Sidney Crosby's season has been a revelation for me. Even though he's always been the Canadian golden boy, I was enamored with Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin is a dynamic skater, strong as an ox, hits like a bull, and scores seemingly at will. How could I not be seduced by his potential greatness? However, with time and experience, I have started to appreciate Crosby much more than Ovechkin. Now I understand how things like puck possession and back-checking and how effective and meaningful they are. I am amazed by the manner in which Crosby just controls the flow of the game. I realize now that being a great center is better than being a great winger. I am not saying this just because of Crosby's point streak or his league-leading 32 goals and 65 points. I am saying this because of his 45.6% zone start and his 55.8% FO and all of his other underlying stats. Ovechkin may end this season with 40 goals in the remaining games, but that is not going to change my mind.
Rise of the Thrashers:
Hands up everyone who pegged the Thrashers as a lottery team or close to the bottom of the league. Scott had them 24th in the pre-season rankings and almost all of us agreed and with good reason. The Thrashers had struggled to get to the playoffs with Ilya Kovalchuk and began the year without him. They traded for Dustin Byfuglien when his value was at it's peak and decided to make him a defenseman! Oh how we all laughed at that idea. I must say Rick Dudley and Craig Ramsay have made us all look bad. The Thrashers, despite winning just 4 of the last 10 games, are 7th in the conference. They have some good EV scorers such has Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and Nik Antropov, but it is their power play that has propelled them into the upper half of the conference. That same Dustin Byfuglien is having the best statistical season of his life and leading all NHL defensemen in points. A special mention needs to be made of Zach Bogosian and Johnny Oduya who have the worst zone start ratio on the team, allowing Big Buff to do his stuff.
The fall of Satan:
One of the most publicized stories this year has been the fall of the New Jersey Devils. For the last two seasons, I have been predicting the fall of New Jersey and they have made the playoffs. The Devils even endured a Martin Brodeur injury and still made the playoffs. Finally, the machine has broken and Devils are playing some record-breaking hockey for all the wrong reasons. However, unlike a lot of people, I do not blame the Kovalchuk signing for this fiasco. The reasons for this season's failures are some myopic moves made by Lou Lamoriello over the years. On defense he did not care to replace players like Scott Niedermeyer, Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin. He kept shelling money out for forwards whose production didn't justify the salary. Danius Zubrus and Brian Rolston alone take up $8,500,000 million in cap space. In addition Jason Arnott's contract is overblown and Bryce Salvador somehow commanded $3,000,000 from the shrewd Lamoriello. The Devils are now a team full of aging players who are either overpaid, past their prime, or both. Kovalchuk's contract is the least of their worries and one of the better contracts on the team at least in the near future.
The Department of Defense:
One of the smartest GMs in the league - Ken Holland - often talks about the importance of defensive depth for a team's success. His record speaks for itself. Yet there are many GMs who completely ignore their defensive needs. One of the prime example is Anahiem. That team is stacked up front with probably the best scoring line in the league followed by some good scoring forwards. They have a very good goaltender, but they are on a pace for 86 points which won't be good enough to make the playoffs. The primary reason for their struggles? Lack of defensive depth. They have a bunch of good puck moving defensemen and that's it. After losing Scott Niedermeyer and Chris Pronger in consecutive years, they did not add any tough minutes defensemen and are now paying the price. Teams that suffered a similar fate include San Jose and Ottawa while Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Vancouver have stocked up on defense.
The rise of the Southeast and fall of the Northwest:
Just a couple of years ago, the Northwest division was hailed as the toughest division in the league. Four of the five teams were considered very strong and tough to play against. The division boasted three world-class goalies in Roberto Luongo, Nicklas Backstrom and Miikka Kiprusoff. The teams were well-coached and difficult to play against. Now all that is left is three cellar dwellers in the Oilers, Flames and the Wild, a mediocre team in the Avalanche and the impressive Canucks, who save the northwest from utter humiliation. Its sad really. On the other hand, the Southeast division, dubbed as the worst division for years, is now on the rise. Atlanta and Tampa Bay have made huge strides in joining the ever-powerful Capitals in the playoff race. You want to know how good Tampa has been? Had they received the same goaltending as the Oilers do, they would have given up just 94 goals, as opposed to 120. That alone is four extra wins (considering 6 goals = 1 win) and Tampa, with Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk would be leading the Eastern Conference. Carolina has improved and Florida too is on the mend. Give them another year and they will soon be referred to as the toughest division in NHL!
The Center of attention:
Lastly, on to some Oiler talk. Many people still covet that superstar franchise center for the Oilers. Listen to talk radio, read message boards or check out the chatter in the stands at Rexall and the fans are not happy with Sam Gagner's progression as a center on the scoring line and want someone of the Ryan Getzlaf / Jeff Carter / Joe Thornton ilk. I can understand that. We've all wanted such a center for ages and can sometimes lose perspective. A look at the quality of wingers on the roster - Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark - they will all be top nine wingers for the foreseeable future. That's a lot of quality in regards to skill, scoring ability and potential. When we have wingers as good as these guys, then all we need are centers who are defensively reliable and capable of passing the puck to these wingers and let them do what they do. The Edmonton Oilers need centers like Shawn Horcoff, Stephen Wiess, Patrice Bergeron, and Jordan Staal to compliment our plethora of skilled wingers.