NHL ’13 Season: Locked IN
So far in the abbreviated NHL season, the theme seems to be to always expect the unexpected. Many teams expected to compete for top seeds in recent years are struggling with mediocre or even plain awful records while teams destined for lottery picks find themselves in playoff spots. After a 113 day lockout, go figure. Right?Â Teams like Anaheim, Toronto, and Carolina find themselves in playoff spots through nearly 4 weeks while teams like Washington, LA, and Philadelphia find themselves scrambling to put things together in a season that is already a quarter of the way finished. Division by division we see some very familiar sights and some are not what puckheads and the casual fan alike are quite used to0. Two names that have been stapled to this league since George H.W. Bush was in office and Alice In Chains still had all of its members are Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne. While the hair may be gone for Jagr, that famous scoring touch and salute to the crowd after scoring a goal still remain. The 41 year old Jagr has contributed 11 points in 13 games to a Dallas team that has struggled in recent years and will look to break a 4 year playoff drought. Selanne, 20 year old Jofa bucket and all, has led the Anaheim (No longer Mighty) Ducks with 14 points in 12 games as well as a 9-2-1 record. With the Western Conference, featuring two relics from the past still producing, separating the good from the bad rather quickly, the East is still wide open. Starting with the Eastern Conference and the North Eastern division, things seem to be going the way we expected.
Ottawa shocked the hockey world last year by not only avoiding the title as “worst team in the league” but by actually making the playoffs for the first time in 3 years. So far, Ottawa has impressed again with a .500 record of 7-5-2. One major setback was the loss of 2011-12 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson on Wednesday night. Karlsson, who had more assists than the next defenseman in the NHL had points last season, severed his Achilles tendon in a freak injury near the boards with noted (but recently reformed) NHL villain Matt Cooke. Overcoming Erik Karlsson’s season ending injury will prove to be the most difficult task any NHL team will have to face for the Sens.
If you want grit, toughness, copious amounts of skill, and fantastic goaltending then this is the team for you. Boston, who beat the Vancouver Canucks into submission in a bizarre seven game Stanley Cup two seasons ago, is off to a scalding hot start in 2013. 2011 playoff MVP Tim Thomas, who decided to take a year off from hockey, was traded last week for a draft pick to the New York Islanders. This takes away any doubt that the goaltending responsibilities don’t lie squarely on 25 year old goaltender Tuukka Rask, who has been pretty good this season with a .919 save percentage and a 2.07 GAA.
The Buffalo Sabres, ridiculed last year for the way they didn’t stick up for their goaltender and American hero Ryan Miller after being blown away by Bruins power forward Milan Lucic, added some much needed grit with mountain man John Scott (6’8″ 270 lbs.) and super-pest Steve Ott. While these moves were moves that had to be made, they haven’t helped much. Buffalo is 5-8-1.
Toronto Maple Leafs
A team that is given the same local and national media attention that only the New York Yankees are given finally seems to be worthy of it. After a 6-1 shellacking of ancient rival Montreal (we’ll get to them in a moment) it finally seems that the Toronto Maple Leafs are on their way to breaking a nearly decade long playoff drought. After trading for 2007 #2 overall draft pick and underachieving New Jersey kid James Van Riemsdyk for 23 year old Luke Schenn, lightning rod for criticism Leafs GM Brian Burke was fired a week after the lockout ended and the season began. If the Leafs can keep pace (8-5 4th in East), then perhaps they can reclaim their spot as best show in Ontario from Don Cherry and his piano desk.
Le Habitants have clearly put a disastrous 2011-12 season, one that saw them finish last in the east, in the rear view mirror. With new GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien taking over the helm, the team is of f to a respectable 7-4-1 record. With #1 defenseman PK Subban signed reluctantly to a two year deal, the team’s window could be closing, but this team is built to compete.
This division by far has been the best division in the past few years. Since the 2004-05 lockout, 4 of the 7 Eastern Conference Champions have come from this powerhouse division. I’d expect nothing less this season as New Jersey, Pittsburgh, and the New York Rangers all look poised to make a run at Lord Stanley’s hardware.
New York Rangers
The Rangers made quite a splash this off season trading Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov for 6’4″ scoring dynamo Rick Nash. The trade comes on the heals of previous off season moves that have brought the likes of Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards onto Broadway. The big three have produced so far, but secondary scoring remains an issue. The Rangers are solid on D led by All Star defenseman Dan Girardi as well as the goaltending of Sweden’s favorite son Henrik Lundqvist.
