NHL's short season full of early surprises
Early season surprises (continued)
You know the NHL is truly back when we hear grumbling about the officiating, there seems little future for the Coyotes in Glendale, we've seen a sudden rash of concussions, and someone is dissing P.K. Subban.
Some things will never change.
Still, there have been unexpected developments to help make the season's start compelling as the playoff races begin to take shape. Every website has their power rankings (and my pal Adrian Dater does a fine job with them here on SI.com), but the idea here is to look a bit deeper into which clubs are early surprises or disappointments and why.
The first set is near the top of the Western Conference. How well the Canucks and Blues have generally played is not much of a shock. (The biggest surprise concerning the Canucks might be that Roberto Luongo hasn't been traded and has suddenly become their starting goalie again.) However, the other top teams are surprising for various reasons.
FOR BETTER: BLACKHAWKS
No one doubted their talent, but through their first 10 games the Blackhawks have yet to lose in regulation and that would be a surprise in any season. They're off to the best start in the league, an accomplishment made all the more remarkable by their schedule. Only two of their games have been played on home ice at the United Center and they're on the road for three more contests before they return to Chicago next Tuesday.
How are they doing it? Well, their star core remains in place, including a healthy Marian Hossa, who shows no ill effects from the concussion he suffered during the playoffs last spring. And they're getting important depth contributions from guys like rookie winger Brandon Saad, who scored his first goal Tuesday night in the Hawks' comeback win against the Sharks and seemed to be everywhere in each of the games I've watched during the past week.
Their top four defensemen -- Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy -- have been exceptional, and the Blackhawks have been getting the three things they needed most: strong goaltending from Corey Crawford, a decent power play and outstanding penalty killing.
FOR BETTER: SHARKS
The Sharks, who many (including me) felt might be in decline, are right behind the Hawks in the overall standings and might have overtaken them on Tuesday night if they hadn't squandered an early lead and gotten a bad break on Andrew Desjardins' match penalty that was rescinded after the game. It was only their second regulation loss of the season, the first came Monday night in Anaheim. Patrick Marleau got all the early headlines with his amazing streak of goal scoring ,but don't overlook the play of Joe Pavelski and the fact that the Sharks are tied with Nashville for allowing the fewest goals in the West: 21. The biggest surprise in San Jose may be the turnaround in the Sharks' shorthanded play. They ranked 29th in the league last year, but they've surrendered only five power play goals so far, ranking among the best in the NHL, and at this writing have killed off 30 straight penalties, including six on Monday. Think adding Larry Robinson as an assistant coach might have something to do with that?
FOR BETTER: DUCKS
Then there are the Ducks, whose defeat of San Jose on Monday showed why they are a major surprise in the West. Credit coach Bruce Boudreau for some creative coaching, such as pairing Francois Beauchemin with Sheldon Souray on the blueline last week to form a very effective shutdown tandem. Souray scored the late third period game-winner against the Sharks. Another of Boudreau's recent moves looks good: moving Bobby Ryan from first line wing to second line center in order to work with Teemu Selanne. That has helped balance the Ducks' attack. Anaheim has enjoyed a good early schedule, with five of their last six games at home, four of them wins. Now they fly for six straight on the road and we'll see how they emerge from that.
FOR WORSE: RED WINGS
No one should be terribly surprised that Detroit is no longer among the West's elite. The Red Wings have been injury prone, they lack secondary scoring, their play with a man in the box is poor (their 13 goals-allowed is worst in the league), and they really do miss big Number 5 on their blueline. However, the new captain who replaced Nick Lidstrom has been something of a surprise. Henrik Zetterberg has averaged nearly a point and a half per game, which he hasn't been anywhere near since 2007-08. Yes, it's still very early, but Z is taking that C to heart.
FOR WORSE: KINGS
The biggest early disappointment in the West is unquestionably the Kings, who -- despite their win over Columbus on Tuesday -- are feeling the impact of the loss of two injured defensemen: Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene. Their sputtering power play is just 5-for-40 and symptomatic of an anemic offense that averages slightly more than two goals per game (27th in the league). Jonathan Quick's .897 save percentage looks bad, too, but he's not getting much help.
FOR BETTER: LIGHTNING
No one can be surprised by the Penguins or Bruins, but the Lightning are right behind them and look like they could be for real -- a definite surprise from a club that finished eight points south of a playoff spot last season. The big difference is in the goals-against department. The worst defensive club in the NHL last season at almost 3.4 goals- against per game, Tampa Bay is now better than mid-pack, having cut that average to 2.56.
Credit GM Steve Yzerman with bringing in veteran help on the blueline by signing Sammy Salo and Matt Carle, plus trading for Keith Aulie last season. He's built a strong defense corps that includes a maturing Victor Hedman. And the Bolts are getting decent goaltending from Anders Lindback. They are also filling the opposition's net. Their 40 goals are tops in the NHL and their secret weapon may be rookie Cory Conacher, a small forward not unlike teammate Marty St. Louis, who is benefitting from having Vinny Lecavalier as his center with Teddy Purcell on the other side. With the St. Louis-Steven Stamkos-Ryan Malone trio, it gives Tampa Bay two very potent lines.
