Today, in From the Pressbox:
We look at the prospects for success for two of the most dominant NHL franchises in the last 20 years. We point an accusing finger at NHLers who have repeatedly found themselves in trouble with the league. There are still a couple of changes that we would like to see as we suggest altering the current game structure and revisit the awarding of points for wins in overtime and the shootout.
Significant Change in Motown
The Detroit Red Wings began this season with the knowledge that they would be without two of their key long-time components, with the retirement of Nick Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom, players who were among the best in their respective roles in the entire league.
These retirements represented the most significant roster losses in Motown over the last 20 years.
In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, no other team was dealing with comparable changes and the Red Wings have seen some slippage as a result. At the time of this column, they find themselves in 10th place in the standings with a 10-8-4 mark.
On the plus side, the dynamic duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk continues to chug along, as they have registered 25 and 22 points respectively. On defense, Niklas Kronwall has produced 17 points, at the best per game rate of his career. The Wings have also uncovered another European gem as they have plugged 26-year old undrafted winger Damien Brunner into a top-six role on this offense. He has already chipped in with 10 goals and six assists in a seamless introduction to the NHL.
Goalie Jimmy Howard is well into a fourth straight season as one of the league's workhorses in the Wings net and his numbers are in their usual solid range (.270 goals against average and a .907 save percentage).
The Wings bolstered themselves with a rare injection of toughness when they signed rugged Jordan Tootoo in the off-season. He has quickly become a fan favorite and amassed 53 penalty minutes along with four points and a favorable (+2) rating.
On the down side, Valtteri Filpulla is the only other player with as many as 10 points so far and that highlights the biggest issue with this year's Wings. They really lack in secondary scoring. Unless the other forwards can turn it up a notch in the second half, Detroit may find itself on the outside, looking in, when the puck drops on the postseason—an unfamiliar perspective in the last 20 years for this franchise.
Is it still Groundhog Day in New Jersey?
It seems every season in recent memory that the Devils are due to falter and slip a bit in the Eastern Conference. Surely, the loss of prolific scorer Zach Parise was going to be a crippling blow to this offense and besides, venerable goalie Martin Brodeur entered the season, expecting to carry the load in goal at 41 years of age.
What the Devils have going for them is a tight-checking system that has been in place throughout GM Lou Lamoriello's 26 years on the job. Coaches have come and gone, but this signature system of play still (and always) has remained the same. This team has always played that patient style and lulled opponents into a false sense of security, which they have always complemented with a quick, counter attack mentality.
This season is no different than most as New Jersey currently holds down 7th spot in the East with a 10-7-5 record. A closer look at their start reminds us that they broke from the gate with an 8-1-3 record, during which time they surrendered more than two goals against on only three separate occasions.
"Same old Devils," you could say.
Since then, however, New Jersey has stumbled to a 2-6-2 record in their last 10 games. The biggest reason for this slide is the fact that Brodeur (2.27 GAA and .911 save pct.) has been riddled with back pain and has only appeared in three of those games. In fact, he's missed the last five straight starts and is apparently expected to miss at least one more week of action.
His backup, veteran substitute, Johan Hedberg, has a decent 2.76 GAA, which should be better than that when you consider his sub-par .889 save percentage.
The offense relies on familiar veterans as Patrik Elias (22 points), Ilya Kovalchuk (18 points) and David Clarkson (17 points) lead the scoring parade here. However, the Devils, like Detroit, have a dearth of secondary scoring, as no other forward has even produced nine points this season.
The Devils are somewhat fortunate that defensemen Marek Zidlicky (10 points) and Andy Greene possess strong offensive instincts to bolster the attack game.
Other than that, it is "kitty, bar the door" hockey in New Jersey tries to reserve a spot in the post-season playoffs.
It says, here, that they will need a healthy Martin Brodeur to pull that off, however.
An Unsavory Element in the NHL
We continue to see a string of familiar names involved in negative play in the NHL as star players are victimized by illegal hits and other roughhouse tactics that have cost the league in terms of injury to marquee players.
The most recent incident involves Patrick Kaleta, who was disciplined for the fourth time in his career when he was suspended for a cross check for behind on Brad Richards, star forward of the New York Rangers. Inexplicably, some Buffalo supporters contend that Richards embellished the act by hurling himself into the boards, face first. Imagine that, for a moment, before being reminded of Kaleta's track record.
What further tarnishes the offender in this instance is that he is rarely seen as a challenger of opposing tough guys who sort out their issues and distribute their own brand of justice by dropping their mitts from time to time.
Kaleta is roundly viewed in many quarters as a "rat", the most unflattering of hockey terms which defines a player who picks on more talented players, rather than his most physical counterparts. It is worth noting that the afore-mentioned Tootoo and Steve Ott are two other players who have made a very good effort to shed a similar image in recent years.
There is no positive element to the style of play, which led to this incident. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have left Richards with an injury concern, but other star players have not been so fortunate in recent years.
Suffice it to say that a four-game suspension is not much of a deterrent when you consider that the vicious act could have resulted in a worse outcome.
The NHL doesn't need this type of publicity or style of play.
Changes We Would Like to See
I have used this space to critique some aspects of the game from time to time and I revisit a couple of pet peeves once again today.
It galls me to no end to see the NHL endorse a penalty shot contest to settle a team-based game. The shootout in hockey has become the accepted method of settling outcomes after a five-minute overtime frame. I don't like it, folks.
Do you see the NBA settling tie games with free throw shooting contests? Or the NFL with field goal kicks? No, you don't. Those teams play on. Baseball doesn't change at all. The Major Leaguers just continue to play the game by the same rules. I love to see penalty shots and appreciate the buzz of anticipation in watching this scenario, but feel very strongly, that it has no basis for deciding the outcome of a game.
I do appreciate time and schedule constraints that prevent the possibility of a long, regular overtime session, but I would much rather see the four on four five-minute overtime, followed by a three on three five-minute frame. That's still a hockey game in my opinion. If, after that second overtime, the score remains tied, then I feel that a saw-off is a fair result. Don't forget that tie games were a real and accepted result for much of the game's history.
In addition, the three-point outcome has also skewed the overall standings for many years.
My solution is to make each game a three-point game, where a team gets all three points for a win in regulation, two points for a win in overtime (and the loser gets one point). As mentioned above, the only exception would be a tie, where each team would get a point.
I realize that this new structure would be a significant change from the current rules, but in the end, I believe it would give a more accurate reflection of the teams in relation to one another and preserve the notion of team instead of individual play.
It would be great to receive your feedback on this issue, so I welcome your comments here, regardless of whether or not you agree.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and is an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (statsman22).