This is a team that came into the season with all of the tools to earn themselves their 4th Stanley Cup in their team’s history. Led by all world superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Pens have dominated their last 10 games going 7-3 and now outscoring the opposition by 11 goals after starting the season 2-2. Look for Pittsburgh to make another run in the playoffs, but with the way things have been going in this division and conference alike, things couldn’t go quite as planned. Marc Andre Fleury can’t have any hiccups in goal down the stretch.
New Jersey Devils
Remember last season when the mediocre Devils somehow managed to make it all the way to the finals with their 41 year old goaltender only to lose and have their best player leave for Minnesota in the off season? No way they could even sniff a playoff spot this year, right? Wrong. At 8-2-3 New Jersey is off to a red hot start (compared to what was expected.) and Marty Brodeur is playing like its 1996. If Ilya Kovalchuk can live up to his 100 million dollar contract once again this season, the Devils could be trouble for whoever gets them in the playoffs.
And you thought the Phillies were a mess?Â The Flyers operate at the cap ceiling and have only mustered a barely lukewarm 6-7-1 record. While goaltending has been an issue since Ron Hextall was chipping in on offense, it is no excuse this year. Ilya Bryzgalov has been average, but not terrible (.913 SV% 2.49 GAA). Players like Claude Giroux (3 G, 5 A) and Danny Briere (2 G, 2 A) need to step their games up on offense for this team to make the playoffs
New York Islanders
We finish the Atlantic Division with the lowly Islanders. It has been over a decade since this franchise had a relevant playoff series. One which produced one of the most epic, goose bump inducing moments in first round playoff history. Still those days are long gone and Rick Dipietro still has another 9 years left on his 15 year contract. For the Isles (5-7-1) to make the playoffs this season, young players like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner will have to lead the charge. This team still may be a few pieces a way, but a shootout win against the cross town rival Rangers Thursday night could be a start to get this team going.
Since 2008 this division was dominated by Alex Ovechkin and the high flying Capitals. All of this was brought to a halt when the Florida Panthers shocked the hockey world and nearly bounced the eventual Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils in the first round last season. This division, like the Atlantic, is wide open. The only difference is it isn’t because this division isn’t exactly swimming in wins.
Not since the days of John Vanbiesbrouck and rats being thrown onto the ice has this franchise had something to be proud of. After nearly edging out the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs last season, the Panthers had something to hang their hat on after the fruits of GM Dale Tallon’s labor appeared to rear their head much sooner than anticipated. With some of the deepest collection of prospects in the NHL, the Panthers could be shaping themselves to be very formidable opponents for years to come. Rocco Grimaldi and Nick Bjugstad appear to be a year away, but goaltending phenom Jacob Markstrom could be up soon to help with what so far has been very sour goaltending in South Florida.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After trading for Nashville backup goaltender Anders Lindback in the off season, the Tampa Bay Lightning may have put themselves back at the level that took them to the Eastern Conference Final 2 years ago.Â Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vinny Lecavalier lead a very potent offense with new addition undrafted rookie Cory Conacher. If Things continue to go the way they have in this division, the Bolts should runaway with it.
What a disaster! A team that has been so dominant in the past 5 years is now at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and staring a #1 overall draft pick dead in the eyes. The Caps have won 3 in a row to bring their record to 5-8-1, but it will take more than a modest win streak to pull them out of the hole they dug themselves early this season. Alex Ovechkin has to continue to produce for rookie coach Adam Oates. If Ovechkin can’t get the job done, George McPhee could very well be seeing his last days as GM in Washington.
Yes. Since moving from Atlanta in 2011, the NHL has yet to realign the divisions.Â This leaves Winnipeg with a hell of a travel schedule. While Winnipeg has tread water since their move from Georgia, they are struggling to find an identity for the Jets faithful. At 5-6-1 this team doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses, but they aren’t terrible great at anything either. The power play could be a lot better. 19% isn’t terrible, but perhaps moving Dustin Byfuglien back to forward could jump start the offense.
After an embarrassing 5-0 opening night loss to Florida, this team could be well on its way at 8-4-1.Â Signing Alex Semin and trading for brother of Eric Staal Jordan, adds some much needed scoring depth to compliment players such as Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Skinner. Goaltender Cam Ward, who won playoff MVP in 2006, needs to avoid his bouts with inconsistency for this team to be a playoff team again
The Central Division could very well be the strongest division in the NHL. Seeing 4 of its 5 teams earn playoff spots last season is a testament to just how strong top to bottom this division is. A red hot start from Chicago, who have still yet to lose in regulation, is what has set the pace early in the year.
