Today, From the Pressbox:
Making a case for Olympic participation - some players are really stepping forward and other established players are building our anticipation.
The goalies for Team USA - who should get the nod?
When you think of teams led by a pack of young guns, most people come up with the Edmonton Oilers, but what about the Colorado Avalanche?
Which players are doing the most to get noticed and who do Iike?
Who are some of the early surprises in the Olympic team discussions?
Through the first 10 games of every season we usually see some unusual names in the top scorers and this time around Alexander Steen is the most eye-popping name. He leads the NHL with 11 goals in 10 games. This puts him at a career-best pace, by far, and suddenly casts him as a potential candidate for Team Canada. It brings him into the conversation after not being invited to the pre-season orientation camp.
His case has a unique historical twist, in that he was born in Winnipeg, as the son of former Swedish import, Thomas, who was a star with the Jets in the 1970s. The center spot remains a very deep one in terms of quality and that may be the basis for the ongoing discussion around Alex Steen because Canada does have a number of players who can play the center position and have done so, at a very high level over a number of years.
His teammate Jay Bouwmeester, a veteran defenseman has built a great early case for his inclusion as well. He is leading the Blues defense along with Alex Pietrangelo, who is seemingly a lock for a spot on the Canadian blueline. That fact also builds Bouwmeester's case, because in a short series of games and a corresponding lack of proper preparation may give rise to the team brain trust looking for situations where a familiarity does exist. Bouwmeester has always been a guy who logs big minutes and has revived his career since moving the St. Louis. He has the requisite size, skill and mobility to be an impactful player once again and will merit consideration.
After looking at surprising names, the managers of the Olympic teams can look at some dynamic duos around the league. Topping that list is the pair of US-born stars who lead the Maple Leafs' attack. Phil Kessel has finished in the NHL's top 10 scorers in the last two seasons and seems primed for another strong season as he has tallied 18 points in 13 games, good for second place in the early scoring race. James Van Riemsdyk, who has also thrived since he has been regularly assigned a top-line role with Kessel, has ably helped him in his exploits. JVR has produced 12 points in 11 games and is likely to reach career highs in goals and assists this season, thanks to this dynamic partnership.
Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin are back to firing on all cylinders as Ovechkin has banked 10 goals already and that bodes very well for a Russian attack that should be as prolific as ever. These guys did not thrive in a defense-first style in Washington, but now are back to playing a more offensive game, which will also be the footprint of the Russian entry in the Olympics. The fact that this will be a "home" series should push these stars to an even higher level.
Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been the steady offensive leaders at San Jose and again this year, that is the case. Thornton remains one of the best setup guys in the league, with 12 assists in 12 games and his superior on-ice vision will be a vital commodity on the large ice surface at Sochi. Marleau has got a similar torrid start with eight goals and six assists, showing that he is still in the prime of his career. This pair offers a rare combination of great experience and size to go with that productivity.
Goalies in the running for Team USA's Olympic squad
Team USA has plenty of options to tend their nets in the Olympic tournament, so who should get the nod?
If we look back at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver (2009), we recall that Ryan Miller of the Sabres earned top goalie honors as he led the USA to a Silver Medal and he has continued to shoulder a heavy load for a Buffalo team that remained a playoff contender until the sell-off of a number of other teammates in the past year and a half. In the meantime, his personal stock has been damaged by the declining performance of the Sabres and the fact that he has been quoted as a harsh critic of the resulting environment around his team. In addition, it is no secret that the Sabres are trying to peddle his services elsewhere as he is in the final year of his current contract and will very likely test free agency in the offseason if he is not dealt by the trade deadline. So, his mindset might not be the best one for Team USA to hang their hat on this time around.
Happily, Team USA does have quality options. Ottawa's Craig Anderson has thrust his name into this conversation with his outstanding play since joining the Senators during the 2010-11 season. As a Senator, he has posted annual goals against averages of 2.05, 2.84 and an incredible 1.69 last year, though it was a season marred by injury. He is off to a bit of a sluggish start this year as his GAA has inflated to an ordinary 3.11 in 11 appearances and that may be a residual effect of his recent injuries and his 32 years of age.
