A couple of hot topics arose out of the GM Meetings at Pebble Beach - nice how they always seem to pick the best resorts for these backdrops. The league plans to realign divisions and focus on rivalries. I would like to have seen a discussion of an alternative for handling the overtime periods. The notion of protecting goalies from the number of collisions was also considered. In terms of specific teams, we will look at the St Louis goaltending tandem, the search for gems in Minnesota as the Wild rise to the top of league standings, and a group of forwards who have followed different paths to the success they are currently enjoying, though they may still be free agents in your pools. Similarly we note a couple of defensemen who may have been overlooked so far.
Of course, topping the agenda in the minds of most observers is the proposed realignment of the NHL. This looks to be very well conceived from a few perspectives. One of the main goals in the new conferences is still a geographic concern, where most if, not all teams will be dealing with a more favorable travel schedule. In addition, the new playoff structure is a compelling feature, where the league reverts to divisional play in the first two rounds of the post-season, before division champions venture outside their groups for the semi-finals and the Cup Final. This is a great concept, which will further enhance the current reputation of the post-season as the most challenging gauntlet in professional sports. As an example in the North East Division, we can reasonably expect to see multiple rivalries become more heated as the Leafs and Canadiens may finally meet again in post–season play (these forever rivals haven't been playoff opponents for over 30 years). That is just one example of the historic rivalries, based on history or geographic proximity that will become more the exception than the rule in the new configuration.
There will still be a heavy emphasis on divisional play during the regular season, a provision that makes more sense than adopting a league-wide balanced schedule. The latter case would add significant travel costs to all teams.
On top of that, I think it's great that each team will visit each arena in the NHL on an annual basis, an outcome that can't help but spread the love of the game. Every fan will get a chance to see their favorite players up close and personal.
One agenda item that I would like to see on the list is a review of the current overtime format. I think the five-minute overtime with four skaters each is usually very entertaining, leading to a great number of scoring chances in that short time frame. That part is great. The change that I would recommend is to consider a second overtime period, where the skaters drop to three apiece. That's still something that resembles a team game and would lead to a team-generated outcome, with even more scoring opportunities. Consider the number of two-on-one rushes or breakaways that would ensue. I am certain that goal-scoring chances would lead to many game winning plays in this scenario. If, at the end of both overtimes, the score would remain tied, I see nothing wrong with awarding each team one point.
I am strongly opposed to the current shootout overtime solution, which the league put in place to get a guaranteed winner and loser. Did you ever stop to realize that it takes about as much time to play the five-minute overtime frame as it does to set up and complete the shootout? A second overtime frame (with a three-on-three set-up) would be just as exciting to these eyes. If you like the shootout, maybe you'd like to see the NBA settle OT with Free Throws or use field goal kickers to settle NFL games. Let's have a home run hitting contest in Major League Baseball. The likelihood of any of these happenings is zero in the other sports. My bottom line - hockey games should be settled by routine game plays, just as in these other sports.
The incidents involving bodily contact with goalies need a clear distinction that is consistently enforced. If any goalie is outside his crease, and in possession of the puck, he should be fair game to possible bodily contact, which is carried out within the confines of the rules for all players. If, on the other hand he is not a puck-carrier or is in his crease, he is simply off limits. Those opposing players, who run at a goalie in either of these latter instances, should pay the price with a hefty penalty. That's simple and clear enough, isn't it?
Now, let's take a look at some players who ought to be of interest to fantasy team owners.
Goaltending in St Louis
Much has been written and said about the outstanding play of projected backup Brian Elliott, who has emerged from the starting gate to post an 11-2-3 mark, based on his glittering goals against average (1.56) and save percentage (94.4%). He is putting a lot of pressure on incumbent starter, Jaroslav Halak, who has been no slouch as his numbers (2.40 and 90.3 save percentage) attest. Halak's record, though, is only 4-7-2 and that's what is fueling some backroom concerns in St. Louis. Elliot is on a one year, $600k contract, while Halak has two years to go at a stipend of $3.75M. In the case where these goalies are splitting playing time, neither is the best option to aid fantasy pool owners. Halak has really been paying for a poor October, but in November he allowed two goals or less in six of his seven starts. If we had to pick, we'd go with Jaro. The Blues will, too, out of fiscal necessity. Don't feel bad for Elliott because he will earn a handsome raise when he becomes a UFA at season's end.
Minnesota Wild – a quandary for fantasy owners
A look at the complete NHL standings, today, shows the Minnesota Wild on top of the standings with their 18-7-3 record. You would think they were loaded with players who dotted many lineups in your fantasy leagues. That's not necessarily the case as the Wild have scored less than 2.5 goals per game, ranking in the bottom half of the league, for this category. Though captain Miko Koivu has 23 points in 28 games, he's the only Wild player over the 20-point mark. No fewer than five players share the club's goal scoring lead with eight tallies and only Kyle Brodziak rates as a surprise member of that group. The backbone of this team is clearly in the top goalie tandem of Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, whose ledgers are virtually identical in combining for a 2.10 goals against average. This is truly a team-wide success story where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
What about some players who could help struggling fantasy owners?
I give you four forwards and two defensemen to consider.
Milan Michalek entered this season with the well-earned reputation of a consistent goal-scorer, having totaled between 17 and 26 goals in each year of his career. Concerns in Ottawa stemmed mostly from the -12 rating he has posted in each of his two seasons in Ottawa. This year he is a key component of the top two scoring lines and already has 16 goals, in only 27 games played, and is well on his way to a career season that few pundits predicted.
Evander Kane is sporting the famous #9 in Winnipeg, formerly worn by Hall of Famer Bobby Hull. While there was certainly pressure to live up to that association, Kane has not shied away from the spotlight with the club's return to Winnipeg. In fact, the third year pro is also headed for a career year as his 14 goals in 26 games, has his only five goals short of his career-high. He is also showing great potential to rate among the top power forwards in the NHL, blessed with blazing speed as well as his considerable drive to succeed.
Michael Ryder has long been underrated despite the fact that he scored at least 25 goals in four of his first five years in the NHL. He's got all the skills you like to see in a scoring forward, good size, good speed and good hands. A new member and key contributor to the surprising and resurgent Dallas Stars, he is on pace to reach the 30 goal mark once again.
Chris Kelly may be considered a third-line center, prototypically a checking role, but he has excelled as a strong two-way pivot on the defending Stanley Cup Champions in Boston. In this, his seventh year in the NHL and second season with the Bruins, he is on pace to smash through the 20-goal and 50-point marks for the first time in his career and he has a very impressive plus/minus rating of +16 so far, too.
Ian White has shown flashes of offensive brilliance in each of his first five seasons as a pro and has twice reached the 10-goal mark, a significant plateau for defensemen. This year he is partnered with Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the best defensemen in hockey history. It is no wonder that he has a career-best plus/minus rating of +13 already, to go along with four goals and 11 points in 22 games played.
Tom Gilbert has evolved into the Oilers top offensive defensive, an opportunity that was originally ticketed for Ryan Whitney, who has struggled in his recovery from a serious leg injury that he sustained last season. Gilbert has picked up the slack, by accepting the power play quarterback responsibility and has been a stabilizing force and big minute eater on the Oilers' blue line.
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