St. Louis Blues
Those jerks across the state are pretty lucky when it comes to sports aren’t they huh? The Blues had a brief period of struggle after a hot start, but had a huge boost going into Detroit and beating the Red Wings on national TV Wednesday night. Rookie right winger Vladimir Tarasenko took no time announcing his arrival to the NHL scoring his first goal of his career opening night against Detroit causing a roar it seemed you could hear across the state. He would later add another goal and has 11 points through 13 games this season. Sure would be nice to have another Kansas City/St. Louis rivalry. Ken Hitchock’s squad is built to contend for the Stanley Cup.
Detroit Red Wings
Detroit is too old. Detroit doesn’t have great goaltending. Detroit’s best years are behind them. It seemed everyone felt this way… except those who wear the Winged Wheel in the Motor City. Losing 1st ballot Hall of Famer and seven time, yes seven, Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement hurts. Add Tomas Holmstrom to the list and it doesn’t help things, but the Detroit Red Wings are arguably the best run franchise in sports and look ready to extend their playoff streak to 22 seasons.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Here is a team that is in full blown rebuilding mode. The Blue Jackets hired former Blues President John Davidson in the same role over the summer and recently fired GM Scott Howson and hired Jarmo Kekalainen as the first European GM in league history. While this should be a great move for the organization, it seems odd that they’d do it after drafting once again in the top 5 and trading away the face of their franchise Rick Nash. Expect Columbus to finish once again low enough to draft in the top 5, but this team is slowly but surely headed in the right direction.
Things are once again going just as expected for GM David Poile in the Music City and that is very much a good thing. Nashville has struggled in OT, but still remain at 4th in the Western Conference at 7-3-4. Pekka Rinne has 3 shutouts and losing Ryan Suter to free agency doesn’t seem to hurt captain Shea Weber at the back end. Nashville seems to be a team that has the potential to win at least a playoff series.
There is no question who has been the best team in the NHL so far this season. The Hawks are 10-0-3 and have only played 3 games at home. Patrick Kane has an outside shot at being the firstÂ U.S born player to lead the league in scoring and goaltender Corey Crawford has appeared to regain his form from two seasons ago. If there is a team to pick out of the west to win it all its Chicago, even if its against the computer with the offsides turned off. (Some NSFW language)
A division that has been dominated by Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks seems to be status quo so far this season. With Minnesota signing USA Olympians Ryan Suter and hometown boy Zach Parise to identical $98 million contracts, the time to make excuses is over and the time to win starts now. Edmonton collected their third straight 1st overall pick and used it on Nail Yakupov, who has drawn comparisons to Pavel Bure.
The Oil have fizzled a little since a relatively strong start and now sit at 5-5-3 record. While the team seems to be right back where they started, they certainly are very much improved. Rookie Justin Schultz has been solid on defense, a weakness in previous years, and could be a rookie of the year candidate. Nail Yakupov is known for his entusiasm, he is perhaps better known for his incredible speed and skill. Fellow 1st overall picks Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Taylor Hall as well as Jordan Eberle will be responsible for most of the offense if Edmonton doesn’t want to be picking early again this summer.
GM Jay Feaster ruffled feathers by not rebuilding this year, but instead signing free agents Dennis Wideman and Jiri Hudler. Perennial all star Jarome Iginla still remains on the roster and his career could slowly come to a close without that elusive Stanley Cup ring. The Flames iron horse in goal Mikka Kipprusoff is now in his mid 30s and may not be able to start as many games as he could in the past putting added pressure on 24 year old goaltender Leland Irving. Calgary is 4-4-3 and look like they’ll have to perhaps wait another year to get back into the playoffs
If there is one team NHL fans of all teams, with the exception of the Canuck faithful of course, loathe its Vancouver. And why not? They’ve had the best regular season record the last two years and have a certain arrogance that comes with every winning team. But its more than that. Vancouver’s weak spot has been their overall team toughness and discipline. With players like Alex Burrows and Max Lapierre still on the roster, it seems that things will not change. With all the drama surrounding Roberto Luongo and his no trade clause, Vancouver signed backup Cory Schneider to a 3 year $12 million contract. The only issue is Luongo seems only willing to go to Florida, where he began his career and spends his off seasons, and is playing some great hockey. Seems like a great problem to have for GM Mike Gillis.
