New York Islanders

New York Islanders: Back to Relevance?

The New York Islanders are relevant?

No one saw this coming.

There are four games left in the 2018-19 regular season and the New York Islanders, yes the same New York Islanders that lost their franchise player this past off-season are sitting directly between the two teams that have won the last three Stanley Cups in the standings.

This statement in of itself would have drawn laughter if predicted before the season began even if John Tavares did not discover his childhood dream at 28 years old on July 1, 2018.

Replacing him in the Islander lineup with Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Robin Lehner and Tom Kuhnhackl did nothing to divert that way of thinking. Everyone predicted that at best the Islanders would maybe challenge for a playoff spot and then fade away to play meaningless hockey after New Years. This was despite first ballot Hall of Famer to be and newly minted Stanley Cup Champion coach Barry Trotz steering the ship.

Defensive Concerns Are Gone

From game one of the season something seemed different. The Islanders were making the smart plays.

Prior to the season many fans questioned If they could chip the puck out of the defensive zone. Well, they’ve showed they can. They did it instead of the higher risk of skating or passing it out.  If they were challenged in the neutral zone and had no other option the puck was simply thrown into one of the corners harmlessly instead of turning it over, resulting in an odd man rush against.

Again, fans questioned the Islanders defense. Fans were worried about their defense shutting down opposing forwards from entering into their zone with the puck. But, the Islanders did it again. They ensured that their opposition had little to no room to create a scoring chance. Cross ice passes for open one timers were minimized. Game after game the Islanders frustrated the most talented offensive teams in the National Hockey League.

Barry Trotz calls it “playing the right way”.

What a night and day difference from the run and gun Islanders of 2017-18. The ones that allowed the most goals in the league. The ones that other players on the Lightning and Barry Trotz’ own Washington Capitals laughing on how easy the Islanders were to play against when they dropped five or six goals on Islander goaltenders Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak.

The Roster That Garth Built

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The Islanders now sit number one in the NHL in goals against after being dead last last season with 90% of the same personnel, and 100% of the same defensive core.

We’ve never seen a team turn it around like this. How often does a team have a remarkably awful season, lose their best player and dramatically improve?

The Islanders have done it because of two simple facts. One, by doing the little things and doing them right.

Second, if it is one thing that the Islanders new regime has proven its that Garth Snow for all of his faults was not a bad judge of talent. Unfortunately, he was horrendous at was picking coaches. He was bad at forming a culture of winning. Snow was bad at putting a winning front office in place. All that is true. But, the Islanders are winning with a team primarily composed of players that Garth Snow brought here. That statement will definitively get all Garth haters fired up, but at the same time they cannot deny it as fact.

Now, before I alienate the Islander fans who ruthlessly attack anyone saying anything positive about Snow, please note that I was begging for him to be fired many years ago. He was a bad general manager. That being said you can’t deny the positives of the players on the team at this moment. They’ve helped drive this time from an abysmal season last year to a playoff berth and they’ve done it all without Tavares.

Trust The Process

Barry Trotz has the players believing. Barry Trotz and the Islander players got Islanders fans to believe again. Trust the process. Sorry Philadelphia for stealing your motto, but it’s true. Plus, the Islanders now have the rest of the hockey world believing. 

Finally, the New York Islanders are back after over three decades of failure.

player profiles from Hockey-Reference.com

featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals

 

 

Boston Bruins

Boston Bruins: How To Get Home Ice In Round One

It Will Go Down To The Wire, But The Boston Bruins Have Second Place In Sight 

For hockey historians, the battle in the National Hockey League’s Atlantic Division this year is a blast from the past. Three “Original Six” clubs battling it out for coveted home-ice in the playoffs. 

After play this past weekend, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadians sit within two points of one another. Only one of those three will be fortunate enough to start the NHL playoffs at home in early April. 

All three teams are a virtual lock to make the playoffs. The Canadians had the lowest odds of the trio heading into play yesterday at 88.4% according to MoneyPuck.com. Safe to say these three teams are going to the playoff dance. 

