Andrew MacDonald is having quite a season

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I know for sure that Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald is and should be a candidate for the Norris Trophy this season. You just have to look at the stats.

We all know that things were a horror show on Long Island. No one is disputing that. That’s why his corsi was 43.4 percent with them. But we all also know that the Islanders are terrible and always will be, so it’s no surprise at all that his numbers with them were garbage (so garbage, in fact, that they were below the team’s average by a decent margin). But since going to Philadelphia, he’s been great, posting a corsi of 50.4 percent. You can’t argue with the numbers.

And all they had to do to get him there was significantly increase the number of offensive zone starts he received (by about 10 percent), scale back his even-strength time on ice, and give him slightly softer competition. No problems with that.

Look, this all makes sense if you’re paying attention. He’s been out there for as many goals for as goals against (six) over his 12 games in Philadelphia, and if he was such a bad defenseman, would his on-ice save percentage be 94.2? I don’t think so. At all.

But it goes beyond that: MacDonald has been with the team for 12 games, and do you know how many of those games they got points out of? That’s right: Nine. 7-3-2. Can’t mess with that. That’s a pace for 146 points. Such is the calming influence of MacDonald, whose new team went just 23-24-6 without him, a pace for just 80.

Now, maybe you’d say it’s not reasonable to attribute all of Philadelphia’s recent success to the MacDonald acquisition, which by the way cost the team just a second- and third-round pick. Because look at it this way: If he wasn’t so good, why would the Leafs want to sign him for $33 million? That’s only a 1000 percent raise!

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Beer league hockey is great

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Do you know what’s better than beer league hockey? Not anything, that’s what. Not that I’ve ever technically played beer league or anything, but I played intramurals in college and a decent enough amount of mid-afternoon pickup games that I assume it’s more or less the same thing, only with substantially less drinking on the bench.

So from my experience, if you add drinking to that you can probably start to feel pretty good about the experience overall.

For example, who wouldn’t love adding an alcohol infusion to watching the worst guy on your team go up and down the ice being totally ineffective for about a five-and-a-half minute shift? He’s some account executive down at the local paper-pushing concern and he’s just trying to stay the hell away from the wife and kids who he thinks have ruined his life so he doesn’t get yelled at for the third time this week about buying that sports car, so who can begrudge him a shift as long as those taken by Ilya Kovalchuk in his prime. That dude’s got problems he’s working out. The alcohol helps.

And if you think about it, what bad could come from letting a guy like that have a few pops before you accidentally make the slightest bit of contact with him as you’re both going for a 50-50 puck in the corner? It’s not like he’s so tightly wound he would start screaming at you and maybe take a couple two-handed whacks at you with his stick in, say, the back of the knee while you skate away. He probably wouldn’t try to run you through the boards next time you turned your back to him either. He’s just a good normal guy who was really great at sports in high school (just ask him!) and never got to the next level, but still keeps up with them. He plays the game with a lot of passion. You need guys like that at every level. That’s why he’s killing it with the Anderson account: He’s competitive.

Plus, and this is maybe the best part, if you add alcohol to your own performance against the 55-year-old former AHLer who still plays in all his old Rochester Americans gear to remind you that he was once “thisclose” to The Show, you might not notice that he’s still a better skater and stickhandler and shooter and passer and faceoff man than you, or care that he blew your doors off in transition because you weren’t all that good at skating backwards to begin with. The good news is you might only need to ice your knees for about three-quarters of the time he does after the game.

And that doesn’t even get into all those hilarious sex and alcohol puns in the team names. Yeah man I love beer league hockey. Great stuff.

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If the Devils are so bad, why are they good? (And vice versa)

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So the New Jersey Devils present their fans, and hockey observers at large, with a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, the numbers say they should be really, really good. They’re currently fifth in the league in corsi close at 53.3 percent, after all. That follows a season in which they finished third at 55.3 percent.