Loaded with young talent such as Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Ryan O’Reilly, the Avs came into this season looking to return to the playoffs. The only problem is Ryan O’Reilly is an RFA and remains unsigned. It appears that Colorado is unwilling to re-sign the young forward despite missing his offense. Colorado is 5-6-1 and fading fast early. Not an enviable position for the Avs and 20 year old captain Landeskog.
The team that mad e the biggest splash last summer was by far the Minnesota Wild. Signing the two most coveted free agents to identical contracts. While Zach Parise has produced offensively, #1 defenseman Ryan Suter hasn’t. Suter is a -7 and already drawing criticism. At 6-6-2 the Wild need to really focus on winning division games in a very weak Northwestern Division. The Wild are primarily backstopped by Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, who bravely battles the Multiple Sclerosis he was diagnosed with this past year while being a professional athlete.
The Pacific Division saw two of its teams battle in the Western Conference Final last year. LA prevailed over Phoenix in 5 games before taking home the Stanley Cup against New Jersey in 6. This tough division has the capability to send all 5 of its teams to the playoffs, but the Kings and Coyotes find themselves struggling early.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings found themselves the center of attention in the City of Angels for the first time since Wayne Gretzky broke the scoring record in silver and black. With one of the most dominant playoff performances in recent memory, the Kings held a 3-0 lead in every series and went on to a 16-4 record. But that was last year. After missing the first few games with an infamous “lower body injury” Anze Kopitar joined the Kings before their first win. It came 4 games in and it seemed the lockout didn’t provide a long enough period to get over the championship hangover. Jonathan Quick hasn’t been himself and the Kings are 14th in the West with a 4-5-2 record. Yikes.
Who saw this coming? It looks like Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton might have some competition for “Best Show In The OC” this spring. The Ducks are flying (hilarious, I know) with a 9-2-1 record and are 2nd behind only Chicago in the Western Conference. The ageless enigma that is Teemu Selanne is leading the team with 14 points and unrestricted free agents to be Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf all the sudden look like they may not have to be dealt at the deadline. 30 year old Swedish rookie goaltender Viktor Fasth is 6-0-0 with a 1.74 GAA and .933 SV% is looking like the hockey equivalent of Zack Greinke in 2009 and has already taken away the starting roll from Swiss Olympian Jonas Hiller. This is one of my favorite teams to watch. Emilio Estevez must be so proud..
Dallas reinvented themselves signing established veterans Jaromir Jagr and trading for Derek Roy this off season while parting ways with longs time Stars Steve Ott and Mike Ribiero. So far it has paid off. The Stars are 7-6-1 and looking like a team that can break its 4 year playoff drought and get back in the dance once again. Signing RFA Jamie Benn early was crucial for the team, but the NHL’s most underrated player Loui Eriksson needs to help his reputation a little bit. Only 7 points through 14 games and a -6.
San Jose Sharks
San Jose has dominated this division for the better part of a decade. After a torrid 7-0-0 start, they have now lost 6 in a row and are 7-3-3.Â Patrick Marleau who has drawn criticism from former teammate and NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick, started the season with 4 straight multi goal games. Since then, he and the Sharks offense have fizzled. The Sharks were shutout 1-0 in Nashville on Thursday night. San Jose needs to find that mojo from the first 7 games if they want to make the playoffs in a shortened season.
After proving criticsÂ wrong and making the playoffs for a 3rd straight year in 2012, the Phoenix Coyotes, once again, areÂ expected to maybe sneak in or just miss the playoffs. So far, the critics have been right. Phoenix is just 6-6-2 and have had early goaltending troubles since losing Mike Smith, who is now back, to injury. Smith is back, but is he healthy? The Coyotes play very much a team game. A system that was implemented by their head coach Dave Tippet when he replaced Wayne Gretzky 3 seasons ago. Phoenix is a team that has proven they can contend, but so far this year it has been rather disappointing. Add in the ongoing relocation talks that never seem to go away and you have a team that needs to focus on the task at hand now more than ever.
So this is the hockey column. I will be writing a couple per week to summarize all things puck. Hopefully we can touch on a few fun topics such as favorite goons and Kansas City hockey history as well as update what is going on the NHL. This weekend in the NHL is a good one. Philadelphia will look to right it’s ship heading into Montreal on the NHL Network on Saturday night (6 PM CST), Pittsburgh faces Buffalo on NBC on Sunday (11:30 AM CST), and LA look to take revenge against Chicago, who smoked them moments after they raised their banner as well Sunday afternoon on NBC (2:30 CST)
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