Hot and Cold Teams in the NHL

I wrote an article a few weeks ago that showed how important it is to play well in the final few weeks of the regular season. My statistics showed that in the past three years, teams with higher points per game after March 1st won more often than the higher seed. The even more interesting statistic is that teams that have 0.25 more points per game after March 1st than their opponent are 16-2.

Here is how the teams in the playoffs or in the playoff hunt currently rank:

DET 15 1.67
PHX 14 1.50
WSH 14 1.43
MTL 13 1.38
PIT 14 1.36
NSH 17 1.35
VAN 15 1.33
BUF 15 1.27
CGY 14 1.14
NJD 15 1.13
SJS 14 1.07
NYR 14 1.07
BOS 16 1.06
ATL 17 1.06
PHI 16 0.94
LAK 15 0.93
COL 14 0.93
OTT 14 0.93
CHI 14 0.86

As you can see, the Detroit Red Wings are on an excellent streak with 25 points in only 15 games since the Olympic break. This team is looking a lot like the Pittsburgh Penguins last year. They were fighting for a playoff spot in early March but had a 14-2-3 record in their final 19 games, earned the fourth seed and won the Stanley Cup.

At the bottom of the list you have the Chicago Blackhawks who have won only five of their last 14 games. The loss of Brian Campbell was a big one and I wouldn’t be surprised if they got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

Using the 0.25 points rule, which I explained earlier, here are some interesting things to consider for each conference.

Western Conference:
-The only team that could stop the Detroit Red Wings are the Phoenix Coyotes.
-The Phoenix Coyoyes should beat the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks if they faced them.
-The Detroit Red Wings, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators are the best teams in the Western Conference but, if things stay the same, they will all face each other in the first round.
-The Chicago Blackhawks would lose to any team except the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings in the first round.

Eastern Conference:
-The Washington Capitals are still the best team in the Eastern Conference but the Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres are within 0.25 points per game.
-The Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers would be pretty much sure things to lose in the first round if they played any of the four teams I named above.
-The Montreal Canadiens have the best chance of creating an upset. They are second in points per game and are currently the seventh seed in the East.

A lot of things could change in the next 12 days but as you can see, I believe there will be quite a few upsets in the playoffs this season. In two weeks, I’ll of course post my predictions for each series, which will in part be based on this rule.

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Letang signs four-year deal – Penguins in trouble for next year?

The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Kristopher Letang to a four-year deal worth 14 million dollars today. Letang has been somewhat disappointing this season with only 3 goals and 24 assists in 67 games. He is their second most used defenseman with 21:30 of time on ice per game but he is last in shorthanded time on ice per game with only 1:13. 3.5 million per year seems like an awful lot for an offensive defenseman who isn’t producing much offensively.

The Penguins will once again be contenders this season, and, in my opinion, are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference but is this their last real chance at a Stanley Cup? At the end of the season, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold will all be unrestricted free agents. The other 14 players currently on the roster will cost 44.5 million against the salary cap next season.

Over the past two years, the Penguins are 37-33-6 without Sergei Gonchar in the lineup. That record would give them 80 points in 76 games and would currently put them in eight place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins certainly realize how important Gonchar is to their team so, assuming they sign him to a deal that earns him 5 million dollars a year (same as right now), they will have 15 players signed for 49.5 million dollars. If they fill their roster with players making $500,000, their payroll would be at 53.5 million dollars for the 2010-11 season. We still don’t know what the salary cap will be for next year but it would be surprising if it were above that.

The Penguins would basically be replacing Guerin, Fedotenko, Cooke, Ponikarovsky, Eaton, McKee and Leopold with minor league players. That means their fourth line and third pair of defensemen will be composed of minor league players and they will have very little scoring depth after the trio of Crosby, Malkin and Staal. The only way that they can have more depth in their lineup is to let Sergei Gonchar go but as we’ve seen, they can’t afford to do that.

The situation for the Pittsburgh Penguins isn’t nearly as bad as it was for the Tampa Bay Lightning a few years ago but they did make some of the same mistakes. They signed their star players to a lot of money (which is okay of course) but what makes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin so good is that they can make other players better. They don’t need a guy like Chris Kunitz at 3.75 million dollars to be productive.