But at the same time, they are currently 21st in the league with just 75 points from 72 games, after they grabbed 48 from 48 and finished 22nd a year ago.

So what, in short, is wrong with these guys? The simplest answer is the most obvious one: Martin Brodeur. He had a .901 save percentage last year and followed that up with a .902 this time around. Hockey-Reference says he cost the team a little more than seven goals in the lockout-shortened season (which amounts to more than four points in the standings), and more than 10 goals this time around (about six points). He’s been awful, and it’s the direct result of Lou Lamoriello not being able to say no to him.

But Cory Schneider hasn’t been his usual self behind the Devils this season in Brodeur’s stead, and that’s when he’s been able to stay healthy. Obviously his .914 is slightly above league average, but at the same time, it’s below his career norm.

It also doesn’t help that this team doesn’t score a lot of goals to support their mediocre goaltending, while other squads have certainly done so and made the playoffs doing it. The Devils’ shooting percentage the last two years were ranked 27th and 22nd, respectively, meaning that even though they’re dominating possession they’re not getting the puck into the back of the net. One would have to imagine that Ilya Kovalchuk needed a bit more help than he got last season, and the Devils have certainly not spent money as wisely as they could have (see: The Zajac contract) in trying to help fill the void left by Zach Parise’s departure for Minnesota.

One wonders how, with new owners and maybe a new take on things — thanks to the team seemingly poised to bring aboard an analytics guy against Lamoriello’s apparent wishes — whether the team will be able to spend actual money, and do it more judiciously, going forward.

If so, and if they spend on actual top-six forward talent, the problems that have plagued them the last two years might become a thing of the past.

As long as they get goaltending.

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In appreciation of Matt Read

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The thing about the Flyers and how they’re really not very good is that their fate has really risen and fallen on the ability of one player — Claude Giroux — to make things happen for them. When he was awful to start the year, and boy was he ever, so too were the Flyers. When he started playing well, as if by magic, the entire team followed suit.

Obviously there is more to it than that, but if you’re looking for a storyline, that’s what it is. Now, you can say a lot of bad stuff about the way that team is run, and almost all of it would be deserved, but the one thing you have to say for sure in Paul Holmgren’s defense is that there are some pretty damn good players on that team.

Giroux is clearly in a class by himself, as perhaps the fourth- or fifth-best forward currently alive. There’s Kimmo Timonen who is being used a little more judiciously these days but still mostly very good. There’s Jake Voracek, who’s been very solid since coming over from Columbus. Braydon Coburn is pretty damn good in his role as shutdown defenseman, and one of the Flyers D few that actually starts the majority of his shifts in his own zone against top competition. Wayne Simmonds has his uses, as does Scott Hartnell.

But for money perhaps the most underrated Flyer, and certainly the team’s second-best forward overall is Matt Read.

He is, for one thing, tied for third on the team in goals behind Giroux and Simmonds (24) and with Voracek (20). This despite playing a basically all of his time in a shutdown role alongside guys like Sean Coutuier and Steve Downie and Vinny Lecavalier, who aren’t exactly known for their offensive prowess here in 2014. He also has positive possession numbers (okay, barely) despite facing the toughest competition available, and starting more shifts in his own zone than every other player on the team besides Couturier and Adam Hall, both of whom are getting buried by the players they face.

Which really isn’t bad at all for a college free agent out of Bemidji State, playing for a team that has been drowning in possession literally all season long. The thing is, too, that chart up above. No one who’s more left or up on that graphic from Extra Skater (the former indicating more zone starts in players’ own end, the latter a greater quality of competition) also happens to be colored in not-red, which kind of tells you something about how dependable Read is and likely will continue to be for years to come.

If the Flyers were better, he’d be in pretty good shape to be in the “Most Underrated Two-Way Forward” discussion. But they’re not so he isn’t. Maybe he should be anyway.

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Who could have foreseen a Leafs meltdown?

