Thursday, November 10, 2011

What We've Learned So Far...

After a 7 game road-trip the Jets are still trying to develop an identity

Roughly one-fifth of the way through the regular season represents a good opportunity to gauge the performance of the new Winnipeg Jets. Through 15 games, this is what the play on the ice has told us...

Tanner Glass is the Jet whose stock has risen the most among fans
The 27 year-old rugged left-winger gives the most consistent effort night-in and night-out. Glass plays hard and has just about matched his entire point production from last year in Vancouver (73 games, 3 G and 7A). Third and fourth line type players are perhaps Winnipeg's deepest strength (back-handed compliment alert!), but Glass stands out among this group and Cheveldayoff and company should be looking to sign him to a new deal before he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. We knew Mark Stuart was going to be nasty to play against. Glass has been a pleasant surprise.

Ondrej Pavelec looks like a bona fide #1 goalie
The young netminder showed flashes of brilliance his last two years in Atlanta, but after a bit of a rough start (he allowed 9 goals on his first 54 shots this year), Pavs has really found his groove, starting every game on the road-trip and turning in five stellar performances. He is absolutely capable of stealing games for this team. The traditional numbers (3.31 GAA and .896 SV%) don't look good, but for 24 minutes a night Pavelec's playing in front of only one defenceman. Which brings us to...

Dustin Byfuglien is a defenceman! Yes, he is. No really.
We know this because coach Claude Noel continues to insist on playing him there. And we've also been told that he refuses to even consider playing forward. Never mind that his blatant disregard for: staying in position, choosing his spots to pinch, back-checking, and making quick stops and starts (nobody makes bigger loops back into action) have directly resulted in a number of goals against. Apparently that is part of the "learning process" that fans and Pavelec will have to suffer through. Logic might suggest that with a shortage of offensive punch up front, Byfuglien would provide more value to this team playing forward. Clearly logic is not part of this equation.

Jets management believe in Johnny Oduya, even if you don't
Other than Byfuglien, Oduya has been the favourite whipping boy for local fans. But when Winnipeg slapped an "A" on his jersey after Enstrom and Antropov went down, it was a clear signal that Jets management believe Oduya is considerably better than his early season play had indicated. And you know what? The vote of confidence has seemed to work as Oduya has been noticeably stronger on the puck since the move.

Alex Burmistrov is talented
The 20 year-old Russian has played very well in the young season, and his shiftiness along the boards and overall puck control skills are elite. But his consistency is already a question. After a six game point streak, he has registered just a single point over his last six games. Shades of Alex Zhamnov?

Jim Slater is over-achieving (production-wise)
And no one should expect it to continue. My apologies to his agent and family, but it's true. Slater scored 5 goals in his first 11 games and is on pace for a 30-goal season. His career history suggests he is a 10 goal scorer, so even getting to 15 this year would be pushing it.

Tim Stapleton should not be playing the point on the powerplay
No matter the circumstances. Stapleton has 0 goals and 3 assists in 11 games this year and 13 points in his NHL career. He is 29. Those don't seem like the qualifications for a powerplay specialist.

Friday, November 4, 2011

View From the Top

Leafs Finally Looking Good (For The Moment)

Last night's win by the Leafs not only continued their hot start to the season, it moved them right up to first overall in the NHL. And as of me writing this, hell had not officially frozen over.

Tied with Pittsburgh atop the standings thru 13 games, just about everything is going right for the Leafs. They boast two of the top scorers in the league, have battled through a lot of tight one goal games, the penalty kill has been terrific*, and because of the tremendous ACC crowd, have yet to lose a game.**

*I lied. Ranked dead last percentage wise, the Leafs penalty kill is a joke. This would be really alarming if the PK had been this bad for three years now. What? It has? Moving along...
**Lied again. Not a great job at all by the ACC crowd. Embarrassing would be a much better way to describe all the fake hockey fans who gobble up the best tickets but can't be bothered to actually sit in them until maybe the 15 minute mark.

The few remaining Leaf haters out there (!) might argue that Kessel and company have benefited from a borderline soft schedule, but at least credit Phil and the boys for taking advantage of it.

And credit Kessel himself, who has been dynamic and so far looks like the most dangerous offensive player in the game. Phil has traditionally been streaky as an NHL scorer, but he's never been this hot, for this long. Kessel is a serious threat to score every time he is on the ice. The puck follows him around and he creates scoring chances almost every shift.

Maybe at 24 he is mature enough to transition from streaky-young-player-with-crazy-offensive-potential, to legitimate NHL superstar.

But it hasn't just been Kessel carrying the load. Every part of the roster has contributed. Joffrey Lupul is probably playing above his head, but he has scored at this level before and he and Kessel seem to have developed great chemistry.

After a slow start the Grabovski/Kulemin/McCarthur line has started to pile up points, just as they did at times last year. Phaneuf is playing his best hockey in years and his partner Carl Gunnarson has blossomed. Rookie Jake Gardiner has been just about as good. Before going down with injury, Reimer was proving last year wasn't a fluke. Joey Crabb gets called up from the minors, scores 2 goals in 2 games, and quickly gets perhaps the best nick name in the league (King Crabb).

When you're on a roll, you're on a roll.

If you wanted to try to poke holes in the Leafs you could point to the disappointing performance Luke Schenn has turned in, obviously the PK, and the big summer trade with Nashville that has been a total bust.*

*The positive would be that Matthew Lombardi has bounced back and remained healthy so far after missing all but a handful of games last year with a concussion. Unfortunately he's put up about the same level of production as he did last year when he wasn't even in the line-up. But at least Lombardi is in the line-up, which is a lot more than you can say for Cody Franson. The other half of their return from the Predators was supposed be the bounty Toronto was rewarded with for taking on the minor albatross of a contract belonging to Lombardi. Instead Franson has been in the press box, unable to crack the line-up for all but 3 games, and is rumoured to be trade bait.

But that would be nitpicking, and after an extremely lean few years since the lockout, Leafs fans are more than ready to feel good about their team.

We'll see how long those feelings will last.