Marc-Andre Fleury is a good young goaltender but he’s not worth 5 million dollars a year and players like Staal, Kunitz and Orpik are slightly overpaid in my opinion. The good news for the Penguins is that the five players that are taking up almost 30 million of their cap room (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang and Fleury) will continue to improve over the next three or four years.

In conclusion, I believe that the Penguins could be in trouble next season and might even have to fight for a playoff spot but they should be Stanley Cup contenders again in two or three years.

Early NHL Awards Predictions

Presidents’ Trophy:
The Washington Capitals currently hold a five-point lead over the San Jose Sharks with one game in hand. It’s almost a sure thing that they’ll hold on to this lead and win their first ever Presidents’ Trophy. Prediction: Washington Capitals

Art Ross Trophy:
Henrik Sedin currently leads by one point over Alexander Ovechkin, both of whom still have seven games left to play. Although Ovechkin has played ten fewer games than Sedin, he only has 11 points in his 11 games since the Olympics break, while Henrik Sedin has 21 points in 14 games. Prediction: Henrik Sedin – Vancouver Canucks

Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy:
The race for the Rocket Richard Trophy has turned into a three-way race between three former number one overall picks. Sidney Crosby currently leads with 47 goals but Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos are right behind him with 46 and 45 goals respectively. Stamkos and Ovechkin do have a small edge over Crosby with one extra game left to play. All three have been somewhat cold of late as Crosby and Stamkos only have three goals in their last nine games while Ovechkin has four. As much as I’d love for Steven Stamkos to win this one, I expect Alexander Ovechkin will come away with his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy. Prediction: Alexander Ovechkin – Washington Capitals

William M. Jennings Trophy:
The New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins currently lead with 2.39 goals against per game and the Phoenix Coyotes are right behind at 2.40. The Phoenix Coyotes have allowed only 28 goals in their 13 games since the Olympic break and should finish the season strong. Prediction: Ilya Bryzgalov – Phoenix Coyotes

Lady Byng Memorial Trophy:
Pavel Datsyuk has won the last four Lady Byng Memorial Trophies but he has somewhat struggled this season and I expect a new winner this year. The nominees will likely be Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Anze Kopitar, all of whom have at least 75 points and less than 15 PIM. Prediction: Martin St. Louis – Tampa Bay Lightning

Jack Adams Award:
The Jack Adams Award was only awarded to the coach that won the Presidents’ Trophy once in the last 20 years. This award is usually given to the coach that had the most surprising team and this season there is no doubt that it is the Phoenix Coyotes. I will be shocked if Dave Tippett doesn’t win the award this season. Prediction: Dave Tippett – Phoenix Coyotes

Frank J. Selke Trophy:
This trophy used to be awarded to the best defensive forward but for some reason, since the lockout, the players that won it all had at least 70 points. In my opinion, Jay McClement who has 3:44 of shorthanded ice time per game (23 seconds more than any other forward) on the league’s top penalty kill should be the winner hands down, but he probably won’t because he only has 28 points and plays in St. Louis. This year’s trophy will likely go to Ryan Kesler who was nominated last year but has had a much better offensive season this year while still ranking 21st in shorthanded ice time per game. Prediction: Ryan Kesler – Vancouver Canucks

Calder Memorial Trophy:
The Calder Memorial Trophy will be one of the toughest awards to give out this year. Matt Duchesne leads the forwards with 52 points in 75 games, Tyler Myers has been stellar on defense with 43 points in 74 games and almost 24 minutes of ice time per game, and Jimmy Howard has had an incredible season with a 0.926 save percentage, a 2.24 GAA and a 32-15-9 record. In my opinion, it’ll come down to a race between Myers and Howard. Myers is the 25th best defenseman in ice time and 12th best in points which probably makes him one of the 20 defensemen this season in the NHL. Howard is currently third in save percentage amongst goalies who have played at least 40 games, second in goals against average and tenth in wins. As good as Myers has been this year, I think the edge will go to Jimmy Howard, especially if he starts the last seven games of the year for the Red Wings. Prediction: Jimmy Howard – Detroit Red Wings

