SECOND HALF, MOST IMPROVED RACE UNDERWAY, PINTS SIGN KARI LEHTONEN FOR TWO YEARS
PORTLAND, ME—With 2014 in the books, World Hockey League owners are geared up for an action-packed second half. On January 1st the league kicked off its annual Most Improved Race, a mechanic that will determine seeding for the consolation bracket based on percentage of improvement in the new year. In-season contract season is also underway. Skaters and goalies become eligible for signing once they reach 40 games played or 30 games started, respectively, and new for this season--owners have the option to sign players for up to four years. The Portland Pints struck the first deal of the season over the weekend, penning Kari Lehtonen to a $117 contract ($58/$59) through 2016-17. There's certainly a lot to look forward to, but lets take a moment to review what went down in the final months of twenty-fourteen.
The Beantown Ball Busters refuse to mellow, and it doesn't take a forensics team to figure out why things are going so well for Mr. Asdourian. For starters, he currently has three starting goalies under his employ, plus another in Michael Hutchinson who could soon make it four. Beantown has racked up a league-high 56 wins along with just 17 losses, and leads the league in total fantasy points from both goalies and skaters.
Less obvious yet perhaps more impressive is Beantown's formidable depth up front and on the blue line. For every Getzlaf, Byfuglien, and Zetterberg doing their thing, players like Nikita Kucherov and Erik Johnson are exceeding their draft day expectations by a country mile. Kucherov is actually out-producing Zetterberg on five fewer minutes per night, challenging teammate and Calder favorite Filip Forsberg for breakout performance of the year. Meanwhile, Erik Johnson has been one of the hottest defenseman in the league over the past two weeks, a top ten option over the last month, and is on pace to eclipse his career best marks for goals and assists.
While the Ball Busters are off in a world of its own, the Portland Pints and Altoona Angry Beavers are locking horns in the 2nd and 3rd positions. Nicklas Backstrom, Martin Hanzal and Kari Lehtonen have been driving the boat for Portland lately, bolstered by an uptick in production from Marian Gaborik, Matt Calvert, and Marco Scandella. Meanwhile in Altoona, headlines continue to be dominated by Pekka Rinne and Marc-Andre Fleury. The Angry Beavers trail only Beantown in fantasy points earned by goalies.
A mere 50 points behind third place is where the race really opens up. Defending champion California (4th) and 8th-ranked Wolfsburg are separated by 100 points, with Stuttgart, Mount Vernon, and Tayutic all sandwiched between them, hungry for more. And it hardly stops there. Beyond the playoff barrier, five teams sit less than 120 points away from a playoff berth. The Saginaw Spirit and the Northern CHEEFS, in particular, are less than 30 points out. In all, 13 (arguably 14) of the 18 WHL clubs have a shot at making the playoffs, which feels unprecedented at the mid-way mark of the season.
No one is shooting the puck more than the Stuttgart Scorpions, thanks in large part to Tyler Seguin who trails only the incomparable Alex Ovechkin in total shots on net. ** Altoona has amassed the most "grit" points from hits and blocked shots, led by Brooks Orpik, Micheal Stone, and Dion Phaneuf. ** Beaver goalies have also posted a league-high nine shutouts, six of which belong to Marc-Andre Fleury. ** Portland leads the WHL in face-off differential by more than +50, which may have something to do with rolling out Toews, Backstrom and Crosby every week. ** Despite sitting in limbo between playoff hopefuls and teams destined to do battle in the consolation ranks, CSKA Moscow has generated the most fantasy points in the league from goals and assists by defensemen (DEF).
As you may have read, CapGeek.com has ceased operations due to the personal health of its founder and director. Horrible news all around--obviously on a human level, but also on the hockey information front. NHLNumbers.comseems to be an adequate resource for NHL cap and contract info, but CapGeek will be sorely missed.