Friday, October 29, 2010

The Start of Tim Thomas

Tim Thomas. Five games, five wins, THREE goals against, two shutouts.
With a 0.60 goals against average and a .981 save percentage, Thomas has been nearly perfect. And one of his goals against he put a clearing pass on the stick of Washington's Jason Chimera to lose a shutout. Truly amazing start for the recently over-looked veteran, but exactly how good of a start?

The last Bruin to start a season with even four straight wins was Doug Keans in 1987/88 who went on to lose his fifth start. His 4-1 start included a 2.98 GAA, hardly stellar. The last Bruin to go 5-0 to start a season was Cecil "Tiny" Thompson in 1937/38. His GAA over the five games was 1.40 and he had only one shutout. He would win his sixth game as well, beating Chicago 2-1 and lowering his average to 1.33. For Tim Thomas to raise his GAA to 1.33 next game he would have to allow 5 goals.

A quick look at the first five games of some of the graetest goaltending seasons in NHL history;

George Hainsworth, 1928/29 started with a 2-2-1 record, 2 shutouts and a 1.80 average. His second half that year was simply incredible. In his final 22 games Hainsworth went 14-1-8 with 13 shutouts and GAA of 0.59, the same average Tim Thomas has this season after only five games.

In 1951/52 Terry Sawchuk started 4-1 with a 1.00 GAA and 2 shutouts on route to a 44-14-12 record and 1.90 Avg. In 1955/56 Jacques Plante began 4-0-1 with 2 shutouts and a 1.00 GAA. He would finish the year at 42-12-10 AND 1.86 Avg. Bernie Parent almost exactly duplicate Plante's start in 1951, going 4-1, 1.00 in 1973/74. He ended up 47-13-12, 1.89.

Tim Thomas is certainly in terrific company so far, but where he ends up no-one knows.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Milt Schmidt

The Bruins honoured one of the games all time greats last night in Milt Schmidt in celebration of the 75th(!) anniversary of him signing his first contract with Boston. Schmidt truly is one of the greats in the history of the game having led the Bruins to two Stanley Cups as a player, coaching the team and later winning two more Cups as Boston's general manager. He was also a first team all-star on three occasions, won the Hart Trophy in 1950/51 and gained election to the Hall of Fame in 1961. The one issue I have is his MVP award in 1951. I believe Gordie Howe would have been a more deserving choice.

That season, Schmidt tallied 22 goals, 39 assists and 61 points in 62 games for the sub .500 Bruins. He finished fourth in NHL scoring 25 points behind Howe. Gordie notched 43 goals and 43 assists for 86 points, 20 more than second place Maurice Richard. Howe also played all 70 games for the first place Wings who finished that year as the first team ever to crack the 100 point barrier, 39 points ahead of Schmidt's Bruins.

1950/51 was the first of Howe's many truly great seasons and he would indeed win the Hart each of the next two seasons and six of the next twelve. Howe was 22 in 1951, ten years younger than Schmidt and this may have been one of the reasons that Howe didn't win the MVP. It seemed that some years a younger and perhaps more deserving player would often be overlooked in favour of a more established veteran having a slightly less impressive year. In fact the same thing happened to Schmidt himself in 1939/40 when he led the NHL in scoring as a 21 year old.

In 39/40 Schmidt had 52 points, nine more than second place linemates Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer. The winner of the Hart that year was Detroit's 32 year old Ebbie Goodfellow who at that point was a "swing man" forward and defenceman and scored 11 goals and 28 points in 43 games. The Wings finished fifth out of seven teams that year while Boston was first with a .698 winning percentage. Another example of a seemingly less-deserving veteran beating out an up and coming youngster.

Once again in 1954/55, Toronto's Ted Kennedy was a slightly odd choice for the Hart trophy. Even though he was 29, he would retire after the season in which he scored 10 goals and 52 points in 70 games for the third place Leafs. Perhaps a better choice would have been a 23 year old Bernie Geoffrion who had 38 goals and 75 points and who's Habs finished 23 points clear of Toronto.