James Norris Memorial Trophy:
The last ten Norris Trophy winners all had at least 50 points and at least 25:30 of ice time per game. It’s also interesting to note that all their teams made the playoffs and the last nine winners were on a team with at least 100 points. This season, eight players have at least 25:30 of ice time per game but only three of them will likely finish the year with at least 50 points and will likely make the playoffs. The three candidates are: Duncan Keith, Dan Boyle and Chris Pronger. Duncan Keith is the best of the three in points and time on ice per game, and his team currently has 99 points. Prediction: Duncan Keith – Chicago Blackhawks

Vezina Trophy:
This trophy is usually awarded to a goaltender who ranks somewhere near the top in wins, goals against average and save percentage. Last year, Tim Thomas won the award despite starting only 54 games but his save percentage was 0.010 better than any goalie who had started 60 or more games. This year, there are eight goalies with a save percentage above 0.920. Six of them should end up with at least 60 starts but Tomas Vokoun and Miikka Kiprusoff have won 50% or less of their starts. The four candidates are therefore: Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard, Evgeni Nabokov and Ilya Bryzgalov. All four have had an excellent season but Ryan Miller is the best in save percentage and goals against average. Ryan Miller also led the Unites States to a silver medal in the Olympics which shouldn’t count in the vote, but it will. Prediction: Ryan Miller – Buffalo Sabres

Hart Memorial Trophy:
Although this trophy is supposed to be awarded to the league’s most valuable player, it is usually awarded to the best player. 11 of the last 13 winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy also won either the Art Ross, Rocket Richard or Vezina Trophy. This would mean that the candidates this year are amongst: Henrik Sedin, Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Ryan Miller. Alexander Ovechkin should win this trophy easily even though the league’s most valuable player is probably Ryan Miller. Prediction: Alexander Ovechkin – Washington Capitals

We’ll find out in a couple of months how many I got right. I’d also like to mention that you have less than three days left to buy your NHL Playoff Combo from our online store. With the purchase of an RBK Premier Jersey, you also get the 2nd Season Cap and the Gameday 3 in 1 Combo at 50% off.

NFL Makes the Right Call by Changing Playoff OT Rules

The system used by the NFL to break a tie after 60 minutes has long been criticized. There is no perfect system but one that gives a big advantage to the team that wins a coin toss is a little ridiculous.

In the past 15 years, the team that won the coin toss at the beginning of overtime won the game 60% of the time. With the new rule, if the team that wins the coin toss kicks a field goal on its first possession, the opposing team will then get their turn on offense. They will not get that possession if the first score in overtime is a touchdown and they will have only one chance to tie the game again or win it. Once again, this is not a perfect system but is there really a better one?

The NCAA overtime system has been discussed and although it is exciting, I don’t like it for the NFL. The one thing I strongly believe is that overtime should not be different from regulation time. In the NCAA, each team begins at the 25-yard line and gets a chance one after the other to score until there is a winner. What I don’t like about those rules is that you are taking only a part of the game to decide the winner. A lot of things change when an offense starts from the 25-yard line: strategy changes, playbook is smaller, more importance is given to kickers and so on. This system would give an advantage to certain teams.

A few other proposals are: first team to score four points, play the entire overtime or each team is guaranteed one offensive possession. One thing the NFL doesn’t want to do is extend games because games that last four hours create a number of problems for television, stadiums and the city. Personally my favourite proposal was the one that guaranteed each team an offensive possession but after further thought, I think I like the new system better.

The new system will have the same effect as the guaranteed possession system except that if a team scores a touchdown on their first possession, they win the game. If a defense allows a team to go the length of the field for a touchdown, does their offense really deserve an offensive possession? It only takes about 30 to 40 yards to get in field goal position and it’s unfair to lose a game because of that but a touchdown takes about 70 to 80 yards, you don’t deserve another chance.

