There’s always a bottom in every top, and in the NHL, the summit of hockey excellence, there are always specimens of inadequate physical, mental or psychological toughness on every bench.
In some cases, past heroics by veterans or a high draft status for younger players only serve to accentuate one’s current softness on the ice and on the stat sheets. For some teams, it makes less sense to single out one individual and instead underscore a common underachieving thread, particularly if it is in the way of special teams.
Whatever its form and however painstaking it may be to find, at least one soft spot resides in all 30 locker rooms. With the halfway mark of the regular season around the corner, the urge to address and correct those spots is only escalating.
On that note, here is each team in alphabetical order, along with its most outstandingly soft asset to date in the 2011-12 NHL campaign.
Call it softness, call it being a sieve, call it a classic sophomore slump or a menacing mixture of the above. The fact is that the second-year Ducks defenseman entered Monday night’s action tied for the team’s worst rating and the worst rating among all NHL blueliners at minus-15.
One would think that a blueliner who was picked in the first round of the NHL draft, weighs a little less than 200 pounds and consumes more than 20 minutes of ice time a night would have more than 21 hits after 34 games. Yet that is all Cam Fowler has had to show up to this point in the season.
In addition, compared to his rookie campaign, Fowler’s productivity in the other zone is lagging a bit. After a 10-30-40 year in 76 games 2010-11, he is on pace for an 82-game log of 7-28-35.
Most of the Bruins’ recent results and their posture in the NHL standings don’t exactly make him a liability, but David Krejci has not done enough to live up to his label as the first-line center.
Like Fowler, he is at the bottom of his team’s plus/minus heap, an area he once excelled in. From night to night, he has also been inconsistent both at the faceoff dot and on the scoresheet, especially on the 12 occasions when he has limited himself to one shot on goal or zero.
Since the middle of this month, Gragnani has gone from playing roughly 20 minutes per night on defense to playing about 10 to 15 minutes as a winger to sitting with the healthy scratches.
He has only one point in his last 11 appearances, and his only remotely passable statistic in that span is an accumulation of seven blocked shots.
Leading up to a Dec. 18 ankle injury that will still have him out for the time being, Matt Stajan’s output was sporadic in most every area compared to the majority of his teammates.
The 28-year-old center has landed a modest 29 shots on goal, putting only one of those in the net, and he has added five helpers and has a minus-five rating.
This one-time Conn Smythe winner entered Monday’s game against New Jersey with a 3.23 goals against average and .898 save percentage in 31 starts.
Cam Ward’s bipolar combination of lofty expectations and languid results up to this point in the season is literally enough to cement his status as the softest of the Hurricanes, especially now that Tomas Kaberle has been traded.
Through Chicago’s first 35 games, Andrew Brunette was the only Blackhawks regular still without any penalty minutes. That’s good to a certain extent, but it looks a little less glamorous when paired up with only nine body checks and seven blocked shots, two departments where the majority of his peers have already hit double digits.
In addition, Bryan Bickell is Brunette’s only teammate with a worse plus/minus rating.
Entering Monday night’s action, Jan Hejda was tied with the aforementioned Cam Fowler for the league’s worst rating among defensemen.
His minus-15 mark is a vinegary tumble down from the plus-20 and plus-23 he posted with, of all teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007-08 and 2008-09, respectively.
An established NHL pivot since the end of the lockout and an iron man with the Blue Jackets since they obtained him in 2009, Antoine Vermette is on pace for career lows under the goal, assist and point headings.
He is also hitting with less frequency and watching his plus/minus uncharacteristically tumble into negative double digits.
Of those who receive considerable ice time for the Stars, Dvorak is the only one who does not stand out with swollen numbers in at least an area of grit, such as hitting or shot-blocking. He is also having more trouble hitting the net than the rest of Dallas’ more leaned-on forwards, having connected on only three of 45 shots.
Those three goals came within a six-game period and have been sandwiched by droughts lasting 19 and nine outings, respectively.
The 30-year-old veteran defenseman has seen action in more than 400 career games with one of the game’s most reputed organizations. But currently, Niklas Kronwall juts out like a prom night pimple as Detroit’s only regular this season with a negative plus/minus rating.
That kind of answers the question of “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Through the Oilers’ first 34 games, Eric Belanger had one goal on 51 shots and not much physicality compared to many of his teammates. Such a young group ought to expect more than that from a 34-year-old veteran of 750 NHL games and counting.
Tomas Kopecky’s production is right about where one could expect it to be. But he is running away with the Panthers’ worst rating and is on pace to land less than half as many body checks as he did last season with the Blackhawks.
Think those two drawbacks might be just a little related?
Rob Scuderi, a veteran of seven NHL seasons and nearly 500 games, is one of only three defensemen to have not missed a game for the Kings so far. Yet the other two, Jack Johnson and Matt Greene, are each at least a few strides ahead of him in terms of keeping opponents away from their own net and/or getting pucks to the other cage.
By comparison, even the unripe Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov have been just as helpful, if not a little better, when they have been asked to step in.
Still goal-less with only two points in 32 appearances and third to last on the team with a minus-five rating, Colton Gillies was recently a healthy scratch for the fifth time already this season.
