November’s Burning Questions: Part I

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Even as it gets colder in most places, burning questions arise around the league.

The Rangers have a -6 goal differential and are outside the playoff picture. Should there be concern?

 It has certainly been a bumpy start for New York. Besieged by injuries to key players, the Rangers have experienced game-to-game inconsistency as they have attempted to plug important holes in their lineup with players unqualified to log so many minutes.

The injuries on the back end were so severe at one point that journeyman Mike Kostka played 21:56 against the Winnipeg Jets. That is an insane amount for a replacement-level defenseman. Also, the Rangers can win with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal as part of their top four, but not as the team’s top-pair rearguards. It is hard to overstate how incredibly important Ryan McDonagh is to the Rangers’ blue line, and he’s been out since November first.

But the agony of an ill-suited defensive group has virtually ended. John Moore is back from suspension, and Dan Boyle is in the lineup and healthy. McDonagh should be back in two weeks. New York dearly misses the vastly underrated Anton Stralman, who now plays for Tampa Bay, but Boyle should be fine as a replacement.

Offensively, the Rangers really, really missed Derek Stepan while he recovered from his broken leg. He is not the prototypical No. 1 center, but what he lacks in flash he more than makes up for in hockey IQ, poise, and passing. Stepan has scored six points in the seven games since his return.

New York reached the Stanley Cup Final last season because of their speed, surgical passing — vertically and horizontally — and team depth. But the salary cap demanded some unfortunate concessions with important players like Benoit Pouliot and Stralman leaving the Big Apple for more money and term. Brad Richards was bought out.

That said, New York has done an impressive job restocking their depth. For example, the Lee Stempniak signing was brilliant, and Derick Brassard has proved capable of filling a No. 2 center role. The passing and quickness from last season has not been visible every game, but largely this is because of injuries weakening the team’s collective efficacy.

Injuries also have had an impact on the Rangers’ zone exits and defensive coverage, and there have been too many one-and-done’s in the offensive zone. But these will be less prevalent as their full complement acclimates and gels. Injuries have affected their possession numbers, which are in the middle of the pack rather than at the top of the league.

The Rangers still have excellent goaltending, a mobile defensive group that enables a dynamic transition game, and strong playmaking throughout the forward and defensive group. The consistency will come when this team establishes some continuity from having their regulars on the ice.

The second goal on the power-play against the Flyers on Wednesday was a perfect example of what ingredients will drive this team to success. There was the good entry by Boyle, a nice pass off the half-wall by Martin St. Louis, and an excellent net drive by Rick Nash, followed by an unbelievable backdoor feed by Brassard to Stepan. Stepan displayed superb recognition of the seam as he slid the puck down low to St. Louis. Below the dots, St. Louis executed a cross-ice dish to Nash.

Not every team plays porous defense like the Flyers, but New York still has plenty of skill –Nash and St. Louis have been tremendous thus far – and versatility. Don’t worry about the Rangers. They will make the playoffs.

 Are the St. Louis Blues finally ready to make some noise in the playoffs this season?

It is exciting because the St. Louis Blues have been a regular-season beaut that has continually faltered in the playoffs. But finally, the answer is yes: they will be a force to reckon with come playoff time.

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with last season’s team. Goaltender Ryan Miller got blamed, and he certainly could have been better for the Blues. But St. Louis had a really strong squad whose success was based on strong, two-way play by the forwards and defense; it was a mix of veterans and youth, but what drove winning, and scoring was still largely by committee. To wit, while they were top ten in goals per game last season, their leader scorer, Alexander Steen, finished with 62 regular-season points, failing to crack the top 35 in the NHL.

Relentless work ethic in one-on-one battles, and a plethora of all-situations players constitutes a very good team, but in their opponent, Chicago, the Blues ran into a buzzsaw, as the Blackhawks have a few of the NHL’s best difference-makers. And on cue, those Chicago players made the series-defining plays in crunch time. It was an unbelievably hard-fought series, but there is a reason that Chicago and Los Angeles seem to escape as the victor in these tightly-contested playoff series, and that is because their elite players make the necessary impact in close situations.

