1. Going their way
Well the tightness at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race predictably held more or less steady over the last week, but the good news for Calgary is that a few of the results went their way. They are, again, ostensibly only battling Winnipeg and Los Angeles for the last playoff spots, either in the division or wild card, as it’s three teams trying to fit into those two slots.
The Jets faced a fairly tough schedule this week, even as they only played one road game (at Vancouver). Hosting Montreal, Chicago, and New York isn’t easy for various reasons, and that they went 1-3-0 on the week wasn’t that much of a surprise. Complicating things further for them is the fact that Dustin Byfuglien is going to be suspended for more than a few of their five remaining games (only a phone hearing, though, so I’m assuming it’s only three or four). That’s really going to hurt their chances to win their five remaining games, only two of which actually seem winnable; those would be the last two of the season, though, at Colorado and then hosting Calgary a week from Saturday. The latter is, obviously, a four-point game.
The Kings, too, had a worse-than-they’d-have-liked week, wrapping up a tough road trip that saw them go 2-2 against both New York teams, Minnesota, and Chicago, all on the road. Tonight they’ll host Edmonton then Colorado on Saturday, so that’s probably two easy Ws, but the fact that they have a game in hand is what’s really looming large for both Winnipeg and Calgary right now. You can’t begrudge them the losses, but they’ve got to be ruing them, especially because they got demolished 4-1 in each.
Which of course brings us to Calgary, which went 2-1-1 since last we spoke. That’s obviously the best of the group, and these weren’t easy results to get on paper. With these changes, Calgary stands three points above LA (albeit with one extra game played) and one above Winnipeg.
That’s an advantageous position, of course, but the Flames only have two games left that they quote-unquote should win, at Edmonton and vs. Arizona. The season will almost certainly come down to Calgary’s last two games. This is actually crazy that it’s working out like this.
2. Blocked shots
Oh my god has everyone been obsessed with Kris Russell approaching the NHL record for shot blocks in a season. The current all-time high is 273, and Russell enters tonight’s game one short of that number.
Here’s my question: Should this be celebrated?
Yes, blocking shots is ostensibly good, insofar as your teammates and coaches like it, and it (mostly) prevents scoring chances. But like the NHL record hits — recently re-set by previous record holder Matt Martin — it measures something that you really shouldn’t be doing. Obviously, if you’re blocking shots, you both don’t-have the puck and are spending time in your own zone, absorbing shot attempts. Which is bad.
It’s always been a fascinating debate to me, the value of this stat. The basic data suggests that every 25 shots blocked saves your team one goal versus one that gets through, so if Russell ends the season with a round number of 400 (very doable), then he theoretically saved them eight goals this year. That’s worth almost three points in the standings. In theory.
Because what that actually means is that it’s worth three points in the standings over a guy who also gives up a ton of shot attempts, which Russell does. When he’s on the ice, opposing teams have taken 385 more shot attempts than the Flames (1570-1185) in just 75 games, and he doesn’t even get a ton of ice time. Factoring in shot blocks, his possession numbers improve from 43 percent corsi to 44.4 percent fenwick, and he’s still out-attempted-but-not-blocked 1063-848 (minus-215).
This is, actually, not that good. Russell is potentially saving his team three points in the standings, but that’s over a guy who still gives up 56-57 percent of all shot attempts when he’s on the ice. It’s a poor number, and not something to be viewed as especially impressive.
Do you want to guess Nicklas Lidstrom’s career high in shot blocks, at least as far as these stats go back from the NHL, back to after the Second Bettman Lockout of 2004-05? It’s just 95. One of only two times he even broke 80. The reason is that Lidstrom didn’t have to block shots. Because he was over the puck all the time, and Detroit was attacking when he was on the ice.
But the thing is, he also played constantly War on Ice has him at about 15:46 at ES per night, and a corsi of 56.1 percent, from 2002-12, and here’s something else: during that time, he blocked just 373 shots at evens in 697 games. Russell this season alone is at 217 in 75.
Now, this is of course the only time anyone will ever compare Lidstrom to Russell in any way, but this is at least illustrative of my larger point: Blocking shots isn’t actually that great of a thing. Having the NHL record just makes you the best at bailing out a sinking ship, after you drilled all the holes in the bottom.
