NHL Roundtable: Contenders or pretenders?
Hail, hail, the gang’s all here! After a couple of short-staffed sessions, we finally have a quorum on hand to tackle the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Sam Page, Michael Blinn and Al Muir talk about emerging Vezina candidates, overblown Stanley Cup contenders, Eastern teams kicking sand in the faces of their Western counterparts, and the vicissitudes of the coach‘s challenge. First up:
• There are plenty of teams out there who fancy themselves Stanley Cup contenders. Pop the balloon for one of them.
MB: I don’t think the Wild are in for another Devan Dubnyk miracle this time around. While it’s still not Mike Yeo’s fault (no matter what Zenon Konopka’s bunny says), the team is struggling to score at a crucial point in the season, converting at a rate of 4.9% at five-on-five and just 6% on the whole since the calendar flipped to 2016. In a stacked Central Division, a 1-7-2 stretch this late in the season could be the difference between booking first-round travel or a tee time. I’m seeing the latter happening for Zach Parise and Co.
SP: Today’s Carey Price news already popped the Habs’ bubble, so how about the Avalanche? They’re in a fairly comfortable position at the moment, but they play the same style that led to their disastrous season last year. As Dean Wormer said, “Fast, passive, and counter-attacking is no way to go through life, son."
AM: The Wild and the Avs? Way to crush all those parade plans, boys. Think I’ll take on a bigger dog: the Capitals. They’ve been terrific this season, full value for their position atop the league, and if they do win it all no one should be surprised. But we've seen plenty of teams tear it up through the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs. In the 28 years since they started handing out the Presidents’ Trophy, only eight winners have gone on to claim the Cup. That just goes to show that no matter how well a team plays over 82 games it’s still really hard to win four seven-game series. And even though the Caps are deeper and more talented than ever, this thing often comes down to experience and the ability to handle adversity. Does a team that’s won a total of four playoff rounds since the last lockout have that experience? And have they shown they can handle a serious challenge to their dominance, whether it’s injuries or a tough stretch of play? Look, the Caps seem destined for great things, and I can see them going deep. But winning the Cup is a process and I'm not sure they've completed all the steps just yet.
• Braden Holtby appears to be the favorite for the Vezina Trophy, but there is a pack of contenders behind him. Who has the best chance to overtake the Capitals keeper down the stretch?
MB: I see a couple of dark horses emerging in Detroit’s Petr Mrazek and New Jersey’s Cory Schneider. Both have posted some gaudy numbers this season. Mrazek currently leads the NHL with a .935 save percentage and 1.94 GAA, while Schneider isn’t far behind with .930 and 2.00 respectively. He’s singlehandedly salvaging the Devils’ season. Chicago’s Corey Crawford should garner some attention. His totals (.929, 2.17, seven shutouts) are in step with the leaders, as well. It’ll take a lot to wrestle votes from Holtby, but if the Devils can sneak their way into the postseason, Schneider will deserve a lot more credit than he’ll get.
SP: I’m not sure Holtby would beat Corey Crawford if the season ended today. Save percentages go up and down and it’s a fool’s errand trying to predict a specific player}s performance over 30 games. But counting stats can’t be ignored—31 wins and seven shutouts by this point in the season is very impressive. If Crawford is the only goalie in double-digits for clean sheets and he beats Holtby in save percentage, how can he lose?
AM: We know how these things work. Fast finishes always seem to trump consistency, so the race is still wide open in my eyes. Crawford’s an interesting option. Patrick Kane gets all the hype but Crawford might be the real MVP of the Hawks this season. When that team has struggled defensively, and that has happened a lot, he’s been a rock. If Carey Price can’t go for Team Canada at the World Cup in September, I wouldn’t hesitate to turn to Crawford. Schneider’s been so good, too, holding opponents to two goals or fewer in 14 of his past 16 appearances and he’s allowed more than three goals only four times all season. The guy’s a wall.
All that said, I’ve got my eyes on Mrazek. I think his relative anonymity will work against him, but his numbers are trending the right way: 10-2-1 in his past 13 starts with a .952 save percentage and 1.31 GAA. Take a gander at his even strength #fancystats numbers and he looks even better. Maybe more important, he’s been the one force that is stabilizing a Detroit team dealing with injuries and organizational change. He’s my dark horse. I still think Holtby pulls it off in the end, though.
• A look at the standings reveals that seven of the league’s top 10 teams are based in the East. Are we finally seeing a shift in power after years of dominance by the West?
MB: Two teams in the West have losing records against their counterparts (Arizona is 7-12-3, Minnesota 8-9-2). I think what we’re seeing is the result of season after season of Western Conference teams engaging in arms races to keep up with Chicago, L.A. and St. Louis, while the East is feasting on its weaker teams this season: Columbus, Toronto, Buffalo and Ottawa are all at least four games under .500 against the rest of their own conference.
SP: Let’s note the precise overall standing of the Eastern teams though: 1, 4, 7, 8 (t), 8 (t), 8 (t). And that’s not to mention three out of the four basement teams in Buffalo, Columbus and Toronto. The Western teams are grinding each other into dust. The Capitals are skating on smooth ice.
AM: Yeah, not quite yet. Ask yourself which you’d rather watch: the Western Conference Finals or the Eastern Conference Finals. The first is guaranteed to be a knock-em-down, drag-em-out war between two deep, experienced clubs. The East? They’re probably still passing out juice boxes and orange slices and participation ribbons. There’s some real potential for the East to dominate in a couple of years—you can imagine Florida and Philadelphia and Buffalo challenging the more mature Caps and Lightning not too far down the road—but right now the West is thick with snarling, hungry wolves ready to feast on the East.
• We all saw Joel Quenneville lose it this week after his Blackhawks came up short on a pair of very controversial coach’s challenge rulings, and he’s not the only one who is unhappy with the way this is being called. Can the challenge survive the inconsistent interpretations of what is, and isn’t, goaltender interference?
Michael Blinn: The challenge system was never designed to entirely do away with human error. Offsides are pretty black-and-white and I’ve seen a few of those calls still blown despite the second look. No two referees have the same definition of the gray area that is goalie interference, and as such, we’ll all continue to have things to complain about on Twitter, thank goodness!
Sam Page: I return to the analogy I used last time of pass interference in the NFL. The challenge can survive, just like the pass interference rule did. The rule book will just get thicker and thicker and make less and less sense. My solution is to restrict challenges to things that are clear cut, like offsides.
Al Muir: It’s one thing when you have inconsistencies with calls made in real-time. That’s the nature of the beast. But when you add in the benefit of a second look in slow motion with multiple camera angles and people still have no idea which way a call is going to go, that seems like a problem. I think when they evaluate it after this season they’ll recognize that it’s slowing the game down and too many goals are being disallowed as a result of incidental contact. I think Sam’s right. It could be reduced to black-and-white plays next season.