FOR BETTER: CANADIENS
The Canadiens also have to rank as a big surprise. This time last season, they were 1-5-2. Now they're 6-2. What's different? Everything and very little. While much of the team that finished last year is back, the Habs have two important leaders healthy again in captain Brian Gionta and top defenseman Andrei Markov. They're also getting reborn play from Rene Bourque, grit and versatility in Brandon Prust, youthful energy in rookies Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, and steady defending from repatriate blueliner Francois Bouillion.
Most importantly, however, is the fresh air coming from the hockey department, where new GM Marc Bergeron and new/old coach Michel Therrien are set on restoring the Habs' old identity as a first-class organization. They've already made progress with an agreeable Subban. But winning is the biggest part of that and their favorable early schedule now gets tougher, so we'll see better what Montreal is all about.
FOR BETTER: DEVILS
The Devils have also had encouraging start, their triumph over the Rangers Tuesday vaulting them to within a point of the Conference lead. Without Zach Parise, it was questionable how New Jersey might break from the starting line, and the Devils don't seem to be an offensive juggernaut. But they've lost only once in regulation, are getting contributions from everyone, but David Clarkson has been a standout and getting Adam Henrique back from injury is a big plus. The Devils' traditional defensive posture never seems to fail them. That starts in goal where old reliables Marty Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have been solid and sometimes spectacular.
FOR WORSE: RANGERS
The Rangers, currently sit 11th, and that's a big disappointment for a club that many believed might repeat as the best in the conference. They're just not scoring -- and Blueshirt fans won't be happy to learn that Artem Anisimov has four goals for Columbus compared to only a pair for Rick Nash. At first they worried about depth behind their big guns -- a shoulder injury to Ryan Callahan is compounding that problem. But now even the big guns have gone silent. Penalty killing also has to be a concern, falling to 18th from 5th last year. If they can't turn it around, we'll have to wonder if trading a package of home-grown players for Nash robbed the Rangers of depth and chemistry or whether last season was the product of an overachieving team that has returned to earth.
FOR WORSE: FLYERS
Even though Philly beat Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, the Flyers have been a disappointment. Surprisingly, goaltending has not been their problem, as Ilya Bryzgalov has played well. But their defense remains questionable and the team is badly banged up, with key wingers Scott Hartnell and Wayne Simmonds missing. That's contributed to Claude Giroux's slump. Having Danny Briere slowed by injury hasn't helped, either.
FOR WORSE: CAPITALS
The Caps have missed injured Brooks Laich, whose contributions as a leader and battler can't be overstated, but their once-dynamic duo of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom doesn't have the magic it once possessed. Productive teammates during the lockout for St. Petersburg in the KHL, there are whispers that they are not well-conditioned enough to excel in the NHL.
But the entire Washington club seems off-kilter and out of sync, which was painfully obvious on Tuesday in their loss to Toronto. They looked comedic in their ineptitude on the Maple Leafs' first two goals by James van Riemsdyk.. They seem to lack any cohesion in any area of the game and that leads to individuals trying to do more than they should, which never works in hockey. Some of that is due to adjusting to a new system that coach Adam Oates is trying to install, some is just subpar play like Braden Holtby's leaky goaltending on Sunday against Pittsburgh and the undisciplined elbow John Erskine threw at Simmonds to concuss him on Friday and get a three-game suspension. Strange as it sounds, you have to wonder if they miss the drill sergeant discipline of Dale Hunter behind the bench.
It's still early, but the shortened schedule and diminished practice time means it's harder to put things back into place and turn the season around than it is in a normal year.
Here are a few surprising findings early in this strange season.
• There appears to be greater parity in the West than the East, at least that's one conclusion you can draw from the number of games which have gone past regulation time. Only 10 Eastern contests have gone to OT or the postgame skills competition while 21 have gone past 60 minutes in the West. Bruce McCurdy of the excellent Edmonton Journal blog "The Cult of Hockey," tracks these things and he notes that with about one-third of the Western Conference games being three-point affairs, that would be the most in league history -- if you looked at the NHL as two separate leagues, which is really what it is this year.
"It's already apparent that the playoff race is surely going to be a mad scramble," McCurdy writes. "That's nothing new, of course, but in the shortened season every single point takes on additional weight and importance. And sure enough, these single points are being issued more frequently than ever before, at least out here in the West."
That's worth keeping an eye on, but, remember: In tiebreaker situations, shootout wins get thrown out, which is why the standings have that "ROW" column for regulation and overtime wins. Still, for those who are not fans of the "loser's point," you'll like McCurdy's posts on the subject.
• And then there's the rise in fighting, which isn't entirely a surprise as that possibility was mentioned here in an earlier item. But the amount of fighting we're seeing is something of a surprise. The league believes this early spike will flatten out and things will return to normal levels as the schedule goes along. If so, it will be one of the few normal things we may see this season.