With that said, I think this is a great decision by the NFL but I don’t understand why this rule applies only for the playoffs. It doesn’t make much sense to have different rules for the regular season and for the playoffs. If 28 out of 32 teams believe it’s a good rule, then use it for the regular season as well. The regular season is 16 games and every game matters, so if the current system is unfair for the playoffs, it also is for the regular season. This issue will be discussed in May so let’s hope the NFL gets it right again and makes the change for the regular season as well.

NHL – Faceoffs really do matter

I read an article earlier today which took a look at the Best and Worst Faceoff Takers since 1997. The article explained that a guy like Scott Nichol who has won 59.3% of his faceoffs since 1997 was underrated because of that statistic. I have to say I had my doubts so I decided to look into it.

In order to calculate the value of winning faceoffs, I looked at team statistics from the past 11 seasons. The first thing I did was to group all the teams in the past 11 years that had a faceoff percentage above 51.0% in a season and compare them with the teams that had a faceoff percentage below 49.0%. Here is how they compare:

FO % Pts GF/G GA/G Goal Diff.
52.32 92.79 2.80 2.64 0.154
47.71 81.38 2.65 2.83 -0.178

To my surprise, a difference of 4.6% in team faceoff percentage gives on average 11.4 more points in the standings. That is a gigantic impact for a statistic that is independent of everything else that happens on the ice. It’s a one on one match-up between two players, independent of a player’s teammates, linemates, the score of the game and so on. Those are some nice statistics but how can a team use that to their advantage?

Based on those same statistics, a difference of 4.6% in team faceoff percentage leads to a difference of 0.331 in goals for and goals against per game. A difference of 1% will therefore lead to a difference of 0.072 goals per game or 5.9 goals in a season.

Take Scott Nichol who has won 60.8% of the 778 faceoffs he has taken so far in 2009-2010. Then take a look at a guy like Tim Connolly who has won only 46.8% of the 737 faceoffs he has taken this year. If Scott Nichol had taken Connolly’s 737 faceoffs with the Sabres this year instead of Connolly, their team faceoff percentage would have increased by a little over 2.5%. That is equal to about 6.2 points in the standings or an additional 15 goals in goals for and against differential.

The impact of a faceoff guy is even more intriguing from a statistical perspective because these statistics are independent from everything else. A guy can have 40 goals because of the players he’s playing with, a guy can’t win 60% of his faceoffs because of the players he’s playing with. On top of that, a guy with 40 goals will be very expensive on the free agent market but a 60% faceoff percentage will generally not reflect itself on a player’s salary.

Faceoff percentage is one of the most underrated statistics in the NHL and it seems the San Jose Sharks have figured this out. The Sharks have both Scott Nichol and Joe Pavelski who are the two leaders in the NHL in faceoff percentage and this is one of the reasons why they are having such a great season.

NHL – Best and Worst UFA Signings of 2009

I know it’s easy to criticize some UFA signings more than eight months later but nonetheless it’s fun to do. There were some great and not so great signings last off-season, let’s take a look:

Marian Gaborik – New York Rangers – 37.5 million for 5 years – You can criticize Glen Sather all you want for the awful work he’s done with the Rangers in the past decade but this was one of his best moves, for now… 7.5 million seemed like a lot for a player who could never stay healthy but this year, Gaborik has recorded 76 points in 66 games including 37 goals. Everyone knew he was very talented but he’s probably better than many thought and he’s shown that he can stay healthy.

Craig Anderson – Colorado Avalanche – 3.6 million for 2 years – The main reason why the Colorado Avalanche will make the playoffs this year costs only 1.8 million in cap room. Anderson has recorded 35 wins in 62 games including 7 shutouts and a 0.922 save percentage. Believe it or not, the Avalanche are allowing 3.2 more shots per game than last year but are giving up 0.47 fewer goal per game. Funny thing is that this is Anderson’s worst season in terms of save percentage since 2005-2006.

Nik Antropov – Atlanta Thrashers – 16 million for 4 years – When the Thrashers signed Antropov, the general consensus was: poor Thrashers, they have to overpay players to get them to come to Atlanta. Well, they might have paid more than his market value at the time but it turned out pretty good for them. Antropov has 63 points in 68 games so far this year and is the 30th highest scorer in the NHL. 4 million a year for a top 30 scorer is an excellent deal and it’s even better when you consider Antropov has 21 points in 17 games since the Ilya Kovalchuk trade to New Jersey.

