Detroit horror show, Monster in Toronto, more notes
The terrible truth: the Red Wings are no longer as talented or deep
The NHL's inconsistency in punishing questionable hits is frightening
The Avalance may be cruising now, but they have a deadly flaw
I don't remember an awful lot from my first year statistics class, but the professor managed to burn one truism into my head: sample size matters. So I understand that, when considered in the grand 82-game scheme of the NHL's regular season, a 10- or 12-game segment is relatively small.
Of course, that doesn't mean it's insignificant -- which is why trends that take shape in the early going may not dictate the course of the season, but they can't be ignored, either. With that in mind, welcome this edition of I Know It's Early, But...
Panic in Detroit
Red Wings fans, always quick to prematurely push the panic button, may finally have something to worry about. The team that always found a way seems lost. The Wings can't score (only one, Tomas Holmstrom, has more than two goals) and can't defend (Nick Lidstrom is the only blueliner not carrying a minus rating). They can't hold a lead (three times they've blown two-goal advantages) and can't win at home (one victory in five tries). Worst of all, they've lost the ability to close out tight games, twice blowing a late lead in just the last two weeks. It's like someone hung a Kryponite necklace around their necks and now every team they've bullied over the last decade is lining up to get their revenge.
Can the Red Wings get it together? Sure...but this feels like more than just an early hiccup. They're carrying nine bodies that weren't wearing the winged wheel when last season started, so there's no denying this is a different team. And while chemistry is an issue, it's not the biggest one.
This team simply isn't as talented as last season's squad. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are too good not to get their legs under them at some point, but they can't compensate for the loss of Johan Franzen on top of all the summer defections. So now the defensive issues that could be overcome with rapid-fire offense in 2008-09 are too blatant to cover up in 2009-10.
Jonas Gustavsson looks like the sizable piece of the puzzle that's been missing in Toronto. During their early swoon, the Leafs looked like a team that needed someone, anyone, to believe in. Despite allowing seven goals in two starts since returning from the IR, Gustavsson has been that guy. The Monster hasn't yet stood on his head, but he's made the type of saves that show his teammates he can keep them in the game. That's changed them from the hot potato-tossers they were when Vesa Toskala was between the pipes into the more aggressive unit that just took three of four points from Anaheim and Dallas...on the road, no less. The Leafs are still making mistakes, but there's a clear sense that they're not as afraid to make them...and that's all on Gustavsson...
Will this head roll?
I'm already starting to waffle on my preseason prediction that this would be the year that passed without a single coach being fired. The frustrating inconsistency of the Ducks makes Randy Carlyle the leading candidate to prove me wrong, and that may be even more stupefying than the prognostication.
Coming off a strong finish to 2008-09, Anaheim looked to have everything going for them. They added much-needed secondary scoring (Saku Koivu, Joffrey Lupul) and had blossoming talents in James Wisniewski and Luca Sbisa that should have helped to balance out the loss of Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin on the back end. It hasn't worked out that way, and when Carlyle admitted the blame belongs on his shoulders, it was more than just deflecting the heat from his players. He was right in admitting culpability.
The Ducks have yet to put together a 60-minute effort, the special teams are largely ineffective and his game plan seems ill-suited for the talent at his disposal. Ryan Whitney suggested as much when he said that the team "hasn't bought into the system yet." The reason: they recognize it's not going to work for them.
The next couple weeks could decide Carlyle's fate, and a brutal schedule that features a pair against the Penguins and Coyotes and singles against the Canucks, Wings, Devils and Blue Jackets suggests that he probably shouldn't make any long-term plans in the Orange County area.
Who might step in if Carlyle fails to right the ship? Kevin Dineen's stock may be slipping with the dismal start of the Portland Pirates, but last season's hot name has a long history with the organization. Dallas Eakins, currently coaching the Toronto Marlies and a protege of former Ducks' GM Brian Burke, is another strong possibility.
I think the Devils could be in trouble without Paul Martin. His absence -- he'll be out until December with a broken arm -- might be even tougher to bridge than was Martin Brodeur's last season. How so? New Jersey was able to survive the long-term loss of the superstar netminder because their system minimized the quality of scoring opportunities faced by his replacement. But that system works because they put players in a position to succeed, so it's easy to imagine it straining without the steady, two-way play of Martin holding it together.
Want proof? Take another look at 2007-08. The Devils had a 3-6 record last season without Martin, and two of those wins came against an AHL-caliber Lightning squad. They buckled without their glue. New Jersey managed to win Thursday night against the undermanned Bruins, but they'll be in tight for the next six weeks if they ask for too much more from the likes of Mike Mottau, Bryce Salvador and Cory Murphy.
Headhunters on the loose
It's never too soon for Colin Campbell to give his head a shake. The season's less than a month old and already the NHL's chief wrist-slapper has managed to add to his history of confounding disciplinary decisions. Compare the checks that earned Steve Ott a two-game suspension ... and Rob Scuderi just a fine.
The first is a textbook hip check on the Blues' Carlo Colaiacovo thrown by a player with a reputation for straddling the rules. The second, Scuderi's, is an undeniably low blow from a defender with a background of tough but clean play. So, essentially, the league is saying that history is more important than action in determining punishment. Funny thing is, it would have been easier to justify nailing Ott for the knee-on-knee hit he threw at B.J. Crombeen later in the game.
Just as confounding: Slava Kozlov evades supplementary discipline for dangerously crosschecking Scott Gomez head-first into the boards while Tuomo Ruutu was nailed three games for hammering Darcy Tucker from behind. It seems as though the absence of injury mitigated the former while Tucker's concussion exacerbated the latter. I doubt anyone would suggest that the extent of the damage shouldn't be taken into consideration, but the ability of the victim to skate away under his own power shouldn't be a de facto get out of jail free card, either.