Thursday, January 9, 2014
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Dallas Stars Own the Olympics
It almost makes the Olympics worth watching.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we watched as the Stars made, and broke, their New Year's resolutions. This week, rather than give the team a grade at the mid-season mark (eh, probably a "B-"... there, happy?), we're going to focus on the three Stars that made their nation's Olympic rosters, and a few who missed the cut, bringing slightly less shame upon their nations than if they had been selected and sucked.
Note: We won't be discussing any American-born players here, which is good, because any comments I could make about Alex Goligoski's massive regression this season would be very NSFNSA.
Guy Who Made It #1: Jamie Benn
Did He Deserve It?: Yes
Were There Any Better Guys?: Claude Giroux and Taylor Hall, most definitely.
Ideal Linemates?: Left wing alongside Getzlaf and Perry would make an insanely powerful line.
Expert Analysis: Benn was on the outside looking in at the start of this season, but unlike his new partner-in-crime Tyler Seguin, Benn' stock rose immeasurably with some huge games, specifically against Canadian teams. His scoring numbers after 42 games are actually only marginally better: 15-22-37 in 42 games this year over 12-21-33 in 41 games last season, with the exact same 10.9% shooting percentage. You could even argue that last year --which was far and away his worst year as a pro-- was a slightly better year in terms of scoring, as his numbers this year have been puffed up by 12 secondary assists, giving him more "primary" points (26-25) last season than this one.
However, that would ignore the other parts of his game that Benn has excelled in. For one, unlike someone like Hall, Benn plays defense and is a possession monster. Benn's Goals For/Goals Against is sparkling 58.8%, a full 15 points better than it was last season, while also 15 points ahead of Hall, who at 43% is a defensive sieve (though not much more than the rest of the Oilers). Benn was frequently victimized by terrible goals against last season, and seems to have gotten that out of his game this year. Part of that might also be related to his huge increase in faceoff percentage: from 46% last season to 58% this year, splitting dot-time with Seguin. Those are huge increases, and when combined with the trials and responsibilities of being a young captain, it seems Benn has taken his overall game to another level. He may never put up 100+ points in a season, but he's the complete package and then some at power forward, and makes a pretty strong case for an Olympic spot in the top six.
Guy Who Made It #2: Valerie Nichushkin
Did He Deserve It?: Debatable
Were There Any Better Guys?: Alex Semin, arguably. Yakupov and Kuznetsov were pretty big omissions, too.
Ideal Linemates?: Judging from his work in Dallas, he'll probably start on the fourth line before making his way up the ladder.
Expert Analysis: The draft-day steal has done nothing but impress in his first half-season in Dallas. Unlike several other rookies who were given prime top-six minutes against weak opposition and ridiculous offensive zone starts (coughcoughMacKinnoncoughMonahancough), Valerian Steel started the year on the fourth line with limited minutes. For the first 15 games or so this looked like a bad move by coach Lindy Ruff, who similarly misused last year's Russian-phenom-who-fell-in-the-draft, Grigorenko, doing irreparable damage to both the player and the team.
Making it seemingly worse was that, despite the few minutes and the Horcoffian linemates, Nichushkin really did look pretty good. He generally had one or two amazing chances resulting from highlight-reel individual efforts, only to muff the shot at the end. Stars fans held their breath every time Nichushkin entered the zone with the puck, because they knew he was this close to pulling off something insane.
Finally, he did, and the points started pouring in. Not in 6-point clumps like Benn, but a goal here, an assist here, until Nichushkin was bumped up to the top line and started really showing how lethal he will be in the next few years. His puck control is second to none, especially along the boards where he is essentially uncheckable. His on-ice vision is amazing, he passes with pinpoint precision and has the stickhandling and skating ability to become Malkin-esque. His defensive game is surprisingly effective for an offensive-minded rookie, possibly the result of Ruff's decision to bury him in the checking lines with grizzled veteran teachers. He still needs work, and is still ridiculously young, but in terms of potential that is just now starting to show its head, he is clearly the best rookie in Dallas Stars history, and a better pick than the slumping Yakupov or the enigmatic Kuznetsov. He may not make much hay in the Olympics, but Russia was smart to pick a guy that might see quite a few more of these things before all is said and done.
Guy Who Made It #3: Kari Lehtonen
Did He Deserve It?: Only because of injury.
Were There Any Better Guys?: Pekka Rinne, although Rinne's play last season without Ryan Suter was very... average.
Will He Play?: Behind Tukka Rask? Probably a game against Latvia or something.
Expert Analysis: Lehtonen is one of those guys who is an amazing goalie... until you look at the numbers. He routinely makes ridiculous highlight reel saves, but highlight reel saves do not a championship goalie make. Lehtonen falls into that familiar Dallas Sports Fan category of "good but not as great as you think" alongside Troy Aikman and Mike Modano: ask any Cowboys fan about Aikman and they'll tell you Aikman averaged four touchdowns a game, despite the fact that he only hit 20 touchdowns once in his entire career, and averaged exactly one touchdown pass per game. Modano, too, while skating really fast and scoring 50 one year, never broke the 100+ point barrier even when other guys were breaking 150, never led the league in any offensive category during his 20 year career, and never won a single NHL award, except maybe a Lady Byng or something but nobody really cares enough to look that up.