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So it’s come to this:

“The good fortune we had at the beginning of the year now seems to be piling up against us.”

Randy Carlyle, following a 3-2 loss to New Jersey, March 23, 2014

The Leafs have been going very conspicuously off the rails for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have lost five straight in regulation and have won only two wins in the first 60 minutes of a game since Feb. 27. Which is a long way of saying, “The Leafs have 10 points from their last 13 games, and are now at the point in the action movie where the hero is holding onto the very edge of a helicopter’s skids with one hand, while the laughing villain stomps gleefully on his fingers.

Except in this particular movie, it seems the good guy isn’t going to reach up with that free hand and grab onto the baddie’s ankle, and hurl him screaming to his death. It seems instead that the wind is picking up and heel is grinding ruthlessly into crushed finger bone. All that remains is for the inevitability of gravity to take effect, and leave this team with playoff pretensions a red pulpy mess on the ground.

As of this writing, they have 80 points from 73 games and technically hold the East’s eighth and final playoff spot. At the rate they’ve been going, though, it’s unlikely that they’re going to take the 12 or so points needed to ensure a playoff position from their final nine games. Not when those games include dates against St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, and Tampa, all of which are better than the Leafs by a pretty decent margin.

That the chickens have come home to roost for the Leafs, who lived on being outshot but counting on their goaltenders — and their goaltenders alone — to bail them out night after night, is not really a surprise. They’ve repeatedly denied that being outshot has any negative effect on their game, because after all they played like 100 straight of playoff-making hockey under Randy Carlyle, and every loss no matter how bad during that time has been explained away in easy fashion: blame injuries, blame a sudden lack of leadership, blame James Reimer being a huge piece of crap who sucks. Repeat.

That the Leafs are now bemoaning their lack of luck is in no way surprising but neither is the fact that the lack of luck exists. For the most part, you’re only going to get a finite amount of luck over the course of 100-plus hockey games, and while wins count just as much in, say, January 2013 as they do now, the fact of the matter is that the Leafs burned through their good bounces just to get to the point of being a borderline playoff team this season.

Carlyle’s “good fortune” provided the cover to even have them in the conversation for the postseason, and without the goaltending that has buoyed them far beyond where it logically should have, the Leafs look like what they are in actual practice, one of the 10-worst teams in the National Hockey League. There’s no mystery to it, and if you were paying any kind of attention at all you saw all this coming a long ways off. Carlyle and the Leafs brass, though, weren’t paying attention. So they’re trying to run James Reimer out of town rather than fix the problem they’ve faced for the last 15 months, which they think don’t exist.

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MELNYK!

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The Ottawa Senators are, just a season removed from being perhaps the biggest surprise success in the NHL, an unmitigated disaster for no readily apparent reason. In the 2013 season — which, granted, was shortened significantly by a lockout — they enjoyed significant puck possession and were one of the better teams in the East down the stretch even if they were only able to barely squeeze into the postseason.

While no one in particular thought Craig Anderson would be able to repeat the incredible performance he posted in that campaign (.941 in 24 games), the general consensus was that they’d be able to improve on a seventh-in-the-East finish mainly because of the fact that they actually got better in the offseason.

The general consensus, of course, was wrong. The Senators are woeful, tied for 12th in the conference with Carolina of all the bad teams in the league, and there doesn’t really seem to be a particularly good reason for it. They haven’t been hugely unlucky, with a 99.5 PDO, dragged down by a 7.2 percent shooting percentage. Their possession numbers are good (52.1, eighth in the league) but down from last year.

There has been one notable difference over the last year-plus that might lead the Senators to not be as good as they possibly could be: their owner.

Eugene Melnyk had quite the offseason, to put things mildly. Soon after the free agent period opened, he swore up and down that he was not in any kind of financial trouble. A little more than a month later, he said that the Senators have lost $94 million since he took over, and the team had to say he hasn’t in any way affected their payroll decisions in the past. But then about a month after that, he noted that he just found out the Senators were apparently over a self-imposed budget that would limit their spending significantly. In addition, financial issues may or may not be the reason they couldn’t come to terms on an extension for the forever-face of their franchise that same summer.