In retrospect it is really quite difficult to judge intangibles that may have given the Hart to an outwardly appearing less deserving player. All we have are numbers to go on, but in these cases, it would seem the numbers should have led in another direction when chosing the MVP.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Updates from around the hockey world.

  • Alexander Radulov of Ufa Salavat currently has more assists than any other player even has points in the Kontinental League. His 24 helpers are one more than second place Roman Cervenka has points. Radulov's 5 goals give him 29 points in 18 games, 6 ahead of Cervenka, and 7 clear of third place Mattias Weinhandl.

  • Other notables in the Russian circuit are Pavol Demitra with 19 points in fifth place and defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh right behind with 17 assists and 19 points in 20 games. Another ex-NHL D-man, Deron Quint has 9 goals and 1 assist in 17 games for Traktor Chelyabinsk to sit a mere 4 off the overall league goal lead.

  • In Canadian major junior, Florida fourth round pick in 2009 Garrett Wilson is off to an insane start. He has 16 goals and 24 points in 12 games for Owen Sound after scoring 36 last season. Three top contenders to go early in the 2011 entry draft are having terrific starts as well. Kitchener defender, Ryan Murphy has 7 goals and 19 points in 12 games. In the QMJHL, Sean Couturier has 11 goals and 24 points in 17 games while out west Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Red Deer has 3 goals and 20 points in 14 games.

  • Staying in the "Dub", the Vancouver Giants duo of Craig Cunningham and Brendan Gallagher are on a tear. Boston draftee Cunningham leads in points with 31 in 15 games and Montreal pick Gallagher is second with 26. His 15 goals is tops in the loop. The fact that they are 5'9" and 5'8" respectively does not seem to be hindering them down one bit.

  • Back across the pond in the Swiss League, ex-Red Wing and Wild Stacy Roest is on an early tear. His 28 points in 18 games leads by 7 over second place Niklas Nordgren. Roest is in his in his eighth season for Rapperswil-Jona.

  • At the opposite end of the scoring scale is this year's Swedish Elite League where only one player in the entire circuit has over a point per game. With 14 points in 13 games, Skelleftea's Joakim Lindstrom tops the league ahead of three guys with 13 points, three with 12, three with 11 and six players with 10 points. 16 players within four points at the top of the leader board, a log jam indeed.

  • A name to keep in mind for the 2011 NHL draft is Sam Mellor a 17 year old with the Trail Smoke Eaters in the BCJHL. He will most likely be one of the highest rated of the Tier II players and is currently leading the BC league with 21 goals in 19 games, his 35 points put him second overall behind 20 year old undrafted Bradley McGowan.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hockey's 200 point seasons

Most people know that Wayne Gretzky is the only player in NHL history to score 200 points in one season, doing it on four different occasions in the 1980's. Mario Lemieux came close with 199, but that's it. Who though, were hockey's first ever and most recent 200 point men?

In 1975/76 in the minor level North American Hockey League (which was the main minor league of the WHA), Jocelyn (Joe) Hardy scored an impressive 208 points for the Beauce Jaros out of St.Georges, Quebec. Hardy was a player-coach for the first place Jaros and the first ever professional hockey player to break the 200 point plateau. His 60 goals and 148 assists in 72 games was 48 points better than the second place scorer in the league, teammate Richard Grenier.

Hardy had played 40 games with the NHLs California Golden Seals in 1970/71 notching 14 points. After a year in the AHL he scored 50 points in 72 games for the Cleveland Crusaders of the WHA and 59 points in 77 games for the Chicago Cougars. He would bounce between three WHA teams in 74/75 before his gigantic year with the Jaros. The team would fold 30 games into 76/77 and Hardy joined the Binghamton Dusters. When the Dusters joined the AHL the next year, Hardy led the league in assists with 63, and finished seventh in points with 87. His playing career would end there and he coached in the QMJHL through the mid-90s.

