Today in From the Pressbox:
The biggest surprise team in the NHL may be dealing with their first adversity, or they may be poised to sink back to a more expected level. Goalies across the league are buying into the butterfly style in greater numbers than ever. This system is not without its flaws. We define some of these and propose a hybrid option that might make sense. The Washington goalie situation is far different today than it was last year. Why are the Buffalo Sabres imploding this season? The New Jersey Devils are relying on an unfamiliar recipe to stay in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Are the Florida Panthers regressing after their hot start? We also take a look at a few players who are turning heads: Francois Beauchemin, Andrew Shaw, and Peter Mueller.
The Ottawa Senators have basked in the spotlight as the biggest surprise team in the NHL through the first half of the NHL season. Their long-time captain, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, their rangy centerman, has led them. Both of these players have dialed back to their best playing days and are enjoying their most prolific campaigns in a number of years. Chris Neil, the team's resident tough guy, and Chris Phillips, their veteran on the blueline. This quartet of longtime members of the Sens have been great at creating a positive environment for the numerous new teammates who have graduated from junior hockey, minor pro leagues or those who have been acquired through trades.
Of course, rookie coach Paul MacLean has to get lots of credit for leading this group in its daily life and Bryan Murray, the GM, has does great work in assembling the talent.
Among the most important additions is Erik Karlsson, a young and wonderfully talented player who is leading all NHL defensemen in scoring. He has become the lynchpin of the power play and a leader in the club's attack. Milan Michalek, in his third year with Ottawa after starting his career in San Jose, is on pace to smash his personal high (26) in goal-scoring with 23 tallies in 47 games played. Recently, Murray acquired Kyle Turris, and the former star Canadian junior is playing the best hockey of his career, as he has nine points and a (+7) rating in 13 games played in January. The big key to their success has been the steady play of goalie Craig Anderson, who has performed heroically and appeared in 47 of 52 games played by the Sens
The only fly in the ointment is the club's most recent road trip through the Western states where they went into the All-Star break on a three game losing steak. We will soon find out if the Senators are for real, or if this skid propels them to the lower finish that was expected all along.
I have become a bit sour on the sameness of goalies throughout the league. It appears to me that the vast majority has adopted the butterfly style of netminding. This tendency is predicated on a low couch with arms and legs spread out to block the goal area. My observation of this style has exposed flaws.
First, the goalie stick is rarely on the ice and not often used in actually making a save. Too many goals are being scored in the five-hole, the area between the goalie leg pads, as a result.
Second, the vast majority of goalies make an early commitment to dropping down to block shots, while opposing players are still in the back-swing motion of their shots. This has led a large percentage of goals being scored in the top corners of the net.
Butterfly goalies are not as concerned (or adept) at cutting down angles or "hugging" their posts on sharp shots and this flaw has led to a number of bad goals.
I would like to see a hybrid of this style and the former "stand up" approach, watching angles, as an improvement over the current crop of floppers.
In Washington, the Caps thought that bringing in Tomas Vokoun, a 35-year old puck-stopper in his 13th season in the NHL, would fill the missing ingredient on this roster and propel the Caps to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. While he has done his part, by posting a 2.56 goals against (matching his career average) and posted 20 wins in 35 appearances, his team is mired in a dogfight for their division lead and may not even make the playoffs if they don't beat out the Florida Panthers in the weak Southeast Division. As Vokoun is on a one-year contract, there is no guarantee that he will return next season. A by-product of installing him as the unquestioned number one goalie here, was the trading away of Semyon Varlamov and the limited work for Michael Neuvirth so far.
In throwing their support behind Vokoun, the Caps have impaired their depth of young goalie talent, retarding that development, and this decision may prove costly beyond this season.
In keeping with that goalie theme, the Buffalo Sabres are another team that spent big money to prepare for this season, but their goalie, Ryan Miller, has struggled mightily and largely due to the after effects of a mid-season concussion. He is muddling through the worst season of his career (12-15 record with a 3.07 goals against average in 30 appearances). Miller has been the most important and consistent player in Buffalo ever since be became their number one goalie in the '05-06 season. It is ironic that this year's Sabres were thought to be primed for the club's best roster that they have put together in many years. Simply stated, their big free agent acquisitions, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, have suffered through injury-plagued unproductive seasons. In addition Tyler Myers, their towering young defenseman has regressed a bit and forwards Derek Roy and Drew Stafford have underperformed in their own miserable campaigns. It all adds up to tough times in the Queen City. Owner Terry Pegula might be excused if he is gun-shy after spending the kind of money that has this club at the top of the NHL's salary cap charts. This year looks like a write-off for this Buffalo club which, barring a miraculous turnaround, will miss the playoffs.
When NHL fans think of the New Jersey Devils, they typically call to mind the club's historic profile as a top defensive minded group. That approach has been central to much of the Devils successes in franchise history. This season, however, they are a different team. Offensive depth has propelled New Jersey into playoff contention, while a young defense corps struggles to find its way in front of the venerable, but aging, Marty Brodeur in goal.
No fewer than seven Devils' forwards have scored at least 12 goals, though, and they have been able to mask most other flaws with this production so far. Of course this style agrees with the new face of the franchiser, Ilya Kovalchuk, who leads the club with 19 goals. However, Patrik Elias leads the team with 46 points and has reminded long-time hockey observers that he is still a very talented offensive force. Rugged David Clarkson (16) and the recently returned Devil Petr Sykora (12) have also provided vital contributions. The Devils added more size and offensive upside with the recent acquisition of veteran winger Alexei Ponikarovsky. For his part Brodeur still brings a wealth of talent in goal, but his numbers (2.77 g.a.a. and .894 save pct) are among the worst of his career. If this team makes the playoffs, they are still going to be a formidable foe because of this combination.
Some individual players who are turning heads recently include:
Francois Beauchemin, the veteran defenseman in Anaheim, has recently inked a three-year, $10.5 M extension. He is loving life as a Duck as he is playing upwards of 25 minutes per game and is a fixture on the club's special team units. He is back to playing a controlled game, not taking chances and still chipping in offensively.
Andrew Shaw has been a pleasant surprise in Chicago as he has filled in admirably for injured players like Patrick Sharp, since his recent promotion. He has scored five goals and a pair of assists in 11 games and has likely earned the right to stick around even when injured players do return here. He has shown the offensive skill for which he was known in junior hockey and opened people's eyes in the Windy City.
Peter Mueller may finally be living up to long-time expectations as he has found his groove in Colorado. He was plagued by a concussion earlier this season, causing Avalanche fans to lose any remaining faith in him after an underwhelming 2010-11 campaign. However, he did produce four points over two games recently to rekindle some hope for regular success. He is getting a real chance to make good, as he has averaged between 15 and 20 minutes of playing time in his last four games played.
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