Maxim Afinogenov – Atlanta Thrashers – 0.8 million for 1 year – We all knew that Afinogenov was a very talented player but he’d struggled in Buffalo in the past two years and the Thrashers decided to give him a chance. It worked out well for both sides as the Thrashers are currently fighting for a playoff spot and Afinogenov should get a pretty nice increase in salary this off-season.

Vaclav Prospal – New York Rangers – 1.1 million for 1 year – The Rangers did something similar to the Thrashers by giving Vaclav Prospal a chance. Prospal is on pace for 67 points this year and is a big reason why the Rangers are still in playoff contention. Glen Sather had a pretty nice off-season in 2009, it’s unfortunate that he blew it in 2007 and 2008 with Wade Redden and Chris Drury, 14 million per year until 2013-2014 for two very struggling players.

Mikael Samuelsson – Vancouver Canucks – 7.5 million for 3 years – Samuelsson had been a solid player for the Red Wings in the past four years totaling 149 points in 278 games with about 15 minutes of ice time per game. This year he is getting 17 minutes per game including three on the PP and he has scored 30 goals in 70 games. He’s had problems with injuries in the past but he’s been healthy for the past two years and should continue to be a very valuable player for the Canucks.

Alexei Kovalev – Ottawa Senators – 10 million for 2 years – Kovalev has had an up and down year just like he has for his entire career and he is currently on a big down. 5 million a year for a guy with only 17 goals and 30 assists in 69 games is a lot. The good news for the Senators is that Kovalev could turn it around at any point and could have a great year in 2010-11 but, they’re stuck with him for now.

Martin Havlat – Minnesota Wild – 30 million for 6 years – In the off-season, this seemed like a very long contract and an expensive one for a player who had over 70 points only once in eight NHL seasons. Havlat has only 49 points in 66 games this year including only 16 goals. It is especially expensive for a player who doesn’t bring much to the team other than his scoring.

Mike Komisarek – Toronto Maple Leafs – 22.5 million for 5 years – In my opinion, Mike Komisarek is a “defensive defenseman” who isn’t particularly good defensively. He doesn’t contribute offensively and he will often get out of position defensively in order to make the big hit. He might have 85 hits and 62 blocked shots in only 34 games but he is a -9, has 14 minor penalties and only 4 assists.

Samuel Pahlsson – Columbus Blue Jackets – 7.95 million for 3 years – I know that Pahlsson was signed for his defensive play but 2.65 million a year is an awful lot for a player with 2 goals and 9 assists in 69 games. He is the leading penalty killer for the Blue Jackets but they are 13th in the NHL, same as last year, and Pahlsson is a -11 at even strength this year. This is way too much money for a defensive player who doesn’t seem to have that much impact on his new team.

Ryan Kesler – 30M for 6 years – worth it?

The Vancouver Canucks and Ryan Kesler have agreed to a 6-year deal worth 30 million dollars. The former first round pick has been on a roll this season with 66 points in 71 games but is he really worth 5 million a year?

At this point in the season, Kesler is the 22nd highest scorer in the NHL after finishing 67th last year. More importantly, Kesler is the most used forward on the Canucks with 19:49 of ice time per game including 2:40 on the penalty kill. In each of the past four seasons, Kesler has been his team’s top penalty killer.

Ryan Kesler would have been a restricted free agent at the end of the season but he was only one-year away from unrestricted free agency. Because of that it is pretty fair to compare Kesler with other NHL players, something we couldn’t do if he was 3 or 4 years away from his UFA status. A top 25 scorer (like Kesler is this year) who is his team’s top penalty killing forward should in theory get paid amongst the top 15-20 forwards. This would mean that Kesler is worth about 6.5 million a year.