The Quebec junior circuit was of course the home to hockey's first and most 200 point seasons. Eleven men have scored at least 200 in one year ranging from superstars Mario Lemieux (282 in 83/84), Pat LaFontaine (234 in 82/83) and the first player ever Guy LaFleur with 209 in 1970/71. In 1973/74 there were an amazing five players with over 200 points in the "Q" led by Pierre Larouche's 251. His team the Sorel Black Hawks had seven 100 point men and averaged 8.85 goals scored each and every game.

The Ontario Hockey League has never produced a 200 point scorer and the Western League only one in Rob Brown of Kamloops. His 212 points in 1986/87 was one of the last ever hockey seasons to reach that level. The following season would see the last 200 point season at any level of North American hockey when Shawinigan's Patrice Lefebvre scored exactly 200.

The 5'6" Lefebvre would end up the career points leader in the Quebec league with 595 points in 276 games. He immediately went to Europe and play in France, then Switzerland. Lefebvre bounced between there and North America going from France, Switzerland, Louisville Kentucky, Milwaukee, back to Switzerland, Britain and finally Las Vegas. He would play the next seven seasons in Sin City scoring 576 points in 459 games before finally getting a crack at the NHL. Washington signed him in December of 1998 and he played 34 scoreless minutes over three games.

Lefebvre's odyssey would return to Europe in 1999 and take him to Germany, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy once again. He finally hung it up at the age of 40.

Hockey is still awaiting it's next 200 point scorer.

Patrice Lefebvre

Monday, October 18, 2010

Maple Leafs hot start to 2010/11

Well, I have been avoiding the topic of Toronto's early season success for fear of jinxing what has been a pleasant surprise. Alas, I have a bad feeling about playing the Islanders in game five so I'm going to hope for a reverse-jinx tonight. As an aside, I have in fact been wearing the same Leaf hat (of 10 or so in my collection) each and every day since the season started.

So let's have a look. The 4-0 start to this year is of course the best start by Toronto since 1993/94 when they set an NHL record by going 10-0 to begin the year. Upon looking at the two squads, this year's could not be more of a polar opposite from that team of 17 years ago.

For starters the earlier version of the Leafs was led mainly by three stars in Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk and Wendel Clark. Gilmour would tally 111 points in 93/94, Andreychuk 53 goals and 99 points and Clark had one of the best goal scoring seasons in Toronto history with 46 goals in 64 games. The drop off from these top three to the rest of the team was drastic. Next behind Clark's 76 points was Glenn Anderson at 35 points. This team really was built around three players, that, and the goaltending of a young Felix Potvin.

The current edition of the Leafs is perhaps by default a team more evenly constructed. Aside from Phil Kessel, and the jury is still out on him, there really is no "star" on this team at least amongst the forwards. Another major difference is the age of each team. In 1993, the average age of the forwards was 30.3 years while the defense averaged 28.7 years. The current team has an average age of 25.9 for the forwards and 26.8 for the defense. Only in net is this years's team older with Giguere and Gustavsson averaging 29.5 while in 1993 Felix Potvin and Damian Rhodes averaged a mere 23 years of age.

In the fifth game of 1993, the Leafs beat up the Red Wings 6-3 at Maple Leaf Gardens, then beat them 2-1 the next night back in Detroit. Other than the 5-1 win over Ottawa, each of this season's wins have been by one goal. We must remember that after winning the first ten games of 1993, the Leafs would play at at a slightly more pedestrian pace with a .527 win percentage the rest of the way to finish with 98 points in 84 games. If the Leafs of 2010 could manage to play even at that level the rest of the way they would finish with 90 points which may or well not be enough for a playoff spot.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Andy Aitkenhead, The best goalie you've never heard of.

Andy Aitkenhead was born in Scotland in 1904 and he was a mighty fine goaltender. These two factors helped create one of the great nicknames in hockey history; "The Glasgow Gobbler".
Aitkenhead played in every game for the New York Rangers in 1932/33 and 1933/34 and backstopped the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup in '33. He finished fourth and fifth in the NHL in goals against average in the two years and was third with 7 shutouts in his second season. He would lose his job to Davey Kerr in 34/35 and finish his NHL career with 47 wins and 11 shutouts in 106 games while sporting a 2.35 GAA. His playoff stats were even better with a 1.48 average and 3 shutouts in 10 games.

