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Tag:Brian Rafalski
Posted on: December 15, 2011 4:18 pm
Edited on: December 15, 2011 7:05 pm
 

Jimmy Howard's all-star season

howard

By: Adam Gretz


PITTSBURGH -- By now you're probably already aware that Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard was left off the NHL's All-Star ballot, news that was controversial at the time it was announced, and you've probably already displayed the proper amount of fist-shaking at what has been an obvious snub that looks dumber by the day.

Entering Thursday's game in Nashville, Detroit's third-year starter is near the top of the NHL leaderboard for just about every goaltending category, leading the NHL in wins, while also occupying the top-10 in goals against average, save percentage, even strength save percentage and shutouts. It's been a great season for him. An All-Star season. And even though he's not on the ballot, fans in Detroit have pushed his write-in campaign, and for good reason.

Red Wings goalies, however, tend to be a different animal, and it's always difficult to figure out how much of the success is a result of the skill and ability of the goaltender, and how much of it is the goalie simply being a cog in a well oiled machine. And the discussion is usually intense. I think part of that comes from the fact the team invests so little cap space in the position, instead using its financial resources to build up the forwards and defense. During the 2008 Stanley Cup finals, when the Red Wings topped the Penguins in six games, general manager Ken Holland addressed that at the time by saying, "My feeling is if you can get one of the five or six best goalies in the league you can spend the money. We can't get into those guys, and the difference between the eighth goalie in the league and the 15th goalie, it's a big difference in money. It's not a big difference in performance."

This season the duo of Howard and Ty Conklin takes up only $3 million in cap space -- which is less than 19 individual goalies across the league, most of whom have played at a level below Detroit's pairing, and Howard in particular.

The Red Wings have been a team that smothers their opponent defensively and controls the puck in the offensive zone better -- and longer -- than just about every other team in the league. And that can obviously be very beneficial for a goaltender. The fewer shots and chances he has to face, the less chance their is for a goal, and the easier life is for him.

For years debates raged on about Chris Osgood's importance to Detroit's success, even as they went to Stanley Cup Finals and, ultimately, won them.  Among Red Wings fans, he was viewed as a vital part of the team's ability to win and a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Outside of Detroit he was (and pretty much still is) generally viewed as just another goalie playing behind a team loaded with All-Stars, whose Hall of Fame credentials are up for serious debate.

Now that Howard is having the best season of his brief career, and so far one of the best ones in the NHL, he's not getting much attention outside of Detroit, either.

Through their first 29 games the Red Wings have allowed the fifth fewest goals per game in the NHL, while also giving up the second fewest shots in the NHL at 27.4, trailing only the Ken Hitchcock-led St. Louis Blues.

"It's a huge priority for us," said Wings coach Mike Babcock of his team's defensive play on Tuesday night after its 4-1 win in Pittsburgh. "You can't outscore everybody and you have to be able to play well without the puck."

Their defensive play was an obvious point of emphasis (if not concern) coming into this season for two main reasons: 1) The team lost one of its long-time standouts on the blue line, Brian Rafalski, to retirement over the summer, and 2) The team's defensive play saw a noticeable decline last season compared to where it was in recent years, putting additional pressure on the offensive to, well … outscore everybody.

Especially when Howard saw his number regress from where they were during his rookie season when he was a finalist in the Rookie Of The Year voting. The 2010-11 team allowed an average of over 30 shots per game, something that a Red Wings team hadn't done in more than a decade, and the result was the eighth most goals against in the league.

And now this year? Once again one of the best teams in the league defensively. In games that Howard has started the Wings have allowed more than three goals just two times. They've allowed more than two just five times. Part of that success has been due to the fact team is once again keeping teams locked up in their own end of the ice, but there is also no denying that Howard has played at a higher level this season and taken advantage of the lesser workload on a nightly basis.

Following Tuesday's game I asked him about it being another night where he only had to face around 25 shots, as has been the case much of the season, and he quickly laughed and said, "Well, it was 26 we allowed, but who's really counting?"