The one thing that drops Kesler’s value however is that the 2009-10 season is his first very good offensive season as he had only recorded 96 points in the two previous years. If he continues to play like he is this year, Ryan Kesler is worth much more than 5 million per year but the Canucks are probably expecting him to score 60 points a year and play well defensively. Overall, I think this is a very fair deal.

This deal will certainly be used as a point of comparison in negotiations between Tomas Plekanec an the Montreal Canadiens. So far this season, the two players have almost identical statistics: 21 goals and 45 assists for Kesler while Plekanec has 21 goals and 44 assists. Over the past three seasons, the Montreal Canadiens forward has 173 points including 70 goals while the 26-year old American has 142 points including 68 goals. The two players are therefore very similar offensively with possibly a small edge going to Plekanec. This year, Plekanec is the top penalty killing forward on the Canadiens but he had not been in the past and is not as solid defensively as Kesler. The 27-year old Czech is however set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and probably has more negotiating power than Kesler.

If you put all that together, I’d expect Plekanec to sign a very similar deal to Kesler’s although it may be a little shorter. My prediction would be 25 million for the next five years.

Hottest Teams in the NHL

I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the teams that are currently on a hot streak in the NHL, but, before doing so, I thought I’d find some stats to see if there is a correlation between: the record in the final few weeks of the regular season and playoff performance.

I decided to look at statistics from the past three years and look at how teams have done after March 1st and in the playoffs. Last season, despite being the fourth seed, the Pittsburgh Penguins led the league with 1.63 Pts per GP after March 1st and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Here is a chart that shows why the Pts per GP after March 1st is an interesting stat to keep your eye on:

  W L Win %
Higher Seed 28 17 62.2%
Higher PTS /GP 30 14 68.2%
Higher PTS /GP by 0.25 14 2 87.5%

As you can see, Pts per GP after March 1st is a better indicator than the playoff seed. The even more impressive number is that if a team has 0.25 Pts per GP more than the team they are facing, they win 87.5% of the time. You might argue that many of those are obvious wins, but, over the past three years, only 6 of those 14 wins were when a 1 or 2 seed was facing a 7 or 8 seed.

With that said, let’s take a look at the current Pts per GP Standings since March 1st:

MTL 8 1.75
PHX 7 1.71
WSH 8 1.63
PIT 7 1.57
DET 8 1.50
VAN 9 1.44
NSH 9 1.33
COL 8 1.25
MIN 8 1.25
TOR 9 1.22
CGY 7 1.14
FLA 7 1.14
NJD 7 1.14
STL 7 1.14
CAR 8 1.13
NYI 8 1.13
PHI 9 1.11
BOS 9 1.00
CBJ 7 1.00
CHI 7 1.00
LAK 7 1.00
NYR 8 1.00
SJS 7 1.00
BUF 8 0.88
ATL 9 0.78
DAL 8 0.63
TBL 8 0.63
EDM 9 0.56
ANA 6 0.50
OTT 7 0.43

There is still a lot of hockey to be played but there are a couple of teams on there to keep your eye on:

1. Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens had an up and down year but they have been on fire in the past few weeks and now seem to be on their way to the playoffs. Their 7-1-0 record since the Olympic break is even more impressive considering they are playing without their leading goal scorer Mike Cammalleri. After last night’s win, the Habs now have a 7 points lead on the Rangers and the ninth spot in the East and are only 1 point back of the fifth seed which seemed unreachable a week ago.

2. Phoenix Coyotes: Despite all the talk of moving the team, the Phoenix Coyotes are having their best season in franchise history. The Coyotes have won 6 straight games since acquiring Wojtek Wolski and Derek Morris at the trade deadline and have put themselves in very good position to have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The season-ending injury to Scottie Upshall has not hurt them yet but he would have been a useful player in the playoffs.

3. Washington Capitals: The Capitals have been solid all-season long and should continue to be dominant as long as they remain healthy. You can criticize their goaltending all you want but they score so many goals that they don’t need their goalie to steal a game in the playoffs in order to win a series. They will be a very tough team to beat.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins: The defending Stanley Cup Champions are another team that has been hot of late and could go on a run like they did last year. They have an impressive 5-1-1 record since the Olympic break and in my opinion will be the team to beat in the playoffs, if they stay healthy. Say all you want about the Capitals but the Penguins are the defending champions and are 34-14-5 with Sergei Gonchar in the lineup. Remember that last year he missed more than four months and the Penguins were basically unbeatable once he came back in the middle of February.