Prior to his impressive NHL stint "The Glasgow Gobbler" had taken teams to both the Memorial Cup and Allan Cup finals by the age of 21. He turned pro with the Saskatoon Shieks of the Prairie Hockey League in 1926/27. In his second year with the Shieks he posted an average of 1.42 while the rest of the league had a 2.89 GAA. He was literally twice as good as any other goalie in the league. That's tough to do.

Upon transferring to the Portland Buckaroos in 1929/30 he posted 16 shutouts in 36 games and put up an average of 0.94. The rest of the North West Hockey League played to a GAA of 2.19, again he was more than twice as good as anyone else. To answer a question, yes, this is extremely rare in any league to have a GAA less than half of the rest of the league. Even some of the great goaltending years in history could not achieve this. When George Hainsworth had 22 shutouts in 1928/29 and an average of 0.92 the rest of the NHL had GAA of 1.50. Boston's Frank Brimsek came close in 38/39 when his average of 1.56 was near half of the rest of the circuit's 2.70.

So far, the only NHL goalie season I have found like Aitkenhead's was Bill Durnan in 1943/44. He had a GAA of 2.18 while the remainder of the NHL was at 4.46. Even latter day greats could only come close to being twice as good as the rest of their peers. Below are players with their GAA compared to the rest of the league.

Tony Esposito 1971/72 1.77 GAA/ Rest of League 3.13
Ken Dryden 1975/76 2.03 GAA/ Rest of League 3.49
Pete Peeters 1982/83 2.36 GAA/ Rest of League 3.91
Dominik Hasek 1993/94 1.95 GAA/ Rest of League 3.26

It's clear, that this is a rare feat in hockey, and even though it wasn't the NHL, "The Glasgow Gobbler" did it twice. He continued his terrific play through the 1930's, returning to Portland after his NHL stint. In 35/36 his average of 1.62 was again near halving the rest of the Pacific Coast League average of 2.85.

Throughout his fifteen year professional career, Aitkenhead would compile a record of 258-191-95 with a goals against average of 1.98 and 93 shutouts. He truly is one of the little known greats of hockey history.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Original Canuck; Garth Rizzuto

For their home opener and 40th anniversary celebrations, the Vancouver Canucks brought back many of the men who played in their inaugural season of 1970/71. One of the names that may not have been familiar to many fans (myself included) was Garth Rizzuto. He was a 23 year old veteran of 3 professional seasons when he debuted with Vancouver.

The Trail, BC native had played his junior hockey with the coincidentally named Moose Jaw Canucks scoring 24 goals and 55 points in 55 games in 1966/67. With his rights owned by Chicago, Rizzuto toiled for three seasons with the Dallas Black Hawks of the Central Hockey League. He tallied 59 then 62 points before being claimed by Vancouver in the expansion draft.

Rizzuto played 37 games in that first Canuck season collecting 3 goals and 4 assists. He also scored 20 points in 22 games for Canuck's farm team in Rochester. With oppurtunity's limited, he left Rochester half-way thru the following year to play with the Seattle Totems of the Western League. He then signed as a free agent with the upstart Winnipeg Jets of the newly formed WHA for 1972/73. After two seasons in the 'Peg he would play part of one more year with the Nelson Maple Leafs of the Western International Hockey League and retire at the age of 27.

Rizzuto was the first BC born and trained player to play and score a goal for the Vancouver Canucks. Currently Garth Rizzuto lives in Fernie, BC where he runs a boxing club.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Oilers expect Sobchuk to be Super Star

That was one of the headlines of the Hockey News on Oct 27, 1978 (pictured below).
The irony of course is that less than one week later, the fellow pictured on that very same cover as a member of the Indianapolis Racers would be traded to Edmonton and become the true star they desired.