The only personnel changes on the blue line have been Jakub Kindl and Mike Commodore replacing Ruslan Salei, and Ian White coming in for Rafalski. Was that really enough to swing the Red Wings defense from the bottom third of the NHL to the top-third?

The system helps, as does Detroit's impressive roster, but Howard has been great, too.

"We just do a great job," Howard added. "For the most part you only have to worry about the one shot, and I just try to put the rebound into good areas, whether it's holding on to it or putting it in the corner."

The Wings' defensive play was one of the main topics of discussion in their locker room on Tuesday night, and forward Dan Cleary was quick to give a lot of the credit to his team's often times overlooked goalie.

"We pride ourselves on being good defensively," said Cleary. "That's how we won a championship here, being good defensively, and we all believe that's how you win in the end. And the other side of it is, i think, Howie has had a specatular season, and anytime your goalie is your best player, goals against are going to be good."

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: November 1, 2011 2:32 pm
 

Handing out some first month grades

octgrades

By: Adam Gretz

The first month of the NHL season is in the books and we're still trying to figure out which teams are good, which teams are bad and which hot start is for real and which one is simply an early season mirage. Let's check in with a progress report on some notable players and teams for the month of October.

Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs: Let's pretend, just hypothetically, that Phil Kessel is able stay near the top of the NHL's scoring list all.

Now, you shouldn't expect him to maintain his current pace (his shooting percentage is currently 26 percent -- that's probably not sustainable for a full season), but what if he were to do something completely unexpected like, say, win the NHL's scoring title and help lead the Maple Leafs to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Would that do anything to change your opinion of the the trade that brought him to Toronto? Should it? Brian Burke has already said Boston won the trade because it has a Stanley Cup, but that trade -- which landed the Bruins two first-round draft picks, including a No. 2 overall selection used on Tyler Seguin, and a second-round pick -- had little to do with that championship. Seguin played about 12 minutes a game and scored 11 goals during the regular season, and only appeared in two postseason series. It's not like he was the driving force behind that cup run. The steep price Toronto paid still overshadow the fact that Kessel is a pretty darn good (three straight years of 30-plus goals) player and still only 24 years of age.

Even if he doesn't maintain this current pace he's been the most dangerous offensive player in the NHL this season and one of the biggest reasons the Maple Leafs are off to their best start in a decade, and that's worthy of a top-grade for the first month.

Other players and teams earning A's for the month of October

Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings) -- had one of the best months of any goaltender in the NHL, including three consecutive shutouts; James Neal (Pittsburgh Penguins) -- for a Penguins team that continues to deal with injuries, Neal has been their best overall player and looks to be the young goal-scoring winger they've been searching for for years; Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton Oilers) -- He leads the NHL in save percentage and goals against average for what has been, so far, the toughest team in the NHL to score against; and the Dallas Stars -- winners of eight of their first 11 games, thanks in large part to the play of Kari Lehtonen.

Ottawa Senators: For the first two weeks of the season the Ottawa Senators looked to be every bit as awful as they were expected to be.

Over the next two weeks? They won six games in a row and end the month two game over .500. Even through the awful stretch to start the season the Senators were impressive with their determination to never quit in a game, regardless of the score, resulting in acouple of late come-from-behind victories (against Minnesota and the Rangers).

They've been outscored 27-15 over the first two periods but have outscored their opponents 21-18 in the third period. It's not likely they'll be able to continue to rely on huge third period comebacks to get wins, and they're going to have to start getting some better starts in games so they're not constantly trying to play catch up, but a 7-5 record at this point is more than could have (or should have) been expected.

Other players and teams earning B's for the month of October

Pekka Rinne (Nashville Predators) -- He's been the best player on a Nashville team that is losing the possession battle just about every single night and is facing more shots than any other goaltender in the league. He's keeping the Predators in it while they search for some offense; Jaromir Jagr (Philadelphia Flyers) -- Three years away from the NHL and at 39 years of age Jagr opened the season and showed everybody that he can still play at the highest level with a point-per-game pace for the Flyers.

