Remember that game with ice and pucks? With power plays and goals? Yes that game. The NHL season actually began over a month and a half ago, but how many people actually know that. ESPN pays no attention to the dying sport. The NHL’s decision to use Versus to broadcast national games was terrible. Few people know what channel Versus is and those that do hate the station. Had the NHL chosen ESPN over Versus, the sport would have gained much more publicity and increased its fan base. Though its fan base is small, I consider myself one of the lucky ones who watch the sport. The games have been exciting this year with young players such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin taking over the sport. Let’s take a look at the beginning of the season:
1. Best Team
This choice was pretty simple, but it was not 100% clear either. The Ottawa Senators started the year on a roll, winning fifteen of their first 17 games. All of a sudden, they lost seven in a row, came back to earth, but they have won their last five in a row. The Detroit Red Wings, on the other hand, have played consistently excellent hockey all year giving them a league-leading 49 points. With Ottawa being too inconsistent and having only 45 points, the Red Wings have been the best team so far this season. Left Winger Henrik Zetterberg is having a great season, second in the league in both points and goals (43 and 23 respectively). Goalie Chris Osgood has been phenomenal, leading the league with a 1.76 GAA. Of the 20 players who have played at least 20 games for the Red Wings this season, only two have a negative +/-. The most telling statistic may be average goal differential in which the Red Wings average margin of victory is 1.22 goals per game. The second-place Ottawa Senators average margin of victory is .97 goals per game, a quarter goal less than Detroit.
2. Worst Team
There are many candidates for this award, but the Atlanta Thrashers deserve it more than the rest. Coming into today, the Phoenix Coyotes, Washington Capitols, and Los Angeles Kings all have fewer points than the Thrashers, but the Thrashers just are not a good team. In the goal differential stat mentioned above, they are last in the league with an average margin of victory of -.88 (or average margin of defeat .88). The Oilers are second worst in this category at -.59. The Thrashers have as many players with with a positive +/- as they have with -10 or worse +/- (four). Starting goalie Johan Hedberg is 41st in the league in GAA, ahead of only the Kings’ J-Sebastien Aubin. Their penalty kill is 28th in the league and they are tied for last in giving up the most shots per game in the league. A bad offense, a bad defense, and a bad goalie make the Thrashers the worst team in the NHL.
This season has no obvious candidates, not because there hasn’t been a great player, but because there are so many great players. Crosby, Ovechkin, Lecavalier, Iginla, and others have had excellent starts to the year, but in terms of valuability to their team, Ottawa Senators’ left winger Dany Heatley deserves the award. He is seventh in the league in points with 41 (20 goals and 21 assists) and is 10th among forwards for time on the ice. The stat that makes him the early season is +/- as he leads the league with a 27 +/-, 10 ahead of second place. For Heatley to open up that big of a lead this early in the season, the Senators must play excellent when Heatley is on the ice. Lecavalier leads the league in points, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have only 31 points and are 12th in the Eastern Conference. He is only +7 on the season and has not been as valuable to Tampa Bay as Heatley is towards the Senators.
4. Biggest Surprise
This was an easy decision: the Boston Bruins. For a team most NHL analysts picked to finish last in the Eastern Conference, there doing a pretty good job. Entering the day, they are fourth in the NHL, even with there two biggest stars out. Having lost Patrice Bergeron on a cheap hit by the Philadelphia Flyers’ Randy Jones, the team looked like they would fade. Already struggling to score goals, losing their best offensive player in Bergeron should have been a huge blow. Instead, goalie Tim Thomas improved on his already exceptional goal-tending, but then he got hurt. Having already lost their backup goalie Manny Fernandez due to injury, the Bruins went out and got Alex Auld. Through all of this the team has continued its high quality play. Though they only have two players nominated for the All Star Game, the Bruins have come together and played like a team. Coach Claude Julien deserves a lot of credit for turning this haphazard group of players into a winning team.