5. Detroit Red Wings: The 2009 Stanley Cup Finalists have had a very difficult season but have won 6 of their last 8 games and have somewhat solidified the 8th spot in the West. With 13 games left in the season, I expect the Wings to move up a couple of spot and will create a very tough match-up for the Sharks, Blackhawks or Canucks in the first round of the playoffs.

6. Vancouver Canucks: Despite playing 14 straight games on the road because of the Olympics, the Vancouver Canucks have managed to hold on to their lead in the Northwest division. The Canucks were in a similar position last year but disappointed many by losing in the second round of the playoffs. With Roberto Luongo in net, this team could be a wild card pick to make it all the way.

I’ll post these standings again in a week or two to see how things have changed and to see if these six teams manage to continue their streak.

NHL to ban hits to the head… this year?

For years the NHL and media have discussed banning hits to the head but the time might finally have come. Bill Daly stated this morning that the rule could be put in place before the end of the regular season or in time for the playoffs, if approved. A DVD is currently being prepared for the 30 NHL teams in order to show them what would be legal and what wouldn’t be.

I’ve criticized the NHL quite a bit and still believe it’s a very poorly managed league but, for once, I think the NHL would be taking an excellent decision. It’s very unusual to change a rule in the middle of an NHL season but right now the NHL doesn’t have a choice. Imagine, with five games left to play in the season, that Sidney Crosby gets hit at center ice with a shoulder to the head and is out for the entire playoffs. Not only would the hit ruin the Penguins chances of back to back cups and hurt TV ratings even more but the player who hit him couldn’t even be suspended… If something like that were to happen, as devastating as the hit could be, Colin Campbell wouldn’t be able to justify suspending a player for a hit to the head because Mike Richards and Matt Cooke weren’t suspended.

Right now, players know they can hit each other with shoulders to the head and without being suspended. You can bet that within the next few weeks, if the occasion presents itself, some players will take it. This is a great decision by the NHL to try and accelerate the process. Now let’s hope the rest of the league comes through and that this rule is approved soon in order to avoid another public embarrassment for the NHL.

Tiger back at the Masters – Still favourite to win

After weeks of speculation, Tiger Woods has finally announced that he will play in the 2010 Masters and that it will be his first tournament since November 15. When the Masters begins on April 8, it will have been almost five months since Woods has participated in a professional golf tournament.

I won’t hide it, I’m a huge Tiger fan and have been since he won the 1997 Masters. He’s the main reason why I was interested in golf in the first place and I know I’m not the only one. I don’t want to defend his actions, everyone knows what happened and you’ve made your own judgment.

The one thing that no one can argue with, however, is what Tiger Woods has done for the game of golf. After the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods had knee surgery and did not play for the rest of the season. The TV Ratings for the final major tournament of the year, the 2008 PGA Championship, were down 55% from the year before when Tiger Woods won. The ratings were down about 40% in other tournaments (except the British Open which was only 11%) that Woods missed in the 2008 season.

Every major tournament, the media always tried to hype the battle between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The media loves match-ups with two stars facing each other but let’s be honest, everyone is well-behind Tiger. Since 2005, he has participated in 18 major tournaments; he has placed in the top ten in 15 of them, in the top five in 13 of them and has won 6 of them. Over the same period of time, Mickelson has participated in 19 major tournaments and has only 8 top ten’s, 6 top five’s and 2 wins. Basically Tiger’s chances of winning a major are better than Mickelson’s chances of finishing in the top five.

Despite all the time off, Tiger Woods is still the favourite to win the Masters and how can you really argue with that? Sure he hasn’t played in a professional tournament since November but it’s not like he hasn’t played golf at all. Sure the media attention will be all on him but isn’t it always on him? The pressure will be extremely high on Tiger as he knows that the best way for people to forget about the events of the past few months is to win a golf tournament.