Friday, 8 April 2011

Team MVPs - Eastern Conference

With the NHL season entering its final weekend, let's take a look at each team's MVP and what to expect in the playoffs. For those teams outside the top eight, I'll take a look at what they need to improve on in the offseason.

Atlantic Division
Philadelphia Flyers - Claude Giroux
This was a tough one because the Flyers don't rely on any one player in order to win. If Danny Briere gets shut down, then Mike Richards produces, or Jeff Carter, or Ville Leino, get the idea. Each player has gone through their hot streaks, but Giroux has been the most consistent player all season leading the team with 51 assists and 76 points. He's the only one of their top five scorers to play in every game. Runners up: Mike Richards, Sergei Bobrovsky.
Playoffs: The Flyers are struggling, 2-4-4 in their past 10 games. They have only scored 2.4 goals per game in that span, off their season average of 3.08. Should they face Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers or Ryan Miller of the Sabres in the first round, they might be in trouble. Good news for them, Chris Pronger should be back for the first round, it's just a matter of when. Should this team get focused again, they can easily make it four years in a row with a Pennsylvania team in the final.

Pittsburgh Penguins - Marc-Andre Fleury
The pens had to change their philosophy after Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went down, but their defensive approach wouldn't have mattered if Fleury wasn't able to hold down the fort. In 64 appearances, Fleury posted some of the best numbers of his career with a 35-20-5 record, 2.31 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Take away his terrible start and those numbers improve to 34-14-5, 2.15 goals-against average and  .925 save percentage. He meant everything to this team considering their top three players have only played half a season each and their highest active scorer is Kris Letang with eight goals and 49 points. Runners up: Dan Bylsma, Sidney Crosby.
Playoffs: They are going to get home ice against Tampa Bay in the first round. With their newfound commitment to defense, they should have no problem against the slumping Steven Stamkos. Unless Crosby comes back however, their lack of depth, especially at center, will be exposed. With Sid, you can never count them out of making the Stanley Cup final. Without him, they will have a hard time winning two rounds.

New York Rangers - Henrik Lundqvist
King Henrik leads the league with 11 shutouts and while the Rangers offense isn't terrible, at 2.70 goals per game (17th in the league) they aren't great either. The Rangers only managed one goal in three of his shutouts and two in two others (one where the second goal was an empty-netter) so they clearly depend on him for wins more often than not. He is a wall every night in net and the driving force behind their season. Runners up: Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan.
Playoffs: They aren't certain to make the playoffs, but should they get in they could give a top-ranked team a lot of trouble in the first round. Lundqvist can win a round or two by himself, but losing Callahan with a broken ankle will hurt as he is first in points per game (0.80), second in hits (224), second among forwards in blocked shots (77) and third among forwards in take aways (42).

New Jersey Devils - Patrik Elias
One of the most overlooked and underrated players since 1999-2000, Elias' seven game point streak (3G, 8P) was the first sign of consistency in for the Devils all season and help ignite a run that saw them salvage a respectable season while being in shouting distance of the playoff race for a little bit. Like many of the Devils, he ended the season strongly, his hat trick against the Flyers on April 1 was his first since April 5, 2006. He not only provides the offense, but is the heart and soul of the Devils as well. Runners up: Jacques Lemaire, Johan Hedberg.
Offseason: Aside from convincing Jacques Lemaire to come back, the Devils need to shore up their defense. When Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder lead the defense in ice time, you have a problem. They also need to find a replacement for Brodeur soon. Hedberg had a good year, but he is clearly not a long-term solution. Their offense should be fine. Expect bounceback seasons from Elias, Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and David Clarkson while Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson continue to develop.

New York Islanders - Michael Grabner
Grabner's second half (25 goals since Jan. 1) allowed the Islanders to escape a dreadful season with 30 wins. They were 13-4-1 when he scored during that streak and made them look dangerous for brief stretches. The Canucks and Panthers castoff was one of the few bright spots in the season. Runners up: John Tavares, Frans Nielson.
Summer: Where to begin? If Al Montoya can play like he did in limited action this year, their goaltending will be OK. They need help everywhere, especially on defense. Their top offensive players will be good, but they need more depth. Getting rid of Trevor Gillies would be a solid game plan too.

Northeast Division
Boston Bruins - Tim Thomas
Pretty much a no-brainer here. Thomas was the most dominant player for a strong Bruins team. While Tuukka Rask's stats weren't bad, but he finished with a sub-.500 record while Thomas had 34 wins in just 54 games. His numbers are even more amazing because only Carolina allowed more shots per game than Boston (32.7). Runners up: Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron.
Playoffs: The Bruins are going to be a fierce team and will certainly win a round, most likely two. The Bruins were fine until Krejci got hurt exposing their lack of offensive depth. This is Nathan Horton's first foray into the playoffs and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. They can't expect a surge of goals from Mark Recchi (his six last year was the most in four years and he's 43) and Miro Satan (unsigned, now playing in KHL). Despite one of the strongest overall defenses in the East, they are a Conference final team at best.

