I’ll start by saying that I’m shocked how well my pre-season predictions are standing up, with a few exceptions to reinforce the humility. Hey, just try finding anyone who thought Carolina would be the worst team in the league!
Twenty (or so) games have passed, so let's see what's been going on, shall we?ATLANTA
The Good: If there was ever any doubt about the importance of Ilya Kovalchuk, his picking up seven points in two games with a not-quite-healed foot should kill it. Both their goalies are giving rock solid numbers; this year’s first round pick is playing beyond expectations; Peverly’s been even better than last year; Bogosian’s picked up his offensive game… What’s not to like?
The Bad: A 3-4 home record has to improve if the playoffs are going to happen.
The Weird: Hey, didn’t you used to be Todd White, fine defensive centre for Ottawa and 20-goal man for Atlanta?
The Future: How much of Lehtonen’s $3 million in in titanium rods for his back? Occasionally brilliant, but how much better than Ondrej is the soon-to-be restricted free agent?
Note: This is one of the teams that’s always mentioned as being "in trouble", which sucks. Worth considering getting the NHL cable package so I can see them more than twice a year and in highlight packages.
The Good: Tim Thomas refuses to age, as three shutouts in 14 starts proves…
The Bad: …But he can’t score. If, after 19 games, your leading scorer has 13 points? You just may be in trouble.
The Weird: Boy, are furries ever loving the Bruins’ ad campaign! (If you don’t know what a furry is, then… Uh, neither do I. Forget I mentioned it. Really.)
The Future: If God were Catholic, Marc Savard would have been back by now, because you just know the prayers are flowing in for him.
Note: The loss of Kessel and injury to Savard has led to an ineffective power play and a more than one goal a game drop in scoring. Any regrets, guys?
The Good: Thirteen wins in eighteen games mean anything to you? Ryan Miller is single-handedly making Americans think of a certain yellowish medal in a certain coast town next year…
The Bad: Neither Lalime nor Enroth are doing much to instill confidence should Miller go down, but who cares? They’ve only started two games combined this year! What could possibly go wrong?
The Weird: Phenomenal as their goals against has been, they’re doing it with strictly average penalty killing.
The Future: Vanek was the first player to get to six goals this year, and it took him fifteen games to do it. "Scoring by committee" only works when players actually score, guys!
Note: This is a team that’s perpetually on the edge: Tim Connolly has yet to be injured this season, which is a bit odd; if either he goes down for any extended period of time… Well, you know the rest.
The Good: Ah… Brandon Sutter seems to be coming along nicely.
The Bad: The fewest goals for, the highest goals against. An impotent power play, a bad penalty kill and a team average +/- of -5.
The Weird: Does leading the league in penalty minutes become a matter pride when your record blows, or does your record blow because your team leads the league in penalty minutes, so you take pride in anything you can? You could ask the 1989-1990 Victoria Cougars, I guess…
The Future: Manny Legace’s been signed on to try staunching the bleeding, but this team’s in full-blown triage right now.
Note: The Hurricanes were one Sunday loss from an all-time franchise record; and the franchise has been around as long as hand-held calculators, so that’s saying something.
The Good: Despite a lousy goals for and goals against, they’re a hot streak away from playoff position. It’s damning with faint praise, but progress is showing.
The Bad: Clemmensen is looking lost out there when he’s not behind the Devil’s shell.
The Weird: October 30th against Dallas, Steven Reinprecht scores three goals on three shots. He currently has a .250 shooting percentage in 17 games played.
The Future: A lot of youth is getting mixed into the fold this year (again), but this is the right time to do it. Past pressure to make the playoffs NOW has been eased by the moving of Jokinen and loss of Bouwmeester.
Note: Vokun is doing what he can, and is earning every penny of his salary; but Clemmensen’s looking like an expensive $1.2 million for the next three years.
LONG ISLAND (New York)
The Good: The boon of low expectations has turned the Islanders into a pleasant surprise.
The Bad: That’s not to say this is a good team just yet, but the worse news is the failure of the Lighthouse Project to get enough support by their October deadline - then again, this is Charles Wang we’re talking about, and if anyone has a long-term view in hockey, it’s him. Not that this is always a good thing…
The Weird: Despite near-identical stats, Roloson has earned his team points in ten of his eleven starts; Biron has managed to do so in only four of his ten, though he does have the only shut out.
The Future: The Islanders have a number of players coming due next season, but few of them are considered important enough to be irreplaceable. This is a team that can turn deadly as they grow together.
Note: Hopefully, a deal will be reached for a new arena soon, even if what happens won’t be as ambitious as Mr. Wang dreams. It would be really cool to have "House Tavares Built" entered into hockey’s mythology.
MANHATTAN (New York)
The Good: Current Calder nominee Michael Del Zotto, ladies and gentlemen! Oh, and that Gaborik fellow seems to be doing reasonably well with 26 points in 19 games played.
The Bad: Wade Redden is never going to earn $6.5 million dollars despite the best of intentions. But at least there’s only four years to go on his contract!
The Weird: Anyone heard from Sean Avery lately? Anyone?
The Future: Gaborik is living up to his promise of full health, and with it his talent is shining through. The Big Three of him, Del Zotto, and Lundqvist are going to have to keep it up for another 60 games just to make the playoffs, though.
Note: As nice as those three have been, there are disappointments, too. Drury’s six points and Higgins’ five are making lack of scoring depth an issue.
