Monday, August 27, 2012

More summer thoughts

Calder race

The Calder race should be interesting. While NY scrutiny probably has led to Chris Kreider becoming the preseason favorite, I think he's one of the longer shots among players "on the radar." I'm guessing it'll take more than 20 goals and 50 points to win it. Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, and Ryan Callahan I'm sure will hit that mark (if healthy), and Derek Stepan seems like a decent bet. Six 20-50 players is an awful lot. Don't think Kreider makes it.

So which other forwards are out there?

  • Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz in St. Louis may also suffer from being down the depth chart, with David Backes, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, and Alexander Steen probably all ahead of them, and I'd guess Andy McDonald and Patrik Berglund as well. 
  • Nail Yakupov is currently third on the Oilers' RW depth chart, behind Jordan Eberle and Ales Hemsky, and Taylor Hall (who I think will have a monster 12-13) is a lock on the top line on the other wing. There is also Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner for players who will get PP time. He'll be productive, but so will the Oilers' other youth.
  • Sven Bartschi in Calgary has a good shot to be in the conversation at season's end. He scored two points per game in the WHL in 11-12 over 47 games (that's on par with Jonathan Huberdeau, who had 72 points in 37 games with Saint John). And remember he was only drafted in 2011 to begin with. Only Jarome Iginla and Mike Cammalleri I'd think are clearly ahead of him on the depth chart. He'll have opportunity and he looks to have the skills as well.
  • Roman Cervenka in Calgary is an older rookie and has a great shot.
  • Huberdeau has skills, but Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, and Kris Versteeg look cemented into a top line, and Florida doesn't have enough support in its top six to help Huberdeau along. He'll have to be the foundation of the second line, and that might be hard on a team that's middling in its division and conference.
  • Mikael Granlund should have a good shot. While he likely won't be as good as Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, or Zach Parise offensively, one or both or Heatley and Setoguchi should end up with Granlund, and if Pierre-Marc Bouchard is healthy for once then you have a nice top-six. While Granlund is disadvantaged, he was also the best player in the SM Liiga, playing against men, last season. I think he'll be alright (more on Minnesota below)
  • Emerson Etem may have a good shot. I think it hinges on whether Bobby Ryan is moved. If he is, Etem could slot in with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. From what I've read though he may need some more time to develop.
  • Mikhail Grigorenko has a good shot. Cody Hodgson is the only ideal center in front of him. At 2C or even 1C, Steve Ott moves onto the third line and Grigorenko can play with two of Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis, and Ville Leino. I think he could slot in at third or fourth on the power-play-forward-priority depth chart as well. Not bad.
  • Alex Galchenyuk isn't in a great situation depth-wise. He has to jump two of Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec, and David Desharnais to get into Montreal's top six.
  • Jakub Silfverberg has a good shot, but Ottawa also has a deep prospect pool. He'll be behind Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Milan Michalek already, and will have to fight off Mika Zibanejad, too.
  • Mika Zibanejad...see Silfverberg.
Not bad. I think it'll be a strong season for rookie defensemen as well.
  • Brandon Gormley can step into the Phoenix lineup and get plenty of power play time. 
  • Ryan Murray can be a third-pair D for Columbus (seriously, its D isn't that bad: Tyutin-Nikitin, Johnson-Wisniewski, Erixon). 
  • Tim Erixon by all accounts is very smart and has already spent a season acclimating to the North American game.
  • Ryan Murphy can step into the Carolina blueline and get power play time behind Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk, and with a strong top-six up front should help him rack up the assists. 
  • Dougie Hamilton is in a similar situation, and could easily get onto the Bruins' top PP unit (last season, the Bruins really only used three D on the power play: Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, and Joe Corvo, all roughly 2:30 a game at 5on4, and Corvo is no longer with the team). 
  • Pittsburgh has an open D spot after trading Zbynek Michalek, and a puck-mover like Simon Depres may be able to step in there and reap the rewards of ice time with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
  • Brendan Smith is stepping onto the blueline of a very good team. Although the Red Wings' deep forward group should allow the squad to remain a good possession team, its defense is thin, and so I wouldn't be surprised if Smith can jump to third on the depth chart (he won't be passing Niklas Kronwall or Ian White, I think we can agree).
I feel a little more confident in telling you I think Murphy, Hamilton, and Cervenka have the best shots at the Calder in my mind, but if there is a season, looks like there will be plenty of Calder competition.

Media attention

[awards voting tallies]

Seems like it is a huge contributor to a player's perceived value. I think it's most obvious in terms of goalies and win totals. Team wins a lot --> you hear the goalie's name a lot --> people think he's good.

A year ago, Jonathan Toews was in the news every day, being lauded for tangibles and intangibles alike. One concussion later, and I don't see him in any more Hart discussions (with an eye on 12-13).

Similarly, Ryan Kesler didn't get that much worse (if at all), yet for various reasons finished a distant fifth in Selke voting in 2012 a year after winning the trophy.

Dan Girardi actually gets two first-place Norris votes thanks to, I'm guessing, all the attention he received early in the season, when the Rangers were awful at possession but were shooting the lights out and Henrik Lundqvist was the league MVP. Speaking of which, all the attention on NY left Lundqvist with wide edges over Jonathan Quick in Vezina and Hart voting, when it probably should have been closer.

