About a month ago I posted a Q&A Panel with several bloggers covering various Western Conference teams providing their take on the 15 team bloodbath that the West has become. Susan Crosby was to be a part of said panel, but her answers went above and beyond the call of duty. So instead of drastically increasing the length of the first blog, she earned her own. Below are her responses to the questions the panel answered. Edited for time appropriate responses.
For those who don’t know Susan, her unique flavor of hockey analysis can be found all over Twitter. Either on @kittypets or @ThrowThePuck. She is also the lead writer for BleedinBlue.com. Her coverage and passion goes beyond the Blues, but to the LA Kings as well. She contributes her LA POV on RinkRoyalty.com.
Are the Red Wings back as an elite force in the conference after a slight let down in 2009-10? Why or Why not?
I know I sound like a broken record but this question never ceases to amaze me. When did the Red Wings go anywhere. They had a very injury plagued season with major parts of the year being missed by Homstrom, Filppula, Rafalski, Cleary, Helm, Kronwall, Franzen, Williams and Maltby. Yet, as always their farm system and the best run organization in hockey filled in the gaps with players like Justin Abdelkader (who is now a force and a mainstay on the team) to finish with 102 points. Only 7 points behind the Coyotes, and one point behind the Canucks, who finished in third place.
They came second in their division to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions by 10 points, but only lost two more games than the Hawks. It was almost doubling them up on OT games that caused the point spread. They still were able to come back in the playoffs and get past the Phoenix Coyotes who were riding both an emotional high and electric atmosphere (not to mention being up in the series) and then only lost to the best team in the league, the San Jose Sharks. A Sharks team, mind you that were battling their own demons AND were now coached by someone extremely familiar to the Red Wings organization: former Assistant Coach (and power play guru) Todd McLellan.
So, I ask again. Where did the Red Wings go for them to come back? And yes, they are an elite force. Even with Datsyuk and Dan Cleary now out for a bit of time, the NHL will watch them fill the void and continue ticking. Not that it won’t hurt. When I originally started this answer, it was just Datsyuk and that was one hole. Cleary has become almost as, if not just as invaluable as Datsyuk. Losing both, simultaneously is going to make things tough.
Despite these key losses, they will, with just a couple hiccups here and there keep moving it on along like they always do. It is just what the Red Wings do. When you are waving players like Kopecky, you are just too stocked. It just isn’t fair. The Red Wings already sit atop the Western Conference by three points and they have the Blues and Blackhaws by 9, in their division.
Are the Dallas Stars the biggest surprise or biggest overachiever in the conference?
Not to ride the fence, but a little of both. I think their forwards are underrated but their defense will hold them back come the playoffs. It won’t stick out as much during the regular season. The joke I made the other night, when someone in the media asked: When do we take Dallas seriously? I said I believed that Toronto and Dallas were the last two undefeated teams in the NHL; who is waffling now? Heh.
It is becoming almost comical how no one wants to take them seriously but every team (real or fantasy) wants to make some insane trade for one of their players. Right now? Brad Richards and Jamie Benn. Why? Not just their production but their character and grit (and mind you Benn is sitting at the ripe old age of 21. Richards is just in his prime at 30).
Not even half way through the season Richards has 40 points. This includes 5 goals on the power play. Benn on the other hand, is your all too rare (now a-days) power forward but still has 20 points on the year to go nicely with his 30 penalty minutes. Two of his goals have come on the power play which shows faith from the coaching staff on his two way play. He may be a bruiser but besides some mistakes from his young age, he’s not irresponsible in his physical play.
Overall, the team has 4 players on the 30 point mark (2 at 29 points- but I’m taking rights to include them in) which gives them a balanced attack.
Defense? In 38 games they have given up 1198 goals, which lands them at 27th in the league and averages out to 31 shots against per game). However, their saving grace is Kari Lehtonen, who has played in 28 of those games and is sitting 11th in the league with 15 wins, 2.6 goals against and has a .915 save%. Can Lehtonen keep this up through the playoffs? Stamina is a huge question throughout the Western Conference. Dallas is not immune.
Which team is the biggest underachiever?
Rough question. Can you underachieve in the West? It is a bloodbath and tighter then my budget.. HA! Division leaders aside, you have 6 points separating 12th place to 4th place and straight-up? Eight points separate 1-9.
However if I’m going to choose one and if I’m being honest, the LA Kings are not where they should or let’s say could be.
What you say? But they are in 4th place. Actually they could be anywhere from 4th to 10th place on any given day, and that is where their problem lies. The LA Kings, with an attitude adjustment could easily have 6 more points and still be sitting on top of the Western Conference as they were in November. However here is just one excuse you will here:
1) Alexei Ponikarovsky and Willie Mitchell were and are again out. It was devastating. <– Exhibit A of excuses given.