Alas, they are not battling for first place in the Atlantic. The juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning, with only 11 regulation losses on the season, have an insurmountable 15-point lead over second place Toronto. At home and cooling as they say. 

Despite a season-long battle with (in)consistency, the Bruins find themselves in the thick of the fight for home-ice in the first round of the playoffs. A 4-0-3 mark since the All-Star break has given the Bruins the necessary cushion to focus on playoff positioning in their division, and minimize the sound of the footsteps behind them from the wild card pack. 

To grab and maintain the all important second place spot in the Atlantic, many things must go the Bruins way. With three teams bunched so close together in the standings, luck and good fortune is always necessary in getting a leg up on a division rival. A perfect example is the Maple Leafs running into a hot goalie in Alexandar Georgiev Sunday night against the New York Rangers. Georgiev made 55 saves in helping the Rangers down the Leafs 4-1, allowing the Bruins to remain one point behind following their afternoon win over the Colorado Avalanche. 

It Takes More Than Luck 

Luck is great, but the Bruins will need more than that in order to take over second place. Here is a closer look at what the Bruins can do to help themselves down the stretch. 

1. FIND SECONDARY SCORING

Outside the Bruins dominant top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, there has been little in the way of secondary scoring. The threesome have combined for 44.4% of all the Bruins goals this season. Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci have chipped in with 14 and 12 goals respectively, but the rest of the roster has underachieved. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has tinkered with the line combinations throughout the year hoping to spark a fire under some of the lightweights, but with little luck. 

It’s no doubt Bruins general manager Don Sweeney will vigorously explore the trade market, hoping to acquire a rental or two in hopes of boosting the teams firepower. While the likes of Artemi Panarin and Wayne Simmonds have been linked to the Bruins, some other names Sweeney will likely inquire about include Thomas Vanek, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Dzingal and Derek Brassard. 

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2. HEALTHY AND CONSISTENT GOALTENDERS

For the most part this season, the Bruins have been solid between the pipes. Like the rest of the team, both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak have endured inconsistent stretches, although not at the same time. Boston is tied for second in the league in goals against, allowing only 2.55 per game. The strength of the Bruins is certainly their backend, with as strong a top-six defensive core as you will find in the league.

After Rask and Halak, the goaltending depth within the organization drops dramatically, and it would not be a surprise if Sweeney also doesn’t kick tires looking for some insurance in net. Some notable goaltenders of interest could include Cam Ward, Cam Talbot or Keith Kinkaid

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3. MAKE THE SCHEDULE WORK 

After a home game Tuesday night against the red-hot Chicago Black Hawks, the Bruins will embark on a tough five game road trip over nine nights to the west coast. Anything less than five points during that trip could be costly to the Bruins in the standings. 

The reward for such a difficult trip is a six-game home stand waiting for them when they return to TD Garden. If the Bruins can take care of business out west, they look to be in great shape as the calendar turns to March for the stretch drive. 

4. PAGING DAVID BACKES 

If anyone in the Boston area has seen David Backes, please let Sweeney or Cassidy know as soon as possible. 

Backes, 34, has endured being a healthy scratch on occasion this season, including the Bruins’ last game against the Avalanche. Noted in the past for his aggressive nature and two-way game, Backes has been a shell of himself most of this year. A six-time 20-goal scorer in his career, Backes finds himself on pace for less than ten goals this season, while barely averaging ten minutes of ice-time per game recently. Should the Bruins be unable to add players prior to the trade deadline on February 25th, it will be vital for the Bruins to get Backes on track and prove the teams current commitment to him of $6.0 million a season (Average Annual Salary) through 2021. 

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The Bruins should be considered Stanley Cup contenders. With strong defence and goaltending, they are one of a handful of teams that have a legitimate shot of going all the way to the finals. With a couple of upgrades to the offence, the Bruins will find themselves hosting the first two games of the playoffs at TD Garden in Boston, most likely against an age-old rival in Toronto or Montreal. 

