Your weekly dose of hockey-related banter and chitchat
Welcome to Where the Puck Drops, a weekly-or-more-often-run column in which I cover some of the hot topics around world-hockey, plus some historical issues, random questions and other tidbits linked to the sport of the puck, the sticks, and the goalie masks. This week, among other stuff, I discuss the impact of USA men’s soccer team missing the World Cup, how this class of rookies sucks, why you should bet big on James Neal, and finally, I welcome the most anticipated Russian player to the NHL.
1. It’s time to worry about US international soccer, and maybe hockey too
United States’ dream of playing in the FIFA World Cup for the eighth consecutive time was shot dead by Trinidad and Tobago a few days ago. We have had our fair share of USA Soccer for the past seven editions of the World Cup. The streak started during the first Bush presidency, which means many of you reading this now haven’t been born yet. That’s a ton of years — like, a lot. There have been highs and lows during that tenure but hey, you can’t tell me USA Soccer has not been evolving during the past few years. The promise of playing some kid called Pulisic wasn’t exciting at the minimum. Well, you can start forgetting about progress at least until 2022 when the World Cup visits Qatar, or even better when Qatar gets denied of organizing it because of some corruption-related issues that ultimately make the United States the organizing country! Can you image!? Dream big!
On the other hand, we have the USA hockey team. And the USA hockey team, sadly, won’t be featured in the most important tournament to be held in 2018, the Olympic games in South Korea. I mean, sure, they will be there and so will Canada and Russia and whoever you want. Unfortunately, the rosters won’t feature any NHL player because the NHL is dumb, as they won’t allow their players to attend the event and be called up by their nations. This is embarrassing and stupid at the very least. USA Hockey has participated in every Olympic games since 1920, except those of 1948 when they sent two teams to the tournament and messed things so badly that, long-story-short, they were disqualified. In those 21 games, they’ve won 11 medals including two golds. Two golds in 21 games. That is a gold for every 10.5 editions, which is like one gold for every 42 years. The last gold was won in 1980, so you do the math. Yes! 2022 again! It feels like 2022 is the year everything will go full circle. Yay!
But seriously, considering both the USA Soccer and the USA Hockey situations, it is worth commenting on who’s on deeper waters right now. Because let’s be real, the soccer pool of players the United States currently (and historically, for that matter) has available can’t even be compared by the slightest of characteristics to that of hockey players. Per QuantHockey, there are 679 active men in the NHL right now. Of those, 304 are from Canada and 172 from the USA. That is, 25.3% of the league’s roster spots are currently occupied by US-born players. So, the best hockey league in the world is one-quarter made of US-eligible players, while the best soccer leagues in the world hardly feature three or four individuals. This only means one thing: the United States national team needs to step up its game.
Yes, you should expect Canada to dominate the international scene. Okay. Understood. They have done it for the past four editions winning three of four possible golds. The problem is that European powerhouses such as Sweden and Finland are catching up, and that should not be the case with the resources the USA has. Let’s create some stupid ranking based on the number of gold, silver and bronze medals won by the three-best nations at Olympics since 2002. I’ll assign three points for the gold, two for the silver and one for the bronze medal to each nation. These would be the results:
- Canada: 9 points — Gold/NA/Gold/Gold
- Sweden: 5 points — Gold/NA/NA/Silver
- United States: 4 points — Silver/NA/Silver/NA
- Finland: 4 points — NA/Silver/Bronze/Bronze
- Russia: 1 point — Bronze/NA/NA/NA
- Czech Republic: 1 point — NA/Bronze/NA/NA
That is bad. Canada has dominated, but Sweden has been able to field teams of such a great quality lately that the USA has not been able to sniff the gold. Finland is consistent out there as well with the same number of points as the States. Russia has not seen much success, but I wouldn’t rule them out of a comeback at any moment. So while the soccer federation may be in some trouble regarding their short-term future non-WC presence, watch out for the hockey national team because while they’ll keep being out there in the picture things doesn’t look too promising for it.
2. A couple words on goalies
We’re just more than a week into the season. Everybody has played at least a few games. That means we can take a look at what some goalies have done during those past days to get a quick idea of they are faring so far. I’m not going to go over tiers, nor am I going to organize this in any way, because it may end being more of a mess than you could imagine. So, let’s get discuss some random things that have been happening around the little sample of games that have been disputed.
Some of the best-expected goalies are suffering. Take infinite-rookie Matt Murray. Not is only he posting a rather mediocre .871 SV%, he’s done it through four games facing 93 shots and allowing 12 goals, which is the highest mark among 55 goalies with playing time so far. This means that he’s averaging a goal against each 7.75 shots Pittsburgh takes, translating to 10th-worst mark in the league. The problem is not only that Murray is not the godsend goalie we’ve been sold during the past couple of years, it is also that his backup Antti Niemi is nothing close (as expected) to what a backup should be. The Finn has started two games, allowed seven goals on 41 shots, and makes people miss Fleury.