Detroit Red Wings: The A-plus honor student that brings home the rare and unexpected C. You know they can do better, and you expect them to do better. (And they will do better.) But after starting the season 5-0 the Red Wings dropped four in a row by a combined margin of 16-4. That streak includes a 7-1 thrashing at the hands of the Washington Capitals, a game that was followed by a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets for their first victory of the season. Their defense definitely took a hit when Brian Rafalski retired over the summer, and they're not the defensive stalwart they were a few years ago, but they should be better than they've looked over the first month.

Other players and teams earning C's for the month of October

Montreal Canadiens -- Injuries to their defense, as well as top forward Michael Cammalleri, didn't help, but a rather uninspiring start for the Canadiens that only started to turn around when an assistant coach was forced to take the fall.

Ville Leino, Buffalo Sabres: Terry Pegula spent a ton of money this summer in an effort to make the Sabres a Stanley Cup contender, and one of his biggest investments, Ville Leino, has been a complete non-factor through the first month of the season. In 10 games the 28-year-old Leino has scored just one goal to go with one assist and has recorded just five shots on goal, or one every other game. He's definitely talented, but based on what he's actually produced at the NHL level the six-year, $27 million contract was, at the very least, one hell of a gamble. And so far it's a losing one.

Other plays and teams earning D's for the month of October

 Jaroslav Halak (St. Louis Blues) -- And he's probably right on the line between D and F. Let's just say this: the only goaltender in the NHL that has a worse save percentage entering November is Ottawa's backup, Alex Auld.

Columbus Blue Jackets: An offseason with such excitement and a season that seemed to have so much promise was opened with … the worst start in franchise history and the worst record in the NHL. There is obviously time to turn it around -- and I still believe the Jackets can -- and the two big offseason acquisitions have been limited so far, which isn't helping things. James Wisniewski was suspended for the first eight games of the regular season, while Jeff Carter, acquired from the Flyers, was limited to just five games in October due to a foot injury, scoring zero goals. Still … the worst start in franchise history?

Other players and teams earning F's for the month of October

The Boston Bruins -- Defending champs with the second-worst record in the league.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: September 30, 2011 9:03 pm
Edited on: October 1, 2011 10:00 am
 

Top scoring defensemen over age 40

NL2By: Adam Gretz

Earlier this week the folks at Japers' Rink put together a sensational breakdown (you can view the entire analysis right here) on how the Detroit Red Wings have "protected" their older defensemen in recent years, particularly Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, and how it relates to the Capitals and their own offensive-defenseman, Mike Green.

Basically, what the Red Wings did was split the two veterans apart (in past years Lidstrom and Rafalski were typically paired together) and made their new partners, usually Jonathan Ericsson and Brad Stuart, go back retrieve the puck in the defensive zone and take the physical pounding from oncoming forecheckers. By doing so they limited the number of hits Lidstrom and Rafalski had to take over the course of a game and season, further allowing them to be among the most prolific scoring defensemen in the league. It didn't necessarily increase their offensive ability, but it may have saved a few unnecessary hits, which is always a good thing for players in their mid-late 30's and early 40's.

During the 2010-11 season Lidstrom finished near the top of the points list for defensemen, as he's usually done throughout his Hall of Fame career, with 62 points, trailing only the 68 that Anaheim's Lubomir Visnovsky recorded. Sixty-two points is an impressive number for any defenseman in any era, but for a player that was 40 years old it was incredible.

Rafalski ended up retiring earlier this summer, while Lidstrom is coming back for another year at the age of 41, and it's probably a good bet that these two things will once again happen in 2011: 1) Lidstrom likely won't be asked to retrieve the puck on dump-ins, and 2) He'll probably be one of the top-scoring defensemen in the league if he stays healthy.