Lehtonen is the same: conventional eyeball wisdom maintains that he regularly keeps the Stars "in" games, but his stats are below average: his save percentage is a pedestrian .914, good for 18th in the league (and also his career average) and his GAA is 2.68, which doesn't even crack the top 25, and is just slightly under his disappointing career average of 2.70. Lehtonen's numbers are almost exactly what they were last season, when he put up a .916 and 2.66, which means that this is probably about the best we can hope to expect from the big netminder.
Guy Who Didn't Make It #1: Tyler Seguin
Did He Deserve It?: On any other team than Canada, yeah, most definitely.
Were There Any Better Guys?: If your team is so deep that you're leaving Joe Thornton off because you had better options at center, then yes.
Expert Analysis: In what might be one of the most ridiculous things ever, 11 of the 14 forwards picked for the Canadian Olympic team are, or were, centers. Only Kunitz, Perry and Rick Nash are predominantly wingers: literally everyone else is, or was at some point, a first or second line center. This works against Seguin, who despite having more points (41) than six of those guys and more goals (21) than ten of them, is shuffled off to the bubble (or off of it entirely) because there are simply too many amazing Canadian centers --not that his 40% faceoff percentage is doing him any favors.
Nevertheless, now that he is out from under Krejci and Bergeron in the Bruins' depth chart, Seguin has come into his own. Given first-line center minutes, he has produced at an elite level. His points-per-game has risen from 0.67 to 1.02, partially due to his shooting percentage ballooning to a (possibly unsustainable) 17.1% from 9.9%. Seguin's just eight goals away from tying his career high of 29, in 41 fewer games. More impressively, his point totals have not been inflated by secondary assists --he has only four of those-- or by powerplay numbers (just ten points, or 25% of his scoring... compare that to Crosby's 34% or Tavares' 39%). You could also, like Russia, make the argument that Canada should be inviting more younger players to the big dance, to get them ready for 2018 and 2022 and beyond. Considering Seguin is just 21, you'd expect him --and guys like Taylor Hall-- to represent Canada long after greybeards like Crosby and Getzlaf are gone. Fortunately, Seguin has a stable first-line spot and a couple of talented Olympian linemates to work off of over the next four years. I'd be surprised if he doesn't make the cut in 2018.
Guy Who Didn't Make It #2: Sergei Gonchar
Did He Deserve It?: Absolutely not.
Were There Any Better Guys?: If you had a pulse and a pair of skates, you were likely a better choice than Gonchar in 2014.
Expert Analysis: Gonchar should thank his lucky starskis for Stephen Weiss and David Clarkson, because they are the only two things preventing him from being labeled the biggest free agent bust in years. After posting a deceptive 27-point campaign last season --buoyed by 15 of his 24 assists being of the 'secondary' variety-- Gonchar somehow managed to convince a rookie GM that he was worth $5 million a season because Powerplay Or Something. After all, even if he sucked defensively (which he does), Gonchar would improve the league's 18th-best PP unit, which only scored at a measly 17% last season... right?
Wrong. Very, very wrong.
Under Gonchar's powerplay quarterbacking, the Stars' powerplay has fallen from 18th to 29th, from 17.0 % to 12.9%... even lower than the 2012 teams' 13.5% that was the worst NHL powerplay mark in four decades. This also affects Gonchar on an individual level, since he cannot score at even strength: his point totals have dropped from 27 points to 12, with zero goals --putting him at 77th among NHL d-men in scoring, tied with fellow high-priced offensive wizards as Ben Lovejoy and Johnny Boychuk. This is with over three minutes a game of powerplay time -- his teammate Brendan Dillon, with next to zero powerplay time, has five goals and 12 points and actually plays defense from time to time.
The eyeball test is even worse than the statistics. Gonchar regularly passes directly into his teammates' skates, makes terrible turnovers at both blue lines, can't win a puck battle in his own zone, can't make an outlet pass out of his own zone, and, most importantly, makes the most bland and nonthreatening ten-foot passes you can make while in the offensive zone. Gonchar rarely makes an impressive pass, generally dishing off a weak backhander to the player farthest from the net, because that guy is not covered and Gonch won't get blamed for a turnover. There is zero creativity, zero risk, and... zero results. With the exception of one four-assist game, Team Russia needed only look at a few minutes of game tape from any other game to realize that, yes, practically any third-pairing defenseman in the KHL would be a better choice for the Olympic team. The best GM Nill can hope for is that a suspect Eastern Conference GM desperately trying to save his own job might trade a third rounder for the guy. Hell, I'd take a sixth rounder and a bag of used gym socks for Gonchar at this point: at least it would free up the $7 million remaining on his contract that could be used on a real defenseman this offseason.
Guy Who Didn't Make It #3: Antoine Roussel
Did He Deserve It?: Are you kidding? Absolutely!
Were There Any Better Guys?: Not from his home country.
Expert Analysis: Unfortunately for Roussel and the viewing public, France didn't qualify for the Olympics this time around. Which is too bad, because Roussel would've been a lock, and judging from previous international competition --where Roussel scored the game-winning goal against Russia in a huge upset at the 2013 IIHF World Hockey Championships in Helsinki-- it would have ruled. Wouldn't that have been worth the price of admission... to see someone like France upset the home team? Roussel didn't just score the game winner in that game, either: he also won 80% of his faceoffs and played an excellent defensive game. Put him on Malkin all game and see what he can do. Just keep him away from Nichushkin, s'il vous plaît.