Today, From the Pressbox: The Montreal Canadiens are rising to the top of the Eastern Conference Standings. What is their recipe for success? Meanwhile, the New York Islanders have regressed this season. Who has faltered there?
The Habs Are Rolling
The hottest team in the NHL over the last 10 games is the Montreal Canadiens. They are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games.
The Canadiens are perceived as a smallish team in terms of size, but that has not shown up as a weakness yet. If fact, they are one of the healthiest teams in the league, currently only missing depth forward Rene Bourque (shoulder) from their starting lineup.
In goal, Carey Price has looked more economical in terms of his movement around the goal crease. He seems to be thriving under the direction of new goalie coach Stephane Waite. He is also playing with a more focused and motivated outlook. That is likely the result of some maturing (he's now in his 7th season in the league), a realization that he is a real key player for his team and he has the motivation of proving that he should be considered for the starting goalie assignment for Team Canada at the Olympics. To date he is compiling a career best in goals against average (1.95) and save percentage (.938).
On defense, we are seeing P.K. Subban prove that last season's James Norris Trophy win was not a fluke. He, too, is apparently being motivated by a hope to play for the Canadian National Hockey team and has responded to the doubters of his abilities, by producing a team-leading 24 points along with a +9 rating. He has been consistent through his four years with Montreal, as a power play threat with a powerful slapshot and complements his offensive skills with a mean physical streak. The only lingering concerns relate to his ability to play on the defensive side of the game and yet he has produced a favorable plus/minus in three of his four NHL campaigns.
Complementing Subban is the veteran blueliner Andrei Markov, who is the only other Montreal player logging mire than 21 minutes per game this season. Markov came back from a pair of injury-riddled seasons to play in every game last year and has continued that healthy streak into this season, giving the Habs two of the game's best puck-handling blueliners in the league. Markov is also playing a dependable two-way game with 19 points and a team-leading +13 rating.
As mentioned, the Canadiens may be lacking in size, but they are one of the best-skating teams in the league and that may be a big factor in why they have escaped major injury woes thus far. Players like Tomas Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and captain Brian Gionta can all fly, but they are all known as solid checkers who do stick their noses into those high risk, high reward areas around opposing goalies.
The Canadiens will remain a handful as long as they get strong performances out of the afore-mentioned components, but they are also buoyed by the development of their bigger young forwards, Max Pacioretty, Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk, who are all growing into key roles as offensive catalysts of this attack.
(Note: This column was written while the Habs were getting shelled 6-0 by the Kings…my own version of the SI curse?)
Isles take a big step backward
John Tavares emerged as one of the leagues more imposing players last year, fulfilling the prophecy of his number one selection in the 2009 Draft. He became the new captain of the Isles prior to the start of this season, with the team hoping to build on their return to the playoffs last year. At a glance it would appear that he is again one of the NHL's top point producers so far (6th place overall with 34 points in 31 games played). However, he also carries an ugly (-8) rating. In fact, he has yet to post a positive plus/minus figure for any of his five seasons in the NHL.
He has been partnered with Kyle Okposo, another former first round draft pick (in 2006) and the recently acquired sniper Tomas Vanek, on what should be a very scary forward line. While they are three of the Isles' four top scorers so far, that unit is allowing more goals than they have produced. That's not good news for a team's first line of attack.
Complicating those woes is the fact that only Frans Nielsen has reached the 10-goal mark, with no one else even producing as many as 12 points and you have a pretty good indicator of one of the big problems here. This offense is surprisingly producing less than 2.5 goals per game.
Topping the list of offensive underachievers is Michael Grabner, who tallied 34 goals in his first season with the Islanders in 2010-11 and scored 16 in last year's short season. He has only two goals and six assists this season. The Isles harbored high hopes for some secondary scoring to emerge with the potential of Josh Bailey or Pierre Marc Bouchard, two more skilled forwards, but they have only produced four goals each despite playing in top-six scoring roles.
In goal, veteran Evgeni Nabokov re-signed for another year, after backstopping the Isles with a solid 2.50 goals against average and a .910 save percentage last year. His record is nowhere near those levels (3.30 gaa and .892 save pct.) so far this season. In 14 appearances and his understudy, Kevin Poulin (3.15 gaa) has been equally uninspiring through his own 14 appearances.
On defense, the Isles allowed their former captain, Mark Streit, to sign with Philadelphia and they have not seen anyone emerge to properly fill that void, though they seem committee to giving Andrew McDonald big minutes (averaging 26 minutes per game). He has chipped in 11 points, which leads this defense corps, but he also offsets any of those numbers with his own (-8) rating.
With numbers like these it is no wonder why the Islanders currently rank second last in the Eastern Conference standings.
Hockey pool tip - Look to your free agency pool before making a trade
By this point in the season, you should have a pretty clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of your fantasy team. At that point, you have to give some thought to improve it and the knee-jerk reaction is to look around at the competition in your pool and seek possible trades, because most of the best players should have been selected on draft day. That does not mean that there are no viable options in your free agent pool.
I will use one of my pools to illustrate the possibilities. On draft day a total of 234 players were selected, with a remaining 700+ to be fond in the free agent pool.
Is it goals you are looking for? Well, I see over 30 players who have scored seven or more goals, putting them on a pace for 20 goals on the year. So, if you have lost a player to a three-to-four week injury, these would all be viable options.
Are you trailing in assists? Again, there are plenty of options as 30 or more players have at least 10 helpers, a pace for around 30 on the year.
There are 18 defensemen with 10 or more points in my league's free agent pool. If your league is position specific, you probably have a similar number of options back there, too.
Are you hunting for goalie wins? There are 15 goalies who have at least five wins in our free agent pool.
All of these points indicate that I shouldn't necessarily move any of my players in trade when there are plenty of suitable options that will not cause me to inadvertently help an opponent in a trade. The bottom line - look (to free agency) before you leap (to a trade).