This after Melnyk spent what might have been significant amounts of money on a forensic investigation that could definitively prove Erik Karlsson’s catastrophic injury last season was the direct result of intent on Matt Cooke’s part. This around the same time that a writer reporting on the various financial difficulties under which the Sens were laboring had his account on the site hacked, and the articles deleted, by someone that may or may not have been tenuously connected to Melnyk in some way. Melnyk, by the way, denies the reporting of what he called the “random useless blogger” (friend of TLP Travis Yost) is in any way factual.

It’s all very cloak and dagger stuff, obviously, but the thrust of it is that Eugene Melnyk, in possibly having significant money troubles but absolutely and admittedly placing a budget on the team’s payroll, has held back the Senators from being as good as they could have been this season. You don’t need to dig into the numbers to see that.

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Torey Krug bucks a trend

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Generally, in the immediate wake of the end of any given NCAA team’s season, one can expect a rush to sign some of the more promising players from that roster. This is a pretty cheap and easy way to stock a farm system and, theoretically, get a kid who can contribute to your NHL team for years to come for nothing but the cost of the signing bonus and what is often a relatively meager annual salary.

However, while the signing of college free agents is often hailed as a great move by any given general manager — i.e. what happened when Don Maloney signed Hobey Baker winner Andy Miele a few years back, or likely runner-up Greg Carey just yesterday — the actual impact on the NHL team for which he ultimately works is often minimal; the number of college free agents who make it to the NHL and have any sort of impact similar to the one seen in college are extremely rare. More often, guys get cups of coffee and toil in the minors for a number of years, making a few hundred grand per, and it works out well enough for everyone.

But every so often, NCAA free agents can have major impacts on their NHL teams, and Torey Krug is one of them. The Bruins signed him just days after his Michigan State Spartans were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in 2011, after having beaten out bids from a number of different teams. He spent last season in the AHL, where he compiled 45 points in 63 games, and then made the big club out of camp this season.

His 14 goals in the NHL this season thrust him into fifth in the entire league behind only Dustin Byfuglien, Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber, and teammate Zdeno Chara. In short, that is good company to keep for any rookie defenseman. He’s drawn some flak, some of it due, for the fact that he is being extremely sheltered by Claude Julien because — get this — as a 22-year-old NHL rookie and second-year pro, his defensive game is a little wanting. Go figure. (Despite that, he also irrationally drew some attention from the Boston media as a potential Olympic candidate, which was and is ludicrous.)

What’s interesting about Krug is that he’s doing this despite not being what you’d consider a prototypical NHL defenseman. Insofar as he is listed as 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that Krug is succeeding in the NHL despite a number of things being stacked against him, mitigated only by his coach having the luxury to deploy him in favorable situation. Which is pretty cool. But if the Bruins sign any other NCAA free agents this spring, I wouldn’t bet the farm on a repeat performance.

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Why’s Union good now? Possession

 

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For a very long time, Union was more or less an afterthought in college hockey, and with good reason. Up until the 2007-08 season, they’d posted just four seasons of .500 or better since going to Division 1 in 1991-92. You can see why many people would have written them off.

But since 2007, the program has taken off under the stewardship of two coaches: Nate Leaman and Rick Bennett. Leaman took over the program in 2003, when Kevin Sneddon moved on to Vermont, and suffered through a number of tough losing seasons. But then around 2008, all the program-building he did finally paid off. He won 19 games, then 21, then 26 in successive years, making the NCAA tournament in that final campaign for the first time in school history, and also capturing the ECAC regular-season title. Then Leaman moved on to Providence, and has done a nice job of building up that struggling program as well.