Well fear not! Because while Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko were burgeoning stars last season – Tarasenko had an excellent points per 60 minutes but only played 64 games – this current campaign has exhibited the star-level play that wins Cups. Schwartz and Tarasenko are in the top 20 in scoring and top 25 in forwards points per 60 minutes at even strength, and both have shown an ability to take over games and dominate, executing the high-end play to win the contest.

This seems like the cliché narrative about players suddenly making the leap to superstardom at an artificial starting point, but that is not the case. Schwartz and Tarasenko were spectacular last season, too. They didn’t suddenly become franchise players. In 2013-14, they drove play, employed incredible creativity and puck-handling, and knew how to take the puck from non-scoring areas to scoring areas.

These two wingers are building off last season’s success. The explosive, electrifying play by Tarasenko, where he finishes with a deadly shot is not an aberration. The vision, tracking ability, and anticipation by Schwartz are no fluke, either. These guys are stars, and there is reason to believe that, as when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane lost in 2009, the losing and post-season experience from 2014 will help them in the upcoming playoffs. Prognosticating is tough, especially in the menacing Western Conference, but there are a finite amount of game-breakers in the NHL, and the Blues have two of them at forward.

Why is Nashville like Vancouver?

 The Nashville Predators are the surprise team that has jolted the Western Conference hierarchy. They are an impressive skating squad that moves the puck fluidly, demonstrates good positioning, and is replete with passing (and sufficient finishing ability as well).

GM David Poile made some gambles in the offseason that, so far, have paid off. Rookie Filip Forsberg is ascending. The Nashville defensive group is one of the NHL’s best units. The Predators are leading the NHL in 5 on 5 scoring, and they are leading the hotly-contested Central Division in points. Why don’t more people take them seriously as a contender? Because there is just a little too much Vancouver in Nashville.

The Canucks are good because they execute their organizations’ vision very well. As a five-man unit, Vancouver conducts an aggressive approach that promotes creativity and three-to-four players attacking off the rush rather than a passive one-man forecheck and stacked neutral zone. To be successful with this approach, a team also needs to support the puck-carrier well, know which openings are the best in order to advance the puck wisely, and, when in doubt in the offensive zone, funnel the puck toward the net and hope for a deflection. Vancouver implements give-and-go’s and backdoor plays as much as any team in the league.

But the problem with the Canucks is that, while their vision is smart, they have only one, force-of-nature skill line, and there is a little too much scraping and clawing from the second-through-fourth lines to actually make a dent in the Western Conference playoff landscape. Their defensive group is so good that it opens up room for their forwards, and the Canucks’ brass gives the defensemen the permanent green light to attack. But there is a ceiling to a tremendous defensive group with a top-heavy forward batch.

The same is true with Nashville. The Predators are propped up by a smooth-skating, strong decision-making defensive corps that relieves the pressure on the first line and helps the other lines enjoy substantial offensive-zone time, especially relative to their aggregate skill.

Nashville’s James Neal-Mike Ribeiro-Forsberg trio is the most productive line in the NHL by a substantial margin, per leftwinglock. They have 17 goals together while the second-ranked line in the league has thirteen. The same is true with the Vancouver’s Sedin twins and Radim Vrbata. And while the Canucks’ second line of Chris Higgins, Nick Bonino, and Alexandre Burrows is also among the most productive in hockey, their success is less sustainable because they do not have the all-world skill level of the Sedins nor the sniper shooting of Vrbata. Likewise, Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, Matt Cullen, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Calle Jarnkrok are good players, but when the playoffs come, they can’t move the needle enough to alter a series against conference powerhouses.

Both Nashville and Vancouver should win a lot of games because they are skilled at keeping the puck away from their nets, and they are even bumping up against each other in Fenwick Close – Nashville is ninth and Vancouver is tenth, per Both teams will finish with a very good record and challenge for a postseason spot.

Final note: These two teams are similar, but goaltending is a possible pitfall for Vancouver while it is a strength for Nashville. In even-strength save percentage, Nashville is first and the Canucks are last. The Canucks should improve and the Predators regress a little, but there is quite a chasm between them in this regard.

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