A quarter of the way into the 2009-10 season the Colorado Avalanche have taken everyone by surprise with their fast start, while the Minnesota Wild have disappointed fans with a slow start to what should have been a very promising season. Let's take a careful look at how each of these teams are performing to determine which trends are likely to continue.
Northwest Division - VUKOTA vs. Actual
Team Rank (VUKOTA) Pts (VUKOTA) Pts (Actual)*
Vancouver Canucks 6 98 86
Minnesota Wild 12 91 62
Calgary Flames 15 91 107
Edmonton Oilers 21 87 78
Colorado Avalanche 27 81 108
* Actual points per game, projected over 82 games
Despite the loss of their top scorer Daniel Sedin, the Vancouver Canucks are performing almost exactly as well offensively as expected. His brother Henrik and Ryan Kesler have both stepped up to fill the void, both earning spots in the top 30, combining for a 8.8 GVT.
We had predicted a decline defensively that hasn't fully materialized yet, thanks to improvements in players such as Christian Ehrhoff, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks in the latter part of the offseason. Ehrhoff's 1.8 defensive GVT currently ranks 14th in the league. Goaltender Roberto Luongo has been hit again by the injury bug, leaving the Canucks slightly behind pace with a -0.9 GVT in nets.
We expect Vancouver to continue at this pace, with a decline in defense offset by improved goaltending, and will most surely figure into the race for the top of the Northwest division very soon.
The Wild's slow start in Minnesota is one of the season's biggest surprises, scoring 8 fewer goals than expected, and allowing 5 more. Martin Havlat has been HaFlat, as the 17th worst defensive player in the league, contributing very little offensively, and leaving the Wild wondering if it's better to Have-Not than to Havlat. To be fair, the Wild combined for a -7.4 GVT offensively, making them the 5th worst team in the league offensively, so we can't blame all their woes on a single player. Up and down the lineup players are underachieving, forcing the struggling team to pick up Chuck Kobasew from the Boston Bruins, who is currently the 11th worst offensive player in the league with a -1.1 GVT.
Defensively the Wild are playing reasonably well, the extra goals against have been actually been the fault of goalies Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, who have combined for a 6th-worst -5.2 goaltending GVT. Harding is 4th worst in GVT despite the backup playing only 3 games. The goaltending should certainly pick up as the season progresses, but the Wild's offensive struggles may continue indefinitely. In a recent article we explored how a coaching staff can have up to a 10-point effect on a team by season's end, and the Minnesota Wild lost one of today's best coaches in Jacques Lemaire, so that may explain where we might have gone wrong with our preseason predictions.
The Calgary Flames are off to a stronger start that we expected, scoring 4 more goals, and allowing 8 fewer. Overall their 7.2 offensive GVT is 6th best in the NHL, and the Flames have been fuelled not only by captain Jarome Iginla but also by surprise scoring leader Rene Bourque, whose 3.2 offensive GVT also earned him a spot in the top 30.
Strong goaltending has made up for below-average defense in goal prevention. Miikka Kiprusoff is currently ranked as the 12th best goalie in the league, and if he continues to return near to his old form, then the Flames are likely to exceed preseason predictions, and regain the Northwest division's top seed for the first time since 2005-06.
The Edmonton Oilers are scoring and allowing goals at a rate almost exactly as we projected. Offensively they're a little better than average, as can be expected by a team of young, skilled players in the hands of skilled coach Pat Quinn. Dustin Penner, playing alongside their star Ales Hemsky, is the most impressive of all, with the 4th best offensive GVT in the league of 5.1.
Defensively the Oilers are playing as poorly as we had expected, ranking 5th worst in the league in their own end. Younger players are great for generating unexpected offense, but poor defense from players like Robert Nilsson, the league's worst defensive player, Theo Peckham and Taylor Chorney are making it tough for the new goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to repeat this 2007-08 performance.
Look for the Oilers to continue to struggle in their own end, but to play well enough offensively to hang around just enough to secure a playoff berth, which could make Edmonton an exciting place by the end of the season.
The league's biggest surprise so far has been the hot start of the Colorado Avalanche, who have scored 6 more goals, and allowed 6 fewer goals than expected. As we explored in a recent article, every season there are a couple of teams that exceed expectations on the backs of hot rookies, like St. Louis or Columbus in 2008-09, and this year it could be Colorado's turn. Ryan O'Reilly has surprised everyone, ranking 12th in the league with a 1.9 defensive GVT. Unfortunately the poor defensive play of Marek Svatos, Matt Duchene and John-Michael Liles, each of whom are in the top ten list of worst defensive players, have cancelled out the fine efforts of O'Reilly and others.
The real story in Colorado is in the net, of course. In the Plugging Holes series this offseason, our analysis revealed that Florida backup Craig Anderson would be the perfect fit in Colorado, a conclusion the Avalanche also reached a few weeks later. Little did we all know just how good that fit would be, as Anderson is currently ranked 2nd only to Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller in overall GVT. Colorado is actually playing below average defensively but thanks to their transition from the league's worst goaltending to the league's best, they have an amazing 10.7 goaltending GVT so far.
The Avalanche will most likely not continue to dominate the Northwest division, and it's more realistic to expect both Craig Anderson and Colorado's younger players to cool off. Coach Joe Sacco has a big challenge facing him, because their strong start means they've got a good chance of remaining in the playoff picture if they can keep up their momentum.
Thanks to Colorado and Minnesota, the Northwest Division has been full of surprises. Expect Colorado to cool off and for Minnesota's poor play to make the Northwest Division a two-horse race between Vancouver and Calgary again this season.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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