Since Bennett, who served as Leaman’s assistant all those years, took over, the team has won 74 games over three seasons, and made the NCAA tournament in each, including a trip to the Frozen Four in the first one. This has led some to wonder what makes Union so great. The answer is pretty simple: They always have the puck.

(Note: Available data for this goes back as far as 1999-2000, which was Sneddon’s second year on the job.)

Divided up into four-year chunks — reasonable because this is a system that moves players out every four years — we actually get a good delineation between coaches. We have data for four years of Sneddon, eight of Leaman, and the first three of Bennett. So here’s something about that:

As you can see, once Leaman got all of Sneddon’s guys, who to be fair were mixed in with the previous coach’s players, out of the system, this is a team that started taking over in possession. Leaman is a hell of a smart coach and clearly recognizes that winning is predicated upon having the puck. Once Leaman had nothing but his guys playing for him in 2007-08, Union’s possession numbers surged from 47.7 to 52.59, which is no small jump. And while you might be able to write that off as being a one-year quirk, the fact that they jumped to 53.2 percent the next season and haven’t slipped below 54 percent in the five years since tells you that this is the kind of player they look for, and the kind of game they play.

Bennett’s season isn’t over yet, and it should be noted that the guys he’s recruiting aren’t making up the entirety of the team’s roster yet. But with a .701 winning percentage under him, thanks to a 55.52 percent share of the shots taken in their games, one has to imagine that he’s not about to slow down any time soon.

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Sonnet for Joey Diamond

 

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Shall I remind thee to your sending-down?
Thou art more worthy and more treacherous;
From Bridgeport demoted to Stockton town,
And career’s cold hath grown more dangerous:
Sometimes too hot the head of Diamond grew,
And so often was he sent off for majors;
And ev’ry one assessed deserved too,
Not quite by chance or nature’s course were yours;
But thy eternal mem’ry shall not fade
Nor lose retention of space thou ownest;
For stomps and charges for thy Maine games played,
At every ref’ree’s call didst we groanest:
So long as men can breate or eyes can see,
So long lives this scumbag: Diamond, Joey.

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Are the Swiss good at hockey now?

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One would find it difficult to believe that any of the U.S., Canada, or Sweden are likely to be knocked off from being the three best hockey countries in the world any time soon. They are and have been juggernauts for a while.

But they might also be hearing footsteps. The problem, of course, is that it might be hard to discern them from those of Russia, which are fading, and Finland, which are always close to the pack but don’t seem especially likely to catch up to it at any point in the reasonable future. But the loudest echoes now seem to be coming not from Northern or even Eastern Europe, where the seat of hockey power outside North America has always been located. Now, it seems likely that the Swiss are about to start doing very well at this sport.

Yeah, I understand they lost to Latvia in the qualification games in the playoffs, and only won two of their three group games (they lost to Sweden, as you might expect), but you have to keep in mind two things: 1) They did it with a Calgary Flame as one of their goalies, and 2) They only lost to Latvia because of all the performance-enhancing drugs.

Let’s put it another way: in terms of possession, only two teams were ahead of Switzerland in the percentage of shots for in the tournament. Those were Canada and Russia, and Russia was only playing so well offensively because they knew that letting the puck come into their own zone would mean certain doom. The Swiss were also effectively somewhat unlucky, thanks to a PDO of less than 100 (that 2.4 percent sh% will do it every time).

The only thing really holding the tiny, neutral, clockmaking Swiss back from being a truly dominant hockey power is a good forward or three or six. The only guy on their roster who had a point that I’d even heard of was Martin Pluss. They scored three goals in the entire tournament for that reason. If they want to start getting a few more high-quality projects like Nino Niederreiter pushed through the development system before Pyongchang, that’d do ‘em a world of good. And if they want to kidnap Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos, and brainwash them into thinking his name is Simon and Martin Brunstein, and the sons of a well-known chocolatier, well then I’m not going to complain about that either.

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