Speaking of Marc-Andre, he’s been on a tear during the start of the season. He’s the only man Vegas has seen cover its net but he’s been more than superb for the Golden Knights, considering anyone’s expectations for the season. Fleury is sitting at a good .921 SV% during four games played in which he’s faced 115 shots on goal. He’s basically allowed a goal per 49 minutes of ice he’s seen (4th-best) and he’s one of the main reasons Vegas is outperforming teams here and there.
What about some unexpected stuff? Well folks, I got you covered. After Friday the 13th games, seven goalies have yet to see their net hurt. Of those, Jonathan Bernier stands out after having played two games for the now-unstoppable Avalanche in which he has logged 82 minutes, received 40 shots and stopped everything thrown at him. Of the goalies with four or five games played (the most possible), Corey Crawford and Cory Schneider look pretty impressive. The former is keeping Chicago completely out of trouble with a .964 SV% while the later is making a team out of New Jersey with a .960 SV%. The only other goalie with a GAA under two is Braden Holtby, though I don’t think Washington would be in any kind of trouble without him given Skinny Ovechkin’s goal-scoring explosion.
Looking at the minutes played leaderboard, Mike Smith and maybe-washed up Henrik Lundqvist appear on the first and second spots with over 200 minutes of ice-time. While both are keeping up a .920+ SV%, their GAA is not that great and average at best. Not that it is bad, but if you’re going to keep playing more minutes than anyone under the pipes you, need to step up your game quite a bit.
But you know what is truly worrying? Cases such as that of Antti Raanta. I like Antti Raanta. I expected him to someday play good hockey in Arizona. Felt to me like New York was making a mistake trading him, although maybe there weren’t after all. Lundqvist’s backup-to-date has played three games and is currently facing only 14.3 shots per game (lowest mark for goalies with 3+ games played) but still conceding a goal per 8.6 shots. This means he’s allowing a goal each little more than 14 minutes of playing time, which is kinda inconceivable for a starting NHL netminder. His SV% (.883) speaks for itself and unless he improves, I don’t think Arizona will keep him out there much more having another sweet an unreliable option right there in Louis Domingue!
3. James Neal, greatest Golden Knight ever and forever
So is and will James Neal be the best Vegas Golden Knight to ever grace the black-and-gold jersey? Yes. Totally yes. When the expansion draft took place last summer and Vegas made their selections, we all were wondering the following: What the hell were the Knights doing with all those defensemen? What was going to happen with some of the drafted pieces? How were the draft picks they acquired going to be spent in the entry draft? You get my drift. But do you know what we didn’t have any doubt about? Marc-Andre Fleury. He was the best pick, best player, and now face of the franchise during the first weeks and months and years of the team in the NHL. No, no, really. Fleury was going to be the face, and still probably is and is going to keep being it for a while. But have you even seen what James Neal is doing? Have you watched his two-knees-down goal? Have you delighted yourself with his celebrations? Oh boy.
If there is someone hot in the NHL, it must be Ovechkin. Sorry, I mean, Neal. James Neal has played four games and scored six goals for Vegas, which is impressive because of the following:
- Vegas is a bad team, even if it doesn’t look like it.
- That is a 123 goal-season pace and Neal has only reached 40 goals one time with an average of 26 per season.
- He’s playing most of his minutes along Eakin and Perron, which is not the best line ever.
- Vegas is at an adjusted-corse of 50.25 which means they’re pretty average and not outshooting rivals or having massive possession numbers by any means.
I don’t know how you haven’t bought James Neal’s jersey yet, to be honest. Don’t waste your time anymore. Neal is the real deal.
4. Second, deep thoughts
But wait a second! Don’t pull the trigger yet! I don’t want to receive a call from a stranger three months from now telling me what should he do with an outdated jersey because he bought it when someone was hot as lava and now is playing in Pittsburgh behind Crosby and Malkin and Matt Duchenne. No, I don’t to receive that call.
This is what is going on here. Vegas is lucky; I don’t need to look at the numbers. It is just luck because this has never happened before as no expansion team has ever won their first three games or has ever been good enough during their first year playing in the NHL. Furthermore, no expansion team should be considered a threat or think they’ll make it to the postseason and advance a round or whatever. If the Golden Knights staff is intelligent — which is something yet to be proved given what they did at the draft and the situation they’re having to manage with Theodore and Shypachiov (the Russian maybe even considering leaving for the KHL) lately — they will capitalize and take advantage of their good situation.