Montreal Canadiens - Carey Price
Price was one of the busiest goalies this season and he made the most of it making Habs fans forget about last year's hero Jaroslav Halak. Thanks to his strong play, Montreal had a much easier time making the playoffs this year. Their offense has dried up at times and they rank 24th in the league with 2.58 goals per game while allowing 31 shots per game. Runners up: Brian Gionta, P.K. Subban.
Playoffs: As good a regular season as they had, they will be hard-pressed to do much in the playoffs. The odds of Price repeating what Halak did last year are slim and they were recently shut out three games in a row. They could upset a team in the first round, but since they will most likely play the Bruins, that is unlikely.

Buffalo Sabres - Ryan Miller
He wasn't lights-out like he was last year, but Miller turned up his play when it mattered most. They went from a struggle to make the playoffs, now they only need one more point to secure a playoff spot. With Derek Roy out since game 35 and Thomas Vanek their only consistent scorer, they need Miller to be at his best and while he struggled early, his play in the past two months saved the Sabres from missing the playoffs for the third time in four years. Runners up: Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford.
Playoffs: Despite their late-season surge, the Sabres could be looking at a second consecutive first round loss. They are still too small to do much damage in the playoffs. Their only chance is for Miller to play like he did all last season, but even that likely won't be enough.

Toronto Maple Leafs - James Reimer
Reimer was the only reason the Leafs even got a sniff at the playoffs. He far outplayed J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson and helped the Leafs to their best point total since 2006-07. He started winning almost instantly after being called up from the Marlies and the rookie gave the Leafs look respectable for three months. Runners up: Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel.
Offseason: They really need to work on their bottom six forwards. From the looks of things, they have plenty of players capable of filling the net on the top two lines, but they were exposed after that. They also need a number one center who can play with Kessel and feed him the way Savard did back in Boston.

Ottawa Senators - Craig Anderson
He has only played 18 games, but who else is there? On a team where only one regular finished with a positive plus-minus, bright spots were few and far between. Anderson has played great, posting a .939 save percentage and 2.05 goals-against average after coming over from Colorado. If nothing else, he got the team out of last place in the East. Runners up: Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson.
Offseason: In a word, everything. The rebuild is starting in Canada's capital and it may take a while. the interesting story to watch is what they do with Daniel Alfredsson. He wants to stay and don't get me wrong that's very noble of him, but it also may hurt the team like when Mats Sundin didn't accept a trade out of Toronto.

Southeast Division
Washington Capitals - Michal Neuvirth
Washington ditched their high-flying approach to the game this season in exchange for a philosophy that might get them some wins past April. Varlamov was hurt for a portion of the year and with only 22 games of experience prior to this season, Neuvirth held his own. He also had a much better winning percentage than Varlamov. Runners up: Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson
Playoffs: This is what they have been waiting for all season, the chance to see if their change into a defensive club works. They are 7-2-1 in their past ten and 15-2-1 since March 1. They are going in on fire and will have home ice in every round. The Caps definitely have the best chance to represent the East in the Stanley Cup final.

Tampa Bay Lightning - Martin St-Louis
Steven Stamkos seems like the obvious pick, but St-Louis is the driving force behind the Bolts. He's second in the league with 66 assists and the main reason Stamkos has at least 44 goals in each of the past two seasons. St-Louis leads the team in take aways and is second among forwards in blocked shots and only has 12 penalty minutes this season. Runners up: Steven Stamkos, Dwayne Roloson.
Playoffs: GM Steve Yzerman did a great job getting the Bolts back into the playoffs, but there is still work to be done. They don't quite have the defense or secondary scoring, so they will likely be out in the first round, second in a best case scenario.

Carolina Hurricanes - Cam Ward
No goalie has played more minutes this season and he really kept them from sinking early in the season. He faces more shots per game than anyone and still posted the best save percentage (.923) and second best goals-against average (2.56) of his career. Runners up: Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner.
Playoffs: They may still sneak into the eighth spot and while they won't be a pushover, don't expect much either. They don't have a lot of secondary scoring behind Stall and Skinner and their defense clearly needs work. Though Washington is more defensive this year, their firepower is still there and can get a lot of shots on Ward. If they do get in, they'll be out early.

Atlanta Thrashers - Dustin Byfuglien
'Big Buff' was spectacular in the first half of the season and while he ended on a sour note, was still the most important player for the Thrashers this season. He recorded his first 20 goal season after moving back to defense and as he went this season, so did the Thrashers. Byfuglien is second on the team in ice time (23:17) and hits(139), first in PIM (93), power play goals (eight) game-winning goals (six), shots (342) and take aways (85). Runners up: Tobias Enstrom, Ondrej Pavelec.
Offseason: Their defense isn't terrible, they just need a high-end scorer. Andrew Ladd, Nik Antropov and Blake Wheeler are good, but none of them are game-breakers. If they don't get someone in free agency, they have to depend on continued development from Anthony Stewart and Evander Kane and a return to 30-goal form for Bryan Little.

Florida Panthers - Tomas Vokoun
Take away Vokoun and this is by far the worst team in the NHL. Despite playing on a team that gave up the seventh most shots (31.9 per game) and scored the fourth fewest goals (2.35 goals per game), Vokoun had a respectable 21-28-5 record with a .921 save percentage and 2.60 goals-against average. It's hard to say where this team would be without him because they certainly can't get much worse. Runners up: Stephen Weiss, David Booth.
Offseason: True, this has been going on for 11 years, but the Panthers are in rebuilding mode. They parted ways with a number of players and almost certainly won't keep Vokoun in the fold. They need help everywhere, plain and simple.

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