Same with Steven Stamkos versus Evgeni Malkin--I realize Crosby wasn't playing, but a) we already know Pittsburgh can make the playoffs without its top two centers, b) the "his team didn't make the playoffs" arguments assumes that every year the MVP is valuable enough to take any team to the playoffs, but no one would argue the Jackets plus Malkin would have added ~40 points and made the playoffs, so the argument breaks down quickly, and c) 60 goals in this era is very, very special...Stamkos even scored more even-strength goals than Ovechkin in 07-08, and would have had plenty of points had the rest of his team been competent offensively (his GFOFF/60 at 5v5 was a putrid 2.12, which is a bottom-five offense. Stamkos was actually on-ice for six more 5v5 goals than Malkin. The difference between them was the power play, and it seems obvious to me that the Pens' PP turnaround was coaching, not personnel).

Anyway, I guess where I'm going with this is that there have been a lot of injured players over the last year or two that have fallen off of the MSM's radar but could easily reemerge as top scorers. Kristian Huselius, if healthy, can score 20 goals easily. Nicklas Backstrom could easily be in the MVP conversation. Mike Green, Duncan Keith, and Drew Doughty in the Norris conversation. Tyler Myers is a force. And finally, don't be surprised when Victor Hedman makes some serious Norris noise.

Linemates are important

Maybe this is just me rationalizing biased opinions, but I firmly believe that linemates have a big impact not only on a player's numbers--traditional and otherwise--but also on the "eye test" as well. Take Mike Green, for example. Until this last season he'd never played with another puck mover. In fact, Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz are probably puck averse. Green is the primary puck handler, the only one, and everyone knows that. He'll have to make every play. He's going to make his fair share of bad plays simply because, well, he makes a lot of plays and nobody is perfect.

I try to tread really cautiously when deciding who would get my hypothetical votes for the Norris, Selke, and Hart for this reason. There's so much overlap. For example, Chara plays with Patrice Bergeron. While it's clear that together they get results worth of the Norris or Selke, it's unclear how much credit each deserves individually. On other teams, Alex Pietrangelo has Backes; Doughty, Kopitar; Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Zetterberg; Letang, Staal, and so on. Perhaps most prominently, two-time runner-up Shea Weber played nearly 90% of his 5v5 ice time with the guy who finished 8th, Ryan Suter. Their results are essentially inseparable, and since we base so much of our opinions on results (goals), well, I think a lot of the credit Weber gets is Suter's (and Rinne's).

Not to say he's not great--he is--but I bet he won't be a Norris nominee next season, without Suter and with a worse team around him. These awards are so context dependent when they shouldn't be.

Overpaid is not bad

There are some overpaid players nearing the end of their contracts, and taking those contracts on for the last two years could be useful. I'm specifically thinking of Scott Gomez and Jay Bouwmeester. Gomez is still a 2C who can slot in as a speedy 3C quite well, meaning Brooks Laich can move to 2LW where I think he's at his best. Bouwmeester in Calgary, plus physicality, is Karl Alzner's upside: a big, mobile, insanely durable (he hasn't missed a game since the lockout!), minute-munching top-pair shutdown defenseman who can make the first pass out of the defensive zone (that's not an insult: Bouwmeester is very good, and has also been laced with poor D partners for the most part). If John Carlson doesn't have too big a cap hit, the Capitals will have plenty of cap room to maybe take one of these guys on. Both have two years left, and both are still useful.

Overestimating player stratum quality

I commonly see both fans and journalists overestimating team needs. Take the Rangers, for example. Tenth in the league in goals for, they did not need Rick Nash. Period. But reading around you would have gotten the impression that they were the LA Kings (near bottom in GF, near top in GA). Why? Two reasons, I think.

One, the Rangers have built up the hard-working talentless identity under John Tortorella for a few years and people hadn't let go. Two, they don't have many bonafide names up front. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards were probably the only top names people recognized as real top-six forwards, not just in terms of ability but stylistically, as well. But that ignores that Ryan Callahan was 23rd among RWs in points and 14th in goals.

If you're looking for a 1C, you should be okay with a top-30 center, whether he's Sidney Crosby or Mikko Koivu. Top pair D, any of the league's top sixty defensemen. If you haven't thought about players this way before, just go through them in your head: who are the top 90 forwards (top line forward) ? Who are the top 120 defensemen (top-four) ? Who are the top ~30 goalies (starting goalie) ?

Your lists may go something like this.

Top-line centers: Backstrom, Stamkos, E. Staal, J. Staal, Weiss, Jokinen, Crosby, Malkin, Giroux, B. Richards, Tavares, Zajac, Elias, Bergeron, Krejci, Plekanec, Spezza, Grabovski, Roy, Benn, Kopitar, Thornton, Getzlaf, Sedin, Kesler, Toews, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Backes, McDonald.

Top-pairing defensemen: Green, Hamrlik, Carlson, Alzner, Gleason, Carle, Hedman, Byfuglien, Enstrom, Campbell, Letang, Orpik, Martin, Coburn, Timonen, Staal, McDonagh, Girardi, Tallinder, Zidlicky, Streit, Subban, Chara, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Karlsson, Myers, Ehrhoff, Kronwall, White, Weber, Pietrangelo, Tyutin, Wisniewski, Keith, Seabrook, Suter, Gilbert, N. Schultz, Bouwmeester, Butler, Bieksa, Hamhuis, Edler, Garrison, Doughty, Scuderi, Fowler, Souray, Ekman-Larsson, Robidas, plus your next favorite nine.

And so on. I find that I am too generous with top-line centers but too stingy with top-pair D. The more players you're trying to sort, the harder it becomes since the number of players at or around a certain level is inversely related to that talent level (that is, there are more mediocre players than elite players and there are many more players clustered around an arbitrary cutoff at the mediocre level than at the elite level).

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