In the article, titled "Sobchuk's Future: An Oiler Super Star", Dennis Sobchuk
is lauded as the answer to the question "Why don't we ever get a super star in Edmonton?"
Having been aquired from Cincinnati late in the previous 1977/78 campaign, Sobchuk soon suffered a total shoulder seperation. He was limited to 13 games in the second half of the year and scored a mere 9 points. However at the age of only 25, hopes were still high for the one time junior phenom.
Oiler architect, Glen Sather is quoted in the article,"I know Dennis wants to play here, as long as I know that I'm willing to wait for him to get over whatever problems he has had." He continued, "He's a big talent....he can put his own personal stamp on a hockey game. He can intimidate another team just by being in the lineup". The article concludes with the comment, "Those are the things a superstar does."
Sobchuk would somewhat reward Sather for his patience as he ended up playing 74 games in 78/79 but would only notch 26 goals and 63 points. He was obviously overshadowed by the newcomer Gretzky and would never play for Edmonton again. With the WHA merger, he would be reclaimed by Philadelphia Flyers who had drafted his NHL rights in 1974. He was traded to Detroit before training camp of 1979 but his chronic shoulder problems kept him to 33 NHL games and only 10 points. Sobchuk said himself, "I had three shoulder seperations and the third time they removed about six inches of my clavicle." After two more partial seasons in the Central League and AHL, he signed with Quebec in March, 1982 only to play two games. Sobchuk's playing career was over by the age of 29.
Prior to his injury woes, Sobchuk was something of a junior prodigee. In three years with the Regina Pats, he had seasons of 123, 147 and 146 points. He was the first player to sign with a professional team before leaving major junior hockey, signing a ten year, million dollar deal with the Cincinnati Stingers. He led the Pats to a Memorial Cup in 1974 scoring 38 points in 19 playoff matches. Prior to coming to the Oilers in late 1977, he had WHA seasons of 77, 72 and 96 points and certainly was well on his way to super stardom.
The fates of injuries dictated otherwise.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nitzy's Hockey Draft Sleepers

It's that time of year. When we gather with fifteen or so friends around a table, drink a few pops and make fun of each other's draft picks. It's a three hour barrage of hockey acumen and cutting insults. I have often referred to the bi-annual draft as being "anticipated as eagerly as a childhood Christmas Eve." This is the sixteenth consecutive year that I have drafted with the same circle of idiots at my work. I have finished second each of the last two seasons in my pool by a grand total of 3 points. Even two seconds have garnered me about $500 bucks. This better be the year I finally break through.

The following are a few of my sleeper picks that I hope can put me over the top.

Jonathan Toews, Chicago
After years of 54, 69 and 68 points most sources are predicting a slight increase to the mid to high 70 point range. I'm thinking more along the lines of mid to high 80's. He and Kane should both use the Cup win as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Prediction 88 pts

David Krejci, Boston
The main man for now, and indefinitely with the Bruins. Some forget he scored 73 points two years ago. I see big things for him and Nathan Horton.
Prediction 70 pts

Brad Boyes, St.Louis
A guy just doesnt go from 65 and 72 points to 42 without the word "fluke" entering the picture. Most sources are expecting some sort of bounce back, but I see the Blues as a darkhouse team, with Boyes leading the way.
Prediction 65 pts

Kris Versteeg, Toronto
After 53 and 44 points with the Hawks, Versteeg gets a first line shot with the Leafs. He appears to have some chemistry with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak. Not the most intimidating top line in the world, but somebody has to score in Hogtown.
Prediction 63 pts

Sam Gagner, Edmonton
Everyone is abuzz about the Oilers rookie trio of Hall, Eberle and Paarjavi-Svensson. People seem to forget that Sam Gagner is only 21 years old himself. I think the youthful mix is ripe for Gagner to have a nice breakout in points from the 40's to at least the 60's.
Prediction 61 pts

Mike Comrie, Pittsburgh
Not a bad gig, getting signed and thrown on a line with Evgeni Malkin. Mind you he hasn't seen the 60 point level since 05/06, but he's still only just turned 30. If he can remain healthy I think a return close to that level is possible.
Predicition 52 pts
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