Yes, it is early. Yes, they can just go out there five games into the season and try to sell Neal and Fleury and whoever at gold’s price just because they’ve had a bunch of great performances. Sadly, it just doesn’t work like that, friends and newcomers from Vegas. Things will have to stabilize. We will see Colorado come down crashing, New Jersey drop some games, Montreal improve given their monster-like possession numbers, and Washington reach the second round to lose against the Penguins. That is all yet to come, but it will, and when it does then, Vegas will have to… play their cards.
Actually, I don’t see Fleury leaving the Golden Knights. I truly believe Fleury is the face of this team, no matter if Neal scores 20, 30, or even 60 goals from now to the inexistent Olympics. Fleury is an icon. He’s got some great stories on his back. He forged a legend in Pittsburgh finishing his career there in the way he did. Fleury was left out to be picked by Vegas in the most anticipated event to ever happen in the history of NHL expansion drafts despite 33 years old and oldest Golden Knight barring Vegas-resident Derek Engelland. He even was a number-one draft pick back in 2003! Marc-Andre Fleury the man. He will play some hockey in Vegas, see his deal expire, and probably retire for good as part of the first bunch of guys to ever make it in Vegas. That’s the story I’m envisioning and I don’t think I’m too far off. But James Neal is another kind of asset.
James Neal came from Stanley Cup finalist Nashville. He’s 30 years old, has a $5 million salary that expires next summer, and looks like the perfect movable piece. If we’re ranking players with a chance of winning the cup this season, Neal must be up there. No, not because Vegas will make a run, but because Vegas will flip him to a contender mid-season in order to get future assets and depth. James will play for Montreal, Pittsburgh, or a mystery third team in the running for a center with guarantees of quality hockey in him. He could be a rental piece given his pending UFA status, but if he can keep up with his performance to date, who is saying no to his presence in the lineup? Come on. It is a lock.
5. Serious overreactions
Okay. We’re one quarter through hockey’s silly season. You know, those first twenty games where nothing matters, everything is futile, and the results make no sense as they paint an incorrect picture of the league. So, we better take advantage of this situation and make the most of it before the results and numbers begin to stabilize, making this section feel awkward. Here is your weekly dose of overreactions:
- The NHL, as a professional sports league, is dumb. This is not an overreaction after all, but I needed to write it somewhere anyways. Somehow, the NHL has managed to make the Carolina Hurricanes play three games while all other teams have played at least four and as many as seven in some cases. I don’t know who makes the schedule, how they organize matches, or what makes they take those decisions, but they’re definitely overpaid. Not that I’m worried about Canes’ fans being sad, but hey, balance things out a bit don’t you think?
- This rookie class, i.e. the one concerning just the guys picked this past summer, is bad. Bad as in “hey man, your breath stinks so bad.” Five players among those selected in the last draft have seen the ice in the little time the season has been running. Of those five, only three have a point, and only two have two points (number one and two selections, Hischier and Patrick). Do you know what happened during last season? Well, not to get into detail, but Auston Matthews alone scored four goals while playing his first game in the NHL. Four goals. First game. Just leaving that there.
- Whatever Angry Ovi has done this summer is definitely working. Be it doubling his burger intake or his strict exercise regime, Ovechkin has 9 goals already in 6 games. Not only does he lead the league, but he’s also put more pucks in the net than the Sharks, Oilers, Canadiens, and Hurricanes, respectively. Not much of a chance he gets over 60 during the season, but we’re talking just 51 more goals in 73 games. You know what? Count me in! Ovi for 60 is as real as dumb it sounds. It has only happened twice in the past 10 years, but hey, Alex was one of those achieving it!
- The standings reflect everything we expected. Los Angeles is holding a perfect 5-0 record. Vegas, New Jersey, and Detroit have only lost one game while winning four. Colorado is among the Western Conference contenders. Pittsburgh leads the league in goals allowed with 25. What more can we ask for? Our predictions were totally on point.
5. The legend has finally arrived
— NHL News feed (@NHLNews_PR) October 16, 2017
It took some time, some KHL-related rumors (probably false), and took some weird decisions and an injury. But the moment we had been waiting for finally came on October 15th when Vegas put Vadim Shipachyov on the ice for the first time in his NHL career and since becoming a Golden Knight this past summer.
But wait, because the story doesn’t end there. A little more than 17 minutes in the second period of the Vegas–Boston matchup that saw Malcolm Subban win against his former team, Shipachyov scored his first NHL goal! First! NHL goal! Shipachyov! Can’t be happier for the guy. He was expected to crack the first line. He was expected to lead Vegas. It didn’t happen, but things are looking brighter by the minute. Here’s to hope for a bright career by Vadim!