3. Hudler has been awesome
When the Flames first signed Jiri Hudler I was extremely skeptical. Here we had who’d only broken 50 points twice despite playing mostly with Henrik Zetterberg, and who needed to shoot well above the league average to do that.
Over the past three seasons he’s shown that he’s just one of those guys who has a high shooting percentage, which is a rare thing to come across in this sport. And this is by far the best season of his career from a production standpoint (I’d say that’s thanks in large part to playing with players of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau’s quality, young as they are; not that they’re not benefiting from playing with Hudler, of course).
As of right this second as I write this ahead of Wednesday’s games, Hudler has 42 points at 5-on-5, which is a really high number that’s only six off the league lead, behind mega-skilled players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Rick Nash, Jamie Benn, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Getzlaf, John Tavares, and so on. (You probably keep hearing from league people that he has 55 points at even strength to lead the NHL , but that’s the NHL’s number, which rather dumbly counts extra-attacker, empty-net, and 4×4 situations.)
That line has been really good overall, of course, and if it had been put together sooner the Flames would probably be in an improved playoff position, and we wouldn’t be talking about the race. But if Brad Treliving can flesh out some depth up front, this team might actually have more than one dangerous line next season.
4. More on college players (Part 1)
Last weekend, both NCAA teams with Flames prospects on the roster
(Boston University and Providence College) won both their
single-elimination games, and will play in the Frozen Four, starting a
week from today.
In this section I’m going to focus on Brandon Hickey of BU because something really interesting happened for him.
All season, he’s been on what is basically the second pairing, playing with undrafted and diminutive skilled puck-mover Brandon Fortunato, behind whoever happens to be the second and third lines that night. Meanwhile, Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk and Tampa draftee John MacLeod have largely been the No. 1 pairing playing behind draft-eligible Jack Eichel, undrafted Evan Rodrigues, and San Jose pick Danny O’Regan.
That wasn’t the case this weekend, though, as coach David Quinn more often played Hickey and Fortunato behind the Eichel line, especially in the second game against Minnesota-Duluth. This is something I’ve long thought might be a good idea; Grzelcyk is a great puck mover with a good shot, but no one on that team gets the puck toward the net as reliably or dangerously as Hickey. He didn’t actually have a point on any of BU’s six goals this weekend, but he created a bit of havoc around the attacking net and on Saturday and was on the ice for two Terrier goals.
It’ll be interesting to see if they stick with that group next weekend — because look, Eichel spends like 65 percent of his time in the attacking zone, and that’s where you want a guy like Brandon Hickey — or if they go back to the old way that won them 37 games this season.
5. More on college players (Part 2)
And now, we have Providence College, the last team into the tournament with an at-large big, which won two very tight games this weekend to advance to the Frozen Four as well. Over the weekend, I wrote about Jon Gillies’ huge game on Sunday to clinch the trip. (I THOUGHT I DID A PRETTY GOOD JOB WITH IT!!!!)
Now, I didn’t see Saturday’s game — a wild 7-5 win over Miami that saw the latter team score three extra-attacker goals in some 13 minutes with the goalie pulled — but Sunday’s was awesome. Providence won 4-1 (two of those were empty netters) thanks to a late power play goal facilitated by a five-minute major and game misconduct to Denver’s best player.
And while Gillies was great, the same could not be said for Mark Jankowski (30-something percent corsi on the day, as per usual). He also didn’t have a single shot on goal in either game — and only attempted one shot, wide, at 5-on-5 in the two games — but he did pick up an assist in the first one.
In addition, John Gilmour provided some sollid defense on the second pairing. Didn’t absorb a ton of shot attempts or anything and got off five of his own at evens, which I guess you take. But he did also provide the scariest moment of Providence’s season; in that aforementioned five-minute power play, he turned the puck over and sprung Denver for a shorthanded 2-on-1. The puck-carrier shot and hit the post. The Friars scored about a minute later, but boy was it a close one.
Look, the reason they’re through to this point in the season is Gillies. He’s been fantastic.