Follow me on Twitter @cbradley2928

Statistics provided by hockey-reference.com, MoneyPuck.com and theScore 

Feature Photo Image Credit: Nikos Michals

Boston Bruins

Boston Bruins: Controlling Their Own Destiny

Wild Card Bruins Need To Up Their Game To Avoid First Round Match-Up With The Lightning

All teams, no matter what sport or at what level, want to control their own destiny. No team wants to depend on the hopeful misfortune of another franchise in order to get where they need to be. 

This is where the Boston Bruins are at right now. 

The Bruins play host to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night, marking the end of their bye week. And what a way to be welcomed back, playing the top team in the Central Division. The Bruins go into the contest holding the first wild card spot in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference, one point up on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Boston fell into the wild card after the Montreal Canadians won their last game just prior to the All-Star break. 

It’s certainly unfamiliar territory for the Bruins, looking up at the Canadians in the standings. Even with two games in hand on Montreal, the Bruins are realizing like the rest of the league that the Canadians have no designs on falling back to the pack as so many have predicted this season. 

What’s also a good idea for the Bruins is to not look behind them.  A pair of young, hungry clubs in the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes are lurking just five points back. Falling one spot back into the second wild card slot would likely set up a first round match-up with the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning. No doubt that is a scenario any team would like to avoid. 

How The Schedule Looks 

Coming down the stretch, the remaining games on the Bruins schedule do offer up a significant challenge for Boston. 

Of the 33 games left on their schedule, 16 of those will be played at home. Also, 16 games will be played against clubs with records of .500 or better. Not exactly favourable, but not unreasonable either. 

The big test for the Bruins will come in the second week of March, when they play 10 of their last 14 games on the road. That stretch of games starts with five straight against clubs above .500. Any plans the Bruins have of escaping the wild card spot should be addressed well before then. 

What the schedule maker has set up for the Bruins means nothing however if Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask is not healthy enough to return. Rask suffered a concussion in Boston’s final game before their bye week against the New York Rangers.

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Winger David Pastrnak was Boston’s lone representative at the All-Star game weekend in San Jose. During the festivities, he was asked if there was any update on Rask’s condition. Pastrnak said he had been texting with Rask earlier, and Rask assured him that he was “feeling good”. The general sentiment seems to be that Rask is “day-to-day” with the concussion symptoms, and may well be good enough to go Tuesday against Winnipeg. An update on Rask is expected Monday afternoon, after the Bruins practice on their first day back. Should Rask be unable to go, veteran goaltender Zane McIntyre would likely be summoned from their American Hockey League affiliate Providence Bruins. 

As Puck77.com’s Matt Sanderson (@MattSanderson32) noted in his piece on Saturday afternoon, current Bruins back-up Jaroslav Halak has endured some struggles the last few weeks. After a hot start to the season, Halak has lost four of his last five decisions, allowing 17 goals during that stretch. Should Rask be out any significant amount of time, the crease will be Halak’s to defend. He will need to be better than he has been. 

Is Qualifying For The Playoffs A Concern?

Although the Bruins have every right to be concerned with the footsteps they hear behind them of other teams, making the playoffs seems like a good bet for Boston. 

According to moneypuck.com, the Bruins have an 85.5% chance of getting into the playoffs. So aside from a near total collapse, the Bruins should make it.  But as for any team in the NHL, an injury to any key player and those odds diminish in a hurry. 

Having said that, the Bruins are relatively healthy. Outside of the Rask concussion, only forward Joakim Nordstrom (fractured fibula) is currently out, and he has been skating with the club. But do expect Boston to be kicking tires on other teams in the league leading up to the NHL trade deadline on February 25th.

While there is very little concern with the Boston defence, upgrades to both the offence and goaltending depth should be considered. Up front, the Bruins top line of Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are as good a trio as any in the league. But outside of them, secondary scoring is a worry. The bottom six has been affective, led by Sean Kuraly, Danton Heinen and Chris Wagner. But asking any of them to produce in a top six role would be risky. 

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Boston’s core as it’s currently built is nearing its expiry date. Zdeno Chara will be 42-years-old by time the playoffs start. Bergeron, Marchand, David Backes, David Krejci and Rask are all over 30. This post-season could easily be viewed as one last kick at the can for many of these veterans. So it would come as no surprise if General Manager Don Sweeney makes a big splash prior to the deadline to make another Stanley Cup run. 

