Wednesday November 5th, 2014

Every Wednesday, a trio of staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sam Page and I talk about early-season surprises and disappointments, the Avalanche's race to the basement and the next big fancystat. First up:

Now that we're through the first 10 game segment of the season, what player or team rates as your biggest surprise and your biggest disappointment?

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ALLAN MUIR: I've been dumping mercilessly for the past couple of years on Ondrej Pavelec, so I have to step up here and acknowledge that's he's off to a pretty great start for the Jets. His .924 save percentage has him ranked in the top 10 among NHL starters and looks pretty gaudy compared to the .901 and .905 he put up in each of the past two seasons. Can he sustain this level of play? I don't know, but the eye test suggests that it isn't just his numbers that have improved. Sure, he's getting help from a sturdier defense in front of him, but his game looks more focused, less scrambly. He deserves a big stick tap for his hot start. 

SAM PAGE: Damon Severson has to be my biggest surprise. The unheralded Devils rookie so far looks like the best defenseman on a very good defensive team. Does any of this sound familiar: A second-round pick out of Kelowna plays in every situation and is a scoring leader on his team? The Shea Weber comparisons will never end. 

BRIAN CAZENEUVE: I’d say the Predators are my pleasant surprise. Peter Laviolette opened them up a little at the start of the season, but then they sort of fell back into being the win-with-defense club that we saw under Barry Trotz for so many years. Their special teams are not that special. Their power play ranks 24th and their penalty kill is 28th, yet Nashville is the second-best team in the league in five-on-five play. And Pekka Rinne is back to covering up the net the way he did in 2011 and ’12. I can’t see this team winning as much as it is now for the rest of the season, especially playing in the West. But it's off to a great start.

MUIR: While we're talking about teams, I have to tip my hat to the Panthers. Their offense is comically inept, but winning hockey starts with defense and Florida is getting it done in its own zone. Somehow this team ranks fourth in goals-allowed (1.90). That's light years ahead of where the Panthers have been the past two seasons: 3.20 (29th) in 2013–14 and 3.54 (30th) in ’12–13. These guys have played 10 games and allowed more than two goals in regulation just once. Amazing. So what about those disappointments?

PAGE: Jaroslav Halak is mine. This seemed like the season that the Islanders would finally be able to rally around a proven netminder. The rest of the team has shown up. Where's Halak?
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CAZENEUVE: I guess I would go with the Bruins, given what they did during the regular season last year. I’m not sure you can fault them for whatever happens between now and when Zdeno Chara gets back, because their defense has been decimated by injuries and the sacrifice of Johnny Boychuk on the altar of the salary cap, but the team was actually pretty flat right out of the box. As for disappointing players, a few come to mind: Jack Johnson, Ryan O’Reilly, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Kevin Bieksa, T.J. Oshie when he’s been healthy, Steve Mason, Cam Ward, Mike Smith and anyone wearing a Sabres jersey.
MUIR: If you'd asked me a week ago I would have said Nathan MacKinnon. The kid is still committing too many turnovers and making too many positional mistakes, but he's scored four goals in his last three games and looks like he might finally be getting some traction after a really rocky start. Instead, I'll go with Jamie Benn. He's put together a couple of really excellent games, but considering that he's skating most nights with two elite playmakers in Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza, he can't be going five games without a goal (with a –6 rating). If the Stars are going to start punching their weight, especially at home, they need more from their captain.

Speaking of MacKinnon, Colorado is just six points out of first place in the Central, but it's also two points out of the Western Conference cellar. So what is this team? A title contender off to a bad start? Or a bottom-tier club weighed down by bad defense and a worse system?

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PAGE: Six points out of first place doesn't seem so bad until you realize that the Avalanceh are also six teams out of first place. The only club that has been outshot by a wider margin so far has been Buffalo, which seems to be tanking in order to win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. If this is how Colorado plays when their goalie has a .932 save percentage, imagine what will happen if Varlamov regresses even a little. The Avs seemed like a stretch to make the playoffs before the season. Now, with their chief competition—the Wild and the Predators—both playing well, they look doomed to an early summer. 

CAZENEUVE: Colorado was not as good as it appeared to be last season. The Avalanche gave up way too many shots on goal and threw the puck away too often to sustain a long playoff run. But they also are not as bad this year as their record indicates. They have too much talent for them not to go on a roll or two as the season moves along. They started horribly. Before Colorado broke out for seven goals against the Canucks on Oct. 24, the Avs had managed to score just 12 goals in their first seven games. Then things picked up. MacKinnon didn’t score in his first 10 games, but he now has four in his last three. Colorado this season’s Devils, having dropped all five shootouts and overtime games they played in the first month of the season. The Avalanche have an Eastern-Conference swing starting next week that should either straighten them out or cause them to worry.
MUIR: I can't begin to count how many times I've heard people say that Colorado wasn't as good as it appeared last season, and it still makes me crazy. I get that there were areas of the Avs' game where they needed to tighten up, but come on! They won the Central Division and posted the third-best record in the NHL. That's real success where it matters, on the scoreboard. That said, there's something different about the team this season. Some nights Colorado looks like the team spent the pregame warmup reading last season's press clippings. The intensity, the attention to detail, the battle ... it's just not there. Maybe that's part of the learning curve—this is still a young team, after all—but it's also a team that's not very strong on the back end. The Avalanche still have time to get their groove back, but they look very vulnerable right now.

You've been put in charge of gathering stats by the league and given free reign to add one new measurement to this season's package. What's it going to be?

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PAGE: Time of possession. It's the holy grail for NHL stat nerds and the number that Corsi and Fenwick exist to estimate. The NHL tracked time of possession in the late 1990s, but stopped because no one seemed to care. People would care now.

MUIR: That's not entirely true. The league tracked zone time for a couple of years, but since the system wasn't set up to capture which team was in control of the puck the data wasn't all that revealing. But you're right about the desire for the stat. That's the one number that would be the most compelling to the largest audience. Me, though, I'd like to see pass completions tracked. The ability to move the puck effectively is not only the key to possession, but also to generating scoring chances. A pass completions number would be a great tool for evaluating the effectiveness of defensemen as the spearheads of the transition game, and also for the forwards who excel at creating opportunities in the offensive zone.

CAZENEUVE: Another stat? The NHL is trending towards having too many stats as it is. Having said that, as long as we’re overdosing on numbers, I’d be curious about all comparisons between what a player does during the regular season and what he does in the playoffs. Compare his point totals, his plus-minus, his Corsi numbers and so on from the games that really count to the ones that fill out the schedule. Playoff hockey is such a different animal than some pass through Winnipeg in January. I'd be curious to see how those numbers would evaluate a guy like Justin Williams.

MUIR: Too many stats? Get ready for a barrage of hate mail from the numbers nerds, old timer. But honestly, you raise a fair question there: How deep does the average fan care to dive statistically, and how far should the NHL go to appease the vocal but (statistically) tiny minority that wants every element of the game quantified and fed to them in graph form? We'll have to save that one for another day ...

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