Really? Last time I checked Drew Doughty was the golden boy and when he had a concussion the Kings were on a tear of wins. So exactly how is this a good excuse for the slump the Kings went on. A slump that sent them from 1st place in the Western Conference, to at one point about 13th place? They had just now started to recover by tying together 4 games and some of the best performances this year, then they played Phoenix on the 30th. Ouch. The team didn’t show up to play the game. They showed up to watch it.
2) That horrible mental trap that so many sports teams fall into: Play up for the great teams and underestimate the “bad teams,” get lazy and lose.
Considering how much the Kings have been disrespected and how teams still underestimate them, this is one trap I would never expect them to fall into. But they have, and badly. The Kings are going to Overtime or straight out losing games they have no business losing. If you beat Edmonton straight out, beat the St. Louis Blues when you have a lead most of the game and actually make sure your defense shows up to games in Phoenix then you win the points that are must-wins. Take those points and combine them the games where every player looks like they finally took the reigns and played their individual best, leading to the team at its best and the league thinks, finally the Los Angeles Kings are turning the corner. But then games like Phoenix happen. Jack Johnson and Dustin Brown played like doppelgangers were sent in their place. In the last 12 games the LA Kings Captain had 19 points in 12 games. Then there is Jack Johnson who is one of the best, and most frustrating defenseman in the league. By means are they the only players on the team, not by a long shot, that runs like a deer caught in headlights at times, but it is a perfect example. Even superstar, Drew Doughty has had stretches of games with only a point, defensive break downs and just an overall lack of presence.
Your consistent players that the LA Kings better start building on? Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth. It’s not nearly enough. Last I checked Alexander Frolov was traded. While all teams hit bad times, this unexplainable lack of focus that comes and goes should be gone by now. The Kings have proven their ability to compete with the best in the conference. This was apparent after the last game against Detroit. The Kings shut them out on the road. However, without consistency, then you really can’t compete with the best. The best are consistent.
The top 8 in the East at times were dramatically outscoring the top 8 in the West. Is the style of game play out west more about defense and goaltending than before?
By default, I think it has had to become so. As a fan, the West has become nearly impossible (and a day-to-day nauseating experience) to keep up with when it comes to standings. One day a team is in 12th place and the next day it could be in 4th. When a conference is that tight, good teams are going to get left out of the playoffs. Points lost in January are going to come back and haunt you in April. Because of this, there has to be more attention paid to defense and keeping other teams off the board. There isn’t one team in the West that you can let-up against. Even the cellar dwellers are good enough to play spoiler and will come at teams hard. Having said that, at one point Calgary was in 14th place and only 7 points out of 8th place.
Additionally, the Western Conference is a far more physically demanding type of game. There is a combination of speed and physicality that you don’t see in the East but with certain teams. In the West, it is every team, every game. That kind of grind will tire teams out. The easiest way to buy yourself some breathing room is to play a defensively strong game and stick to a system that produces a productively sound Western Conference style, which should be fast, physical and defensively sound. Often teams finish top 4 in the West and get blown out of the playoffs. That is all about defense (most of the time).
Impressions of the kids out in Edmonton?
There is so much hype around these kids now that they don’t have any time to develop. Everyone wants instant impact and not every team is in a place where one or two players can make a huge difference. I think people were “disappointed” Taylor Hall didn’t walk into the NHL and dramatically throw Edmonton into a playoff caliber team. The same thing happened to Steve Stamkos. However, it is just that development comes in different stages and some players will be worth that #1 draft pick but you have to bring them up right and through the system. Not all first-round players are going to be those that change the position from the second they skate onto NHL ice.
Hall has been picking up more and more and everyone is acting like they’ve been holding their breath and praying to the Hockey Gods in Edmonton. As if his “silence” through December showed he was a bust of a first-round pick. It is his rookie year. You may not see his full potential until 3 years from now. Hopefully he’ll keep going at this pace and have an impact next season when other younger players start taking their next steps. However, all of the NHL need not have a panic attack because Hall isn’t producing on an 80 goal pace this season.
Which team in the league is the toughest to play when 100% healthy?
Detroit. See above. They are the most consistent team in the league and they aren’t healthy. They aren’t as banged up as other teams, but they have lost quite a bit in quality and quantity over last year and now this year. Still they keep going and pick up the points they need to stay on top of not just the Western Conference, but again-the league. The Red Wings are one point off the Penguins for the best record in the NHL (and again, the Penguins have two games in hand).
Put your biases down. The Red Wings are the best run organization in the NHL (and arguably sports) and it shows year after year. Players age out and they have young guys come in that are just as good as the ones before. And you think… but how and where do they come up with this. On top of that they have now, turned out what is, arguably, the next great General Manager in the NHL: Steve Yzerman (and I’m not even sure that can be objectively argued). He has resurrected the Tampa Bay Lightning and Steve Stamkos in less than a season.