The Bruins control their own fate. Time for these veterans to step up and pave the way. 

stats from hockey-reference, NHL.com

featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals

Boston Bruins

Boston Bruins: First Half Recap

The Bruins Have Been Solid This Year. But It Could Have Been Even Better. 

The National Hockey League All-Star weekend is upon us and David Pastrnak is the lone Boston Bruin on Team Atlantic. Just as quick as it arrived, it’ll leave just as fast so this gives us the chance to look at a first half recap and the biggest contributors of the Boston Bruins.

As it sits right now, the Bruins sit in seventh place in the overall league standings with 58 points on the year, tied with Columbus. Only four points separate them from second place, proving the log jam in the East. With that being said, I don’t think we’ve seen the full potential of the Bruins like we did last season.

Playing Below Their Level

I feel Boston should be higher in the standings than they currently are. But a number of factors play into that result, which the B’s aim to correct going into the second half of the year. Eleven of their games this season have been  losses to teams lower than them in the standings. Now, I get you’re not going to win every game, but those are the games you can never take lightly. They’ve struggled with scoring in the second half of games, and you have to believe Bruce Cassidy and the coaching staff will work on that after the break.

Each game going forward is important, especially if they want to knock down some big teams ahead of them.

Goaltending

At the start of the year, Boston had some goaltending issues. Tuukka Rask wasn’t himself, as he couldn’t find his rhythm that Bruins fans are so used to seeing. He had a high GAA and low SV% and then actually stepped away from the team for a bit. When he came back, it appeared as if he regrouped and found his game and has finished off the first half on a higher note than he started on. He now goes into the break with a record of 14-8-0-3, a GAA 2.43 and the SV% of .919. Now dealing with concussion issues, one can only hope this much-needed break puts him into a position to be ready for their next game.

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Jaroslav Halak was leading the way in productivity when Rask was up and down at the start of the season. Halak was the opposite of Rask. He started off hot then dropped back once Rask improved. Jaroslav has always been a journeymen, and you almost wondered how many games he’d get to start. The two have played 26 games a piece. Halak finished out the first half with a 13-9-0-2, a 2.47 GAA and a .919 SV%. For the rest of the season, they need much more consistent goaltending from these two if they want to make some noise.

Scoring

The Bruins scoring has always been deadly and something opponents need to look out for. The top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are exciting to watch. They continue with the same force this year as they did last season, and between the three they have 150 points.

So it’s a no-brainer what those three can do but my question is, what can they get from the secondary lines? A guy like Jake DeBrusk, who has 14 goals and 4 assists on the year for 18 points, is having a down season so far. That being said it doesn’t mean he can’t change that because he is on pace to come close to his point total from last season. But what stands out to me is his +/- rating, which is at -5. DeBrusk is a young up and coming kid, sometimes it takes a year or two for things to come into place.

Biggest Contributors

David Krejci

David Krejci has been a premier guy this season. When  Bergeron went down, he stepped into the first line to soften the blow. Krejci was starting to gel with Marchand and Pastrnak when Bergeron came back, but he definitely bolstered the line when you thought it was going to be a colossal loss. He has 40 points so far and if he can continue on this pace it could be a very productive season for the veteran.

Matt Grzelcyk

Matt Grzelcyk is a guy who flies under the radar but plays some great hockey. He’s a solid D-Man who plays a chippy game, with 50 of his 74 career PIMs coming this season  with a bigger role. He’s also close to matching and surpassing his point total as well. He has the combination of being a stay at home defenseman but also brings a scoring touch.

Patrice Bergeron

It amazes me how much one player’s absence can shake up an entire team. For years Patrice Bergeron has been a monumental piece for this team. So when he went down earlier in the year, it was noticeable how the team reacted.  As time went on, and with the help of David Krejci jumping in, they adjusted. Then in his first game back he recorded four points and all was well in Bruins land. Bergeron needs to continue on his pace this year and it will make the Bruins another nasty team to play come playoff time.

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Overview

Only time will tell exactly what the Bruins will do as we get into the second half, but I am confident it will be some thrilling hockey down the stretch!