Last month we took a look at the top scoring forwards over the age of 40, and I wanted to take a similar look at defensemen to see where Lidstrom's '10-11 performance ranked. 

I went all the way back to 1970 and pulled the top-10 individual scoring seasons for defensemen age 40 and older. Have a look.

Top Scoring Seasons For 40-Year-Old Defensemen Since 1970
Player Age Year Games Goals Points
Nicklas Lidstrom 40 2010-11 82 16 62
Ray Bourque 40 2000-01 80 7 59
Chris Chelios 40 2001-02 79 6 39
Rob Blake 40 2009-10 70 7 30
Chris Chelios 42 2003-04 69 2 21
Tim Horton 41 1970-71 78 2 20
Chris Chelios 41 2002-03 66 2 19
Teppo Numminen 40 2008-09 57 2 17
Tim Horton 43 1972-73 69 1 17
Harry Howell 40 1972-73 73 4 15

Since 1970 there have only been 30 defensemen to play in the NHL over the age of 40, so you're only looking at, on average, about one per season. The number of players that have actually been productive while doing so is even smaller. And that makes Lidstrom's point total from last year even more incredible. The only other player on the list to top even 40 points was Ray Bourque back in 2000 when he finished in a tie for third among defensemen, while only six have managed to top 20 points.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.

Posted on: September 28, 2011 1:48 pm
Edited on: September 28, 2011 4:15 pm
 

Central Division Preview: 'Hawks, Wings battle on

By Brian Stubits

Enjoy this while you can, there's no telling what the Central will look like next season.

One of the premier rivalries in the sport is the Blackhawks vs. the Red Wings. The only two Original Six teams in the West, they have long been fierce combatants. In recent years the Blackhawks have awoken from the doldrums, making this a great series once again.

But this could be it, especially if Detroit has its way. Realignment is coming to the NHL, that much is guaranteed after Atlanta moved to Winnipeg. The Red Wings organization has made it no secret it wants to move East, rivalry with Chicago be damned. Columbus and Nashville would both welcome a move East as well. Something's gotta give, and it will be the Central Division.

It's too bad. Because this year the division is set up to be about more than just these two powers.

Nashville is always sneaky good. People seem to sleep on the Predators every season, but you know they will be there. They are looking to build off the first postseason series win in franchise history with their three Stars in contract seasons. St. Louis seems to think its Blues are ready to make a leap, so long as they can stay healthy. That was a challenge last season. And Columbus? Well there is at least optimism for the first time in a while and some buzz around the team after the addition of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski to join Rick Nash.

But as many strides as those teams have and are taking, in the end it will likely still be about the two powerhouses. That's because the Blackhawks are back. They suffered a little last year after winning the Stanley Cup as they had to shed a lot of salary. That meant jettisoning a good chunk of the team that won the Cup. But the core remained together and the team found its groove in the end, pushing the Canucks to the brink in the first round. But after an offseason of reinforcing the roster, Chicago figures to be in the thick until the end.

And Detroit? The Red Wings are ... well they're just the Wings. It's hard to imagine them not being good. Although this year they don't seem to be as loaded as usual, those are some pretty lofty standards. They will still be a threat not only for the division title but in the Western Conference, they can flat out score. That much we know.

So if this is it as division rivals, it should be fun.

Central Division (in predicted order of finish)

PenguinsChicago Blackhawks: Ah, it's nice to be out of salary cap hell, isn't it Chicago? After having to do major salary shedding, the Blackhawks still come out with a cast of characters that includes the names Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and newcomer Andrew Brunette. Throw in Dan Carcillo and Jamal Mayers to give the team some nastiness power and the forwards are well-rounded.

On defense they will miss Brian Campbell, just not his salary. Sure, he is overpaid, but that doesn't mean he didn't bring anything to the table for the 'Hawks. But the defensive corps is still solid, led by Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Expectations are very high in Chicago once again.