The Good: Well, they’re in the same division as Toronto, so won’t finish last this season.
The Bad: Losing Markov in game one for approximately half the season is a huge blow, but having your leading scorer be Tomas Plekanec after the signings they made is just embarrassing.
The Weird: It looks like Montreal wants an off-season like their last, with only 14 players signed at nearly $46 million. Should be real fun if the cap ends up dropping, eh?
The Future: Not terribly bright for the 100th anniversary, I’m afraid. Anything could happen, of course: Markov’s return could spark a huge run in February and March and giving Montreal fans an object lesson in what happens to one-line teams in the playoffs. But it’s doubtful.
Note: The biggest problem with spending huge money on a few players, is what do you do if your youth plays well? Fortunately this year, it’s not something the Habs have to worry about.
The Good: A perfect 9-0 on the road.
The Bad: (insert Brodeur Home Record joke here) Seriously, the guy's 4-4 at home, 9-0 on the road.
The Weird: Odd a goalie should have a breakout season then decide to take 500 thousand opening the door for Brodeur, sure; but weirder that someone should become a goalie when they come from a town named Lafontaine.
The Future: As long as Brodeur can play, they can win. Though his record in the playoffs in recent years has dropped off, last year’s first round exit can’t be laid at his feet.
Note: They’re waiting for Elias to do two things: First, to get back to full speed recovering from his pre-season injury; and second to start earning his ridiculous salary. And do it quick, before Travis Zajac suspects he may be getting boned for the next four years.
The Good: Last year looks like it was the bottom, and there’s a tiny little bounce back happening.
The Bad: But it’s not because of Leclaire. No number one goalie should be below .900 in their save percentage.
The Weird: Is Cheechoo really having a worse season this year than last? He must be reducing the shafts of his sticks to splinters at this point: three points in 17 games is just insane.
The Future: With Kovalev not doing as well as was hoped, Cheechoo running empty and Leclaire doing as well as was feared, the playoffs look a long ways away. On the plus side, the fans aren’t too likely to be impatient, given the team’s history.
Note: The Win-Loss difference looks good until you remember that an overtime loss is still a loss, and those extra points mostly stayed in the conference. Having half as many short handed goals (4) as power play ones (9) isn’t going to help, either.
The Good: The tricky payroll juggling to start the season hasn’t come back to bite them just yet. Hooray for Ray Emery!
The Bad: A long term injury is never good, and one to a scorer like Gagne would normally be a disaster, but the Flyers have more than enough scoring to get by without him.
The Weird: How the heck does 20 points in 16 games get you 4th in the division?
The Future: It’s been too many years that the Flyers have been a great team - right until the playoffs. This year, little else matters to the fans.
Note: Emery’s athleticism is paying well so far this season, and his famous temper has kept hidden. Looks like the year away did him some good.
The Good: Malkin’s back in a big way from an early shoulder injury.
The Bad: Gonchar’s out - again - until December.
The Weird: Who the heck is Alex Gologoski, and how is he third in scoring (with the best +/-) on this team?
The Future: Special teams are not pulling their weight for a Stanley Cup Champion. Given the talent here, there’s no excuse for having the 27th best power play.
Note: Is Jordan Staal setting a pattern, here? First year, good; second, bad. Third, good; fourth…
The Good: Stamkos is rolling big time, looking ready to take on Lecavalier’s role as the star scorer.
The Bad: Except that star scorer is being paid ten million dollars for the next six years, and hitting the cap for seven and a half for another four.
The Weird: So… Still paying for Vaclav Prospal, eh? Until 2015? And you’re having budget trouble? Well, enjoy his point-a-game pace with the Rangers. Oh, and Lecavalier’s with the Lightning.
The Future: It’s not all about money, of course. There are four players on the team scoring at a 75 to 90 point pace. After that it gets… a little barren, perhaps. Put another way, two players have 25 of the team’s 46 goals. This is not a formula for success.
Note: If it weren’t for the stellar work of Niittymaki (you have no idea how long that took me to spell), this team would have been dead and buried by game five. Look for him at the Olympics.
The Good: The second best power play in the league!
The Bad: And the worst penalty kill!
The Weird: Anyone else find the Toronto the Good nickname painful?
The Future: For a more positive spin, both Gustavsson and Kessel look like the real deal. Gustavsson’s numbers aren’t good, but he’s got good fundamentals on a bad team and that will do nothing but help as time goes on.
Note: Did I really say goals against were going to go down dramatically? Oh, bugger: yes I did.
The Good: The offensive machine just keeps rolling. Even Brendan Morrison is looking to have his best season in five years.
The Bad: Ovechkin is injured, missing more than one game for the first time in his career. This is enough to make any fan twitch, given the way he plays (NSFW unless you have headphones).
The Weird: So, Varlamov hasn’t been injured, hasn’t been sick… He’s not the starter why, exactly?
The Future: Normally, you’d say it hinged on Ovechkin, but their record without him has been a respectable 4-2 with him out. Then you notice who the wins have been against, and opinion swings back…
Note: The most interesting effect Ovechkin has had, to my mind at least, is getting Kovalchuk to up his game in the NHL.
So that’s how the East stands at the first turn. Agree? Ignore? Ridicule? Knock yerself out, I’m taking a nap. Wake me for the Avs!
(I'll pop the West up in two days.)