Make sure you read up on Chris Bradley’s second half prognosis for the Bruins on Monday. 

Statistics provided by hockey-reference.com

Featured Photo Image Credit: Nikos Michals 

 

 

St. Louis Blues: Evaluating the Goaltender Marketplace

It’s not a secret that the St. Louis Blues desperately need a goaltender. 

The Blues’ number one goaltender, Jake Allen has been insufferably bad. At this point in the season, Allen has a 3.12 GAA and a .900 SV% after 22 games in net.

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Their back-up goaltender, Chad Johnson was waived earlier this week. Unfortunately for Blues fans, Johnson wasn’t great either. In 10 games played this season, Johnson had a 3.55 GAA and a .884 SV%.

St. Louis Blues fans should be thankful as Johnson is no longer with the organization. Earlier today, it was announced that the Anaheim Ducks had claimed Johnson off of waivers. The Ducks desperately needed a goaltender after it was revealed that their backup goaltender, Ryan Miller would be on the shelf for roughly six weeks with a sprained MCL. 

With Johnson on his way to Southern California, the Blues will now rely on Jordan Binnington to backup Allen. Binnington hasn’t played in the NHL since 2015-2016. In the 2015-2016 regular season, he only made one start and it wasn’t pretty. 

So, it’s fair to say that Doug Armstrong, the general manager of the St. Louis Blues should look to make an upgrade in-goal. If Armstrong adds a top goaltender, the Blues might be able to get out of their struggles.

Who Might be an Option?

If I’m in Armstrong’s loafers, the first call that I would make would be to the Boston Bruins. 

This season has been rather rocky for the Bruins. At the moment, the Bruins sit in fourth place in the Atlantic Division. Unfortunately for fans in New England, the Bruins have had a number of health issues. They’ve been without their elite centre, Patrice Bergeron since November 16th. In addition, Bruins’ winger, Jake DeBrusk is hurt as well. Even if both forwards come back tomorrow, the Bruins will likely still look to add another forward prior to the deadline.

If the Bruins want to add a forward, they could potentially look at trading Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis. With Halak having a strong year, the Bruins have two great goaltenders that they can rely on. Aside from Halak, Bruce Cassidy also has Tuukka Rask at his disposal. Rask did struggle early on this season, but he seems to be back to his old self. With Rask on the roster, the Bruins don’t really need two strong goaltenders and should look to capitalize on Halak’s rising value. 

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Halak Back In St. Louis?

For St. Louis Blues fans, Halak should be a familiar name. Halak played for the Blues from 2010-2014. 

During his time in St. Louis, Missouri, Halak was outstanding. In fact, in his 2011-2012 campaign, he had a 1.97 GAA and a .926 SV%. While it’s not 2013, Halak can still be exceptional if he returns to St. Louis. Sure, he won’t be the same goaltender as he was in 2011-2012, but he can still be dominant. 

In the Tableau visual below, Tyler Kelley, contributor of FanSided’s Pucks and Pitchforks (New Jersey Devils blog) shows how Halak and St. Louis Blues’ goaltender, Allen performed last season. 

Tyler Kelley

Overall, Halak is a better all-around goaltender than Allen. The only statistical category that Allen was extremely better than Halak was xSv% (Expected Save Percentage). Aside from xSv%, Halak truly was more consistent. In addition, you notice that Halak was a lot better at MDSv% (Mid Danger Save Percentage), Sv%, GSAA30 percentage (Goals Saved Above Average/30) and dSv% (Delta Save Percentage). 

The best part for Blues fans is that they wouldn’t have to part with a significant amount to land Halak. Armstrong could potentially send Patrick Maroon or Tyler Bozak to Boston to acquire Halak. While some Blues fans might not be happy to send Bozak to Boston, the need for a top goaltender out-weighs the need for a veteran third line centre. Plus, there are a few centremen in the organization that could fill in for Bozak. All-in-all, it would make a lot of sense if Armstrong were able to acquire Halak.

stats from hockey-reference.com and NHL.com

tableau visual from Tyler Kelley