teddy Purcell has 19 for Tampa Bay. In such a short season with players prone to injury and a situation where every team needs all the help it can get, these guys stepping up is the difference maker between being in the playoff hunt in a month from now or booking tee times for after the season ends.
3) One idea that the NHL teams could have stumbled upon this year is how coaching changes really can work if done at the right time and for the right person. Look at a few teams who have made changes and are reaping the benefits – Anaheim, who hired the former Washington coach Bruce Boudreau is second in the West; Buffalo – fired long-time coach Lindy Ruff and has won two in a row to move out of last place in the East; Toronto – hired former Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle and they are playing playoff-caliber hockey for the first time in a decade. What might not work? Firing your GM – Columbus is still terrible sitting dead last in the Western Conference. They need more than just a personnel change; they need an overhaul.
NEW YORK– By Daniel Friedman
Rick DiPietro was quoted today as saying the Islanders “ripped my heart out, stabbed it, set it on fire and flushed it down the toilet.”
I’d believe that DiPietro was joking about committing suicide, only because he once kiddingly said that his way of dealing with a loss is going home and beating his wife. True story.
Maybe he’s not suicidal, but there’s no question he’s depressed. Went from hero to zero in the blink of an eye; could’ve been one of the best goalies in the game today and, instead, nosedived spectacularly.
I do feel bad for the guy, he is a human being.
Having said that, his comments about the Islanders are childish and uncalled for. This organization gave him so many opportunities to regain his confidence and to once again be a franchise goaltender.
They gave him more chances than any other team would’ve, even though they knew it was unlikely and have prepared for the post-DiPietro era for about five years now.
He will forever be defined by an offer he couldn’t refuse.
There isn’t a hockey player out there who can live up to a 15-year contract but there isn’t a hockey player out there who wouldn’t take one, either.
I will say this: There wasn’t a guy out there who was happier to be a New York Islander than Rick DiPietro. He poured everything he had into this team and desperately wanted to get back to that All-Star level.
It just wasn’t to be.
Rick DiPietro will move on and so will the Islanders. Sometimes, that’s just the way life goes.