Strenghts: It's tough to find a better pair of linemates than Toews and Kane. They are both still stepping into their primes, so they have a lot more to show. Those two are also part of the reason why the power play should once again be successful. Last season the unit ranked fourth in the NHL with the man up, led by Sharp's 12 goals on the power play.

They figure to be better at killing penalties thanks to the additions of Mayers, Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell, an area where Chicago struggled last season.

Weaknesses: Depth at center is a major concern at this point. The team has been experimenting during camp with Patrick Kane, of all players, manning the center position. Maybe it's an indictment on the centers on the roster. Perhaps it's an indication of Patrick Sharp's health (or lack thereof). Whatever the reason, it's slightly concerning.

I would also be a little worried about the backup goaltender situation behind Corey Crawford. Alexander Salak is going to have the job and he might be more than adequate in the role, we just don't know much about him at the NHL level where he has little experience.

PenguinsDetroit Red Wings: The Wings are remarkably consistent as they have made the playoffs in each of the past 20 seasons. They also stay consistent in their roster, retaining a lot of their players over time. Case in point, this year's forward group. The Wings will trot out mostly all the same forwards as a year ago for when they finished second in the NHL in scoring.

But the defensive corps received quite a shakeup after last season's 2.89 goals against average, the retirement of Brian Rafalski and loss of Ruslan Salei.

In net they have Jimmy Howard with Ty Conklin backing him up. You have to wonder how much confidence Ken Holland and Mike Babcock have in their starter Howard, though, after the team had a failed pursuit of Tomas Vokoun.

Strengths: As mentioned, the Red Wings can score, almost all of them. Last season there were 13 players that recorded double digits in goals scored, led by Johan Franzen's 28. There is certainly loads of experience in Detroit, too. These guys aren't in their first rodeos. That especially includes defensive stalwart Nicklas Lidstrom, who put of retirement for another year on the ice.

Having the leadership that players like Lidstrom can provide certainly doesn't hurt. Also, you might have heard this Babcock fellow on their bench isn't so bad.

Weaknesses: Defense, defense, defense. That is the major concern/question mark here. They revamped the D, bringing in Mike Commodore and Ian White through free agency. Young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson received a pretty lucrative new deal, so he will be expected to improve.

In the defensive vein, the goaltending will also need to get better. Of course, that goes hand in hand with the defense, but Howard has room to improve. Playing for the Wings, his record was solid -- a nice 37-17-5 mark -- but the goals against average of 2.79 (36th out of 47 eligible goalies) and save percentage of .908 (33rd best) aren't worth writing home about.

PenguinsNashville Predators: Hope is high in Smashville coming off the best showing in franchise history, making it to conference semifinals. The Predators have more or less become the NHL's version of a Moneyball team, continuing to cultivate home-grown talent and win on the cheap.

The team is led by the high-profile trio of goalie Pekka Rinne (Vezina finalist) and defensemen Shea Weber (Norris finalist) and Ryan Suter, who are all going into contract seasons. It will be interesting to see how that plays out for each of them. For some players, it's a major distraction, for others it brings out the best playing for a new deal.

If there's anything we've learned about the Predators in recent years it's not to count them out, at least as long as Barry Trotz is on the bench. Maybe this will be the year he finally wins the Jack Adams as the best coach?

Strengths: The Preds have one of the best defenses in all of hockey. That's due to a multitude of reasons stretching from Trotz's system and philosophy to the outstanding personnel on the blue line -- which might get stronger with the addition of heralded prospect Ryan Ellis -- and the elite goaltending of Rinne. All in all, it led to the team posting the third-lowest GAA a season ago.

The farm system is also a strength, it usually is for Nashville. In addition to Ellis, they have forward Craig Smith, who drew rave reviews by scoring six goals in two games in the team's rookie tournament games.

