For 14 NHL teams, next year begins now. In a little over a week, fans of the NHL’s non-playoff teams will eagerly look to the future as the league runs its draft lottery to determine the owner of this summer’s first overall draft pick. This year, unlike years past, all 14 teams will have a shot at that top slot, meaning the league’s worst franchise has a better chance to lose the lottery, too.
But despair not, Buffalo Sabres fans: as one look around the league shows, second place isn’t so bad.
This list of active second overall picks is hardly second-rate.
Of all the likely first-round matchups already shaping up for the playoffs, Chicago over Colorado looks like the easiest to call. The others – Canadiens-Lightning, Rangers-Flyers, Sharks-Kings – all appear to be pick ‘em series.
Not so with the Avalanche-Blackhawks who have been headed for a showdown in Round 1 for a while now. Even if the Avs hold onto second spot in the Central Division, few pundits will pick them to upset the Hawks.
But be not so quick to count out this plucky Colorado club, nor feel so safe to put unconditional faith in the defending Stanley Cup champions.
With only a week and change left in the regular season, it’s crunch time for those players with their eyes on individual trophies. In the goaltending department, Boston’s Tuukka Rask managed to usurp Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop over the past month, but can he hang on for the final stretch? Here’s our ranking of the contenders.
1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
With seven shutouts, Rask is the NHL leader in blankings and when you couple that with 34 wins, a 2.04 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, it goes without saying that he owns the pole position when it comes to the Vezina.
Many coined Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick as the “Big 3” when it comes to goaltending last summer. After all, in fantasy hockey the goaltender is the most difficult position to project, so it’s good to know there are at least three you can rely on every year to post good numbers. Do everything you can to acquire one of those three, because then you won’t have to worry about that roster spot.
Or so the theory goes.
That theory sure went out the window quickly. Rinne and Quick missed almost the entire first half, while Lundqvist probably wishes he did. This is one season in recent memory where depth goaltenders and quick thinking on the waiver wire with backup netminders saved the season for many poolies.
Let’s take a look at the biggest questions fantasy owners have about that area between the pipes for 2014-15.
The Colorado Avalanche being without star center Matt Duchene for the next four weeks due to a knee injury won’t be the difference between them winning and losing playoff games. But there will be ramifications – including home ice advantage against the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round – for Patrick Roy’s team to overcome in Duchene’s absence.
Simply put, the Avs have the kind of depth at forward most other teams would kill for. Duchene is Colorado’s top pointgetter (70 points in 71 games), but their offense is centered around a five-man group that includes leading scorer and captain Gabriel Landeskog (24 goals to Duchene’s 23), Ryan O’Reilly (who has the same number of game-winning goals – six – as Duchene), Nathan MacKinnon (tied with O’Reilly for the team lead in power play goals, with eight) and Paul Stastny (52 points in 63 games). Removing Duchene from that mix will force Roy to mix-and-match some of their lines, but there’s more than enough still there to get the job done come playoff time.
Now, if one of the Avalanche’s key defensemen (namely, Erik Johnson or Jan Hejda) went down with a serious injury, the story would be different. Roy has done a Jack Adams Award-worthy job this year in part because he’s implemented a system that does away with zone defense in favor of a puck pressure approach, but if you don’t have players who can make smart decisions on the back end while keeping up with (and jumping into) the play, all the great forwards in the world aren’t going to lead you to victory.
That said, the Avs will need their available talent to pick up the slack in Duchene’s absence, as they’re just a point up on the Hawks for second spot in the Central Division. Colorado has two games in hand on Chicago, but they’ve got only two relatively soft touches (Vancouver and Anaheim) in their final eight games, while the Hawks finish the year against Washington and Nashville.
And here’s why home ice matters in this showdown: Read more
There isn’t much hockey to be played before the post-season takes over and the race for rookie of the year is tightening up. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon appeared to put a hammer lock on the race with his big 13-game point streak, but Tampa’s Ondrej Palat may have something to say about that. Here’s how I see the race right now:
1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
The Avs have defied odds and remained a viable playoff team in what was thought to be a learning year and having MacKinnon’s skilled power game has contributed to the team’s devastating balance up front. Nate Dogg still leads the rookie pack with 23 goals and 55 points in 73 games.
The Stanley Cup handoff is one of hockey’s warm traditions, either our final morsel of mystery in a long season or a time of uplifting sentimentality. Sometimes it’s both.
Whatever the case, it’s always an homage of respect when the captain of the winning team identifies a peer and passes the world’s most iconic trophy to No. 2 in the pecking order. Joe Sakic to Ray Bourque in 2001, Steve Yzerman to Scotty Bowman in 2002 and Scott Niedermayer to brother Rob in 2007 are some of the more indelible moments.
More often than not in recent years, the honor has gone to a veteran who’s tasting ultimate NHL glory for the first time. Last season it was 36-year-old Michal Handzus, in 2012 35-year-old Willie Mitchell got the call and in 2008 38-year-old Dallas Drake had his turn.
We don’t have a recorded history of how many times players have hit both goal posts and the crossbar with a single shot, but it must be a rare occurrence.
Monday night, Philadelphia’s Vincent Lecavalier had a shot at a wide open net against Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, but didn’t convert as the puck clanged three times around the goal and kicked out. The Flyers ended up losing that game by a single goal.
So, the odds must have been heavily against that happening again any time soon. Except that it did happen again the very next night.
On Tuesday, Colorado played Nashville and trailed 2-0 in the first period. That’s when Gabriel Landeskog got a shot opportunity on Pekka Rinne. Landeskog’s shot also rang off all three goal posts…although his shot ended up on the red light side of the line.
NHL ’14 is becoming more real every day. It’s as if the virtual characters and their tendencies have come out of the screen and into real life, a la Last Action Hero.
That means the three-post shot won’t happen again this season, right?
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