In my opinion, the goalie choice here should come down to one of Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard and Corey Schneider.
Of these three, Jonathan Quick is the only one to backstop a Stanley Cup championship team (with the 2012 LA Kings) and that gives him a narrow edge over the other two top contenders. Quick was that team's playoff MVP and has played to a 2.33 GAA in almost 300 career games played. He will turn 28 years old just prior to the Sochi Games and is off to a good start this year with 7-4 record and a 2.53 GAA (though he would like to improve on a .907 Save Pct.).
Howard recently signed a long-term deal in Detroit, as he has evolved into a front line goalie as the veteran Wings' number one goalie. He has improved steadily and lowered his GAA to a glittering 2.13 mark in each of the last two seasons, absorbing a heavy workload in fine style. Early this year, he is off to a spotty start and battling injury (hand) woes recently. His 3-4 record is based on a 2.64 GAA and a solid .915 save pct. so far.
Corey Schneider finally emerged from the shadow of Roberto Luongo to take over the top goalie job there last year, but instead of continuing in that role, he was traded to New Jersey during the 2013 Amateur Draft. During his time as a Canuck he posted outstanding annual goals against marks of 2.23. 1.96 and 2.11 and seems destined to inherit the number one role once Martin Brodeur eventually calls it a career. In the interim, the 41-year old Brodeur already recognizes that Schneider needs to assume the larger share of the workload this year in New Jersey. Working alongside the league's "best-ever" goalie can only help to further develop Schneider.
I have given you my picks here - let me know what yours are.
Young stars of Edmonton or Colorado?
In recent years both of these have struggled through a lengthy stretch of non-playoff participation. Their reward for this down time has been the accumulation of many high draft picks.
In Edmonton's case they have added Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Jordan Eberle and installed them as the nucleus of their offense. Their Junior league credentials are collectively as impressive as any young group of players that any one team can boast. Much has been written about the possibility of creating a dominant offensive squad that might one day merit discussion and possible comparison with teams from the Oilers' dynasty years. However, injuries have recently impacted Hall and Nugent-Hopkins particularly and this group has yet to lead Edmonton back to the playoffs.
What has further delayed the climb is that there are other holes to fill. Devan Dubnyk was thought to be the answer to recent goalie woes here. He certainly had been on a nice trajectory in lower his annual goals against average from 2.71 to 2.67 to 2.57 in the last three years, but has struggled mightily this season, possibly due to greater expectations and certainly in part to a nagging ankle injury that has surfaced recently. He has played to a ghastly 4.01 GAA and an equally porous .878 save pct. in nine appearances this season.
A no-name defense does have a couple of players with some potential, like Justin Schulz and Anton Belov, along with a steadying influence in Andrew Ference, but much more quality and depth is needed before we can expect significant results. Still, this offensive core has been together for a couple of years and this year, some observers are growing a bit impatient for the expected level of progress.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, a similar young nucleus, though much less heralded, is showing a different pace of maturity and cohesion. Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan O'Reilly are all playing key roles in the Avalanche's 10-1-0 start to this campaign. Duchene is getting his due as one of the most skilled players in all of hockey and making his strong case for Olympic team inclusion (9 g, 4 a). MacKinnon is being nurtured and developed in a low pressure third line center role and has produced seven points in his rookie campaign. O'Reilly has responded positively to a shift to left wing (seven points), while Landeskog has impressed with his maturity to become the youngest team captain in the NHL.
The biggest differences between these two teams stem from the fact that new coach Patrick Roy has spread the youngsters throughout the lineup, pairing them with veteran support and teaching a more complete two-way system that fosters less emphasis on scoring and playing a less risky style.
The early returns certainly point to Colorado's plan and their young stars as the better situation, but there is still a lingering sense of anticipation in Edmonton. Which do you prefer? Share your thoughts with our readers.
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).