Wild head coach Mike Yeo, among others, has hinted that the young forward possesses a rather fragile confidence. In other words, mental or psychological softness trips him up all the more when things go wrong.
Tomas Kaberle’s one-dimensional appeal (i.e. playmaking from the point and not much else) was exposed for the world to see when he partook in Boston’s Stanley Cup championship run.
He has since been cast away to two other teams and has combined for a minus-14 between Carolina and Montreal to go into the holiday respite.
Sure, he tops the Predators’ charts with 73 body checks, but Jerred Smithson has not spent much time muscling his way to the scoresheet.
His track record indicates he is capable of a little more than one goal and two assists, yet that is all Smithson has to speak of through 36 appearances.
And for all of his checking capability, rather than use it to get control of the puck and put his own team on the offensive, he has spent more of his 12:30 of nightly ice time accruing a minus-eight rating for the worst among Nashville forwards.
The ice-time leader among Devils defensemen (21:55 per game) is also last on the blue-line brigade in terms of plus/minus (minus-nine).
The implications of the latter statistic are compounded all the more when you consider Adam Larsson’s respectable offensive output of 11 assists and 13 points through 33 appearances.
To chalk that up and still retain such an acrid rating means he has let more than his share of opponents get by on the home front.
Marty Reasoner was pointless through his first 19 appearances this season and is still searching for his first goal after 31 games. Only three other NHL forwards have played more games without tuning the mesh in 2011-12.
Ruslan Fedotenko is the least productive of the least physical Ranger regulars. Nine of his peers have more points to their credit, and nine have more hits. Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Michael Del Zotto, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi all fall into both categories.
In other words, compared to Fedotenko, three New York forwards and three defensemen are more fruitful both on the dasher boards and the scoreboard.
Craig Anderson is the only NHL goalie, besides Cam Ward, to have played 30 or more games and also have a sub-.900 save percentage along with a goals against average exceeding three.
How he still has a winning record of 15-11-3 is beyond logic.
In nine of his first 24 starts as a Flyer, Ilya Bryzgalov has allowed four goals or more. It’s almost a wonder that he has only been pulled on four of those occasions.
Over his last 12 outings, dating back to Nov. 29, veteran defender Derek Morris has had his rating steadily drop from minus-six to a team-worst minus-11. That includes a cumulative minus-four within his six most recent games.
While it is not exactly his specialty, it is worth noting that Morris is nursing a career-worst 40-game goal-scoring drought, carrying over from last season.
Even before a recent leg injury sidelined him, Martin was penning a log of stats uncharacteristic of himself and his deep, high-flying team.
With only 12 body checks in 32 appearances, Martin ranks behind 17 of his fellow Penguins in the hits department, including all of the other defensive regulars. He is No. 14 on the team with 10 points and tied for 18th with one solitary goal.
Only Zbynek Michalek, who has seen action in less than half of many games, ranks lower than Martin under Pittsburgh’s plus/minus heading.
All of this despite the fact that only Kris Letang receives a higher nightly average of ice time.
The Blues have the defensive thing down, especially with the surprisingly Vezina-caliber season Brian Elliott is composing. But offensively, this team is in the lower-middle of the NHL pack, which can be attributed heavily to a dismal, league-worst 11.9 percent conversion rate on the power play.
As a whole, the Blues have tallied 14 power-play strikes on 118 opportunities over their first 35 games. A noticeable upgrade over the remaining 47 is well advised if St. Louis wants to ensure its first postseason appearance since 2009.
In contrast to the Blues, the Pacific Division-leading Sharks could theoretically be in a more favorable position with some simple improvement in short-handed situations.
Up to this point, San Jose has only warded off 75.2 percent of its opponent’s power plays, putting it ahead of only Columbus and Toronto at the bottom of the league leaderboard. Remember that last year a lack of discipline and penalty-killing proficiency contributed heavily to the Sharks’ five-game flameout in the Western Conference finals.
Accordingly, both for the immediate future and down the road in the spring, this department needs to be fortified more than any individual player.
Unless he picks up the pace, this grizzled 35-year-old blueliner is in stark danger of failing to hit double digits in the assist column for the first time since becoming an established NHLer in 2005-06.
Failure to thaw out his playmaking skills will also complicate Brett Clark’s efforts to recompense an egregious minus-11 rating.
Through his first 13 appearances this season, Mikhail Grabovski logged five goals and 10 points along with a plus-six rating. Over a span of 16 outings since then, he has added three goals and three helpers and dropped his rating to zero.
It is simply too hard to find a skating Canuck who cannot be counted on to do some sufficient scoring, passing, hitting or blocking, but Roberto Luongo is not the “winner” in this search by default.
Between his three colossal crumbles in last year’s championship round and his subsequent inability to assert his supremacy over backup Cory Schneider, this is a fairly easy selection.
Yet another celestial player setting himself a path to an off year. Alexander Semin at least entered the holiday break on a three-game production streak, his first streak of that length since mid-October.
He is still on pace for 18 goals and 39 points, though, which would constitute new lows in six full NHL seasons.
Of the seven Jets who have dressed for every game this season, Chris Thorburn is the only one without a goal to his credit. His only points are a pair of assists, and he is dead last on the team stats sheet with a minus-11 rating.