Weaknesses: You would love to have somebody who is the clear-cut scorer on the team. Unfortunately, the Preds just don't score a lot, period, forget about one player. Only two players (Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist) topped the 20-goal mark with Kostitsyn pacing the team with 23. Perhaps a healthy Mike Fisher can help with that, at least that's the hope.

As you'd expect with low offensive numbers, the power play placed in the bottom five of the entire league a season ago. The leading power-play scorer was Martin Erat last season with seven.

PenguinsSt. Louis Blues: After coming out of the gate firing 9-1-2 last season, the Blues slowed down as the season wore along, eventually missing the playoffs by 10 points partly because the team dealt with a rash of injuries. Despite that finish, there is positive momentum going in St. Louis and the ownership sees it. That's why they left the young core of the team pretty much untouched this offseason, just electing to bring in a couple of savvy veterans in Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to make an impact.

You can see the potential here, especially with another year under their belts. It will be interesting to see how they fare over a full season with Chris Stewert, who they acquired midseason from Colorado last year. After getting the forward, the Blues' offense saw a big uptick in scoring, eventually finishing 10th in the league.

Defensively they came in just below the median at 18th in the league. The Blues should be in the playoff picture all season long.

Strengths: There is a good amount of individual talent here, starting with Stewart and new captain David Backes. In all, they had six players last season score 20 goals or more and one of them, Andy McDonald, reached that plateau in just 58 games. With the abundance of talented and skilled skaters this is a team with plenty of speed up and down the lineup.

You also have to like the young defensive corps that has two stars in the making with Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, who each had 43 points from the back end a season ago.

Weaknesses: We weren't entirely sure where to put goaltending in this equation since Jaroslav Halak had some struggles in his first season as a No. 1 goaltender. However he showed what he's capable of when he was with the Canadiens. But based on his just average numbers of a season ago and the unsure situation behind him (Ben Bishop vs. Brian Elliott), we'll put this as our best guess.

Another area where the Blues are lacking is in the physicality department. You wonder where exactly the toughness will come from.

PenguinsColumbus Blue Jackets: What is that coming from Columbus? Is that hope? Why yes, I think it is. GM Scott Howson was active this summer by bringing in Wisniewski and Carter along with Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek on the blue line. In addition to signing new players, Howson was also busy in signing his current players to long-term deals, specifically R.J. Umberger and Fedor Tyutin.

Yes, the Jackets are spending money, that's not the problem. What is is the matter of how bang for the buck they are getting. To put it in perspective, the Jackets currently have a higher payroll than the Boston Bruins. The hope is that it translates into success, and a few more fans at the turnstiles as Columbus was 27th in the league in attendance last season.

Strenghts: They have struggled to score recently, but that should be done with, or at least minimized. They have a true No. 1 center now in Carter, which should only further help Nash show he is one of the best players people don't talk about in the NHL. The power play, perhaps Columbus' biggest bug-a-boo in recent seasons, should be significantly better now that they have a quarterback for the unit in Wisniewski (when he's back from suspension) and two very capable scorers up front. It had to get better from last year's 29th-ranked unit.

Weaknesses: Did somebody say goaltending? This is one area where the Blue Jackets didn't do a whole lot of upgrading. Instead, they elected to give the starting reins back to Steve Mason and signing the inexperienced Mark Dekanich to be his backup. Since winning the Calder as the league's top rookie, Mason has struggled. Last season he had a 3.01 goals against average and .901 save percentage. That's a big reason why the Jackets were 26th in scoring in the league.

And while Wisniewski helps, there still isn't much scoring threat from the blue line. Tyutin led Columbus in scoring among defensemen with just 27 points.

NHL season preview schedule
Wed., Sept. 21: Step-back players Tues., Sept. 27: Atlantic Division
Thur., Sept. 22: Breakout players Wed., Sept. 28: Central Division
Fri., Sept. 23: Southeast Division Thur. Sept. 29: Northeast Division
Mon., Sept. 26: Pacific Division Fri., Sept. 30: Northwest Division

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com