When you are this good at developing both coaches (see San Jose), management (see Tampa Bay) and players (see… their whole roster for the past 10 years), you stay consistent. Players come to Detroit knowing what is expected of them. They understand and value the emblem that is worn and the history behind it. Injured, healthy or otherwise, the Red Wings were and still are the team to beat in the West, if not the NHL.
The top line in the conference is?
Dallas. As stated above… their forwards are their strong suit and the first line is where it starts. When mentioning trade bait I started with Richards and Benn, however it far from ends there. Richards’ line mates: Loui Eriksson and James Neal will make any General Manager and fan base drool. Not only are they individually talented, but they click together as a unit. Everyone knows Richards provides the playmaking ability when there is open ice created for him to do so. He is also the leader of this first line and has helped the wingers that join him grow dramatically. So let’s look at Neal and Eriksson.
Neal has a cannon of a shot and has grown into a well-rounded winger that sees the play develop rather than just the one-dimensional, throw the kitchen sink at the net till you score kind of player. Having said that, he has not lost the aggressive nature he always had and is able to protect the pucks, dig them out and get it to Richards often (helping to create the open ice that Richards flourishes in). Combine this with his increased awareness and involvement with the entire play and you see why his assists have come up quite a bit since the beginning of his career (this is his third season).
A week ago Eriksson scored the 100th goal of his career. To those that watch him consistently, this was not a shock. To those that don’t, you may not even know who he is. Sticking to the basics of the game is how Eriksson does his best work. He doesn’t get creative like the names everyone knows in the NHL but he is one of the more consistent players there is. Additionally, Eriksson is “steady as she goes” and brings a constant level of both intensity and effort to the ice every night. Lastly, the natural “can’t be taught” chemistry between Eriksson and Richards is just plain sick. The fact that Marc “if I put player A with Z on Monday, can A play with D on Tuesday” Crawford has stuck with this line outside one of two games, is a tribute to their production and ability.
As mentioned above as an overall team weakness; this line has to work on its defensive game. Catch them tired or frustrated and they’ll cough it up, fail to clear the zone at key times and take unecessary calls at bad times.
Which team currently on the playoff bubble has the best chance at making it back in?
I honestly don’t think any team other than Edmonton is currently out of it. And truthfully, I see this remaining a solid 12 team race throughout the year. I don’t believe it is necessarily a matter of what team but what circumstances cause teams to make it. Health and stamina are going to be two huge factors. This is going to be a dog fight, the wild-west come to life. A team that can’t stay healthy, focused and consistent won’t be able to sustain the efforts it is going to take every night to just get into the playoffs, let alone past the first round.
However having said that, the Columbus Blue Jackets are not staying down. They can be better than both Minnesota and Nashville. However, Minnesota has the distinct advantage of beating up on Calgary and Edmonton on a semi-regular basis. Do not be surprised if Columbus ruins someone spring plans and grabs the eighth spot. The Anaheim Ducks don’t have any real good reasons (unless circumstance comes into play) for them to not make the playoffs.
But then you have to think: who’s spot would Columbus or Anaheim take?
The Colorado Avalanche, in my opinion are way ahead of schedule in their development, and have a long run of success ahead of them. Right now, they are playing a bit over their heads. Anaheim can easily make a run that shoots the Avalanche from 5th place (or the 5th through 8th place tangled tie-up) and 43 points to being out of the playoffs.
Another team that could be thrown out by Columbus and/or Anaheim? If the St Louis Blues make it , they will become the NHL darlings of these playoffs and right now they are fighting with all they have. The problem with that, as endearing and respectable as it is, is that they’ve been doing it since Thanksgiving. If exhaustion (or heaven help the Arch, more injuries) set in then there is a big question mark. Can the Blues can maintain this ability to knock down the walls and leave it all on the ice every night with a completely depleted roster? That is a huge feat to ask any team, no matter the merits of the coaching, leadership or the player’s focus. If they don’t make it to the 8th spot, it isn’t for a lack of talent or trying but a freak set of those oh so tough circumstances that will keep deserving teams out of the playoffs in the west.
Filed Under: Anaheim Ducks • Calgary Flames • Chicago Blackhawks • Colorado Avalanche • Columbus Blue Jackets • Dallas Stars • Detroit Red Wings • Edmonton Oilers • Los Angeles Kings • Minnesota Wild • Nashville Predators • Phoenix Coyotes • San Jose Sharks • St. Louis Blues • Vancouver Canucks • Western Conference
About the Author: Bleeding Blue from the IL side of the Mississippi, I've been a Blues fan since I can remember seeing the Blues take on the Oilers at the Arena when I was about 5. All I remember is that Brett Hull scored and I was hooked. Now I cheer on the likes of David Backes and TJ Oshie. It's a great time to be a Blues fan as this team rebuilds itself.