As we saw in last week's column ("Tales of Halloween Horror"), the first month of the regular season can be downright frightening for those clubs expecting, or hoping for, a strong start to the NHL season.
For other teams, however, the opening month can provide unexpected, happy surprises.
Take the Tampa Bay Lightning, for example. Since their inception in 1993, they've been an NHL laughingstock; one of the first teams pointed out as disposable by critics who wish to see the league contracted. This club has been so bad for so long, many hockey experts predicted the Lightning would finish dead-last this season.
For too many seasons, the Bolts have floundered in the depths of the Eastern Conference, their playoff hopes usually dead by Christmas. They possessed too many youngsters, lacked skilled veterans, and were plagued by off-ice ownership and management problems. Attendance was among the lowest in the league, with local fans preferring to spend their hard-earned dough on other entertainment.
But to the amazement of its critics and the delight of their long-suffering fans, the Lightning charged from the gate this season, running up an impressive 7-1-2 record in it's first ten games, best in the East.
The reasons for this amazing start? Let's start with rock-solid goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, considered by most as one of the ten best netminders in the game. Game in and game out, "Khabby" rarely has an off-night, which in turn gives his team a chance to win every game.
Next, a much-improved blueline corps, thanks to the development of Pavel Kubina and the additions of Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich since last season. Boyle is among the team leaders in points, while Lukowich brings his experience with the Dallas Stars to a defence corps that needed a strong defensive presence. Kubina, meanwhile, improves with every season, and may be ready to take the next step into joining the league's elite defencemen.
Most notable is the Lightning's lethal offensive punch. There's the league-leading goal-scoring of the dimunitive Martin St. Louis. Much-travelled and oft-maligned Vaclav Prospal is off to the best start of his career. Fredrik Modin, a former 30-goal man, appears to be returning to form this season after missing most of the '01-'02 season with injuries.
Brad Richards, a Calder finalist two seasons ago, remains one of the best young playmakers in the game. Ruslan Fedotenko, jeered by critics as a poor return for the Lightning's trade of their high first round pick this year, is making GM Jay Feaster look like a genius with his improved offensive numbers.
Often overlooked but equally important, the leadership of captain Dave Andreychuk and grinding forward Tim Taylor provides them with the experienced veteran talent they've lacked for years.
Andreychuk, in particular, has been a guiding force. Rather than sign in the off-season with a playoff contender, he instead re-signed with the Bolts, making a committment to rebuilding the team. His leadership plays a huge part in the Lightning's "never-say-die" attitude this season, as they've out-scored their opponents in the third period this season by a wide margin, rallying several times from deficits to emerge victorious.
The big story, however, be the break-through season of Vincent Lecavalier. Lightning fans have waited since 1998 for this first overall draft pick to live up to his superstar billing. A contract holdout, injuries and clashes with head coach John Tortorella scuttled his development last season. Worse, then-GM Rick Dudley sought to shop Lecavalier, but was over-ruled by team ownership.
Given Lecavalier's strong start to this season, it may well turn out the decision not to move him may be the best one this franchise ever made. Vinny is averaging a point per game, but most importantly, he's finally bought into the two-way play Tortorella has been preaching to him the last two years.
If Lecavalier is indeed making his long-awaited emergence as a superstar, he could become the main factor that pushes the Lightning into a long-awaited return to post-season competition.
Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, tongues are wagging and jaws are agape over the stunning early success of the Minnesota Wild.
A team in only it's third year of existence, the Wild have defied the odds thus far by not only leading the West in points, but also find themselves the best team in the NHL at the end of October.
The Wild have confounded the experts, who predicted this club's defensive-style would suffer under the crackdown in obstruction this season.
Rather than employing clutching and grabbing, the Wild now out-skate and out-hustle their opponents, winning the important checking battles by getting to the puck first. Wild coach Jacques Lemaire has used his team's speed to his advantage.
If anything, the new rules on obstruction have opened the game up for the Wild's offensive stars, making them more dangerous and in turn, catching their opponents off-guard.
Like the Lightning, the Wild have been winning thanks to the combination of strong goaltending, solid defence and a rise in offence, thanks in no small part to a rising young superstar forward.
When the Wild traded for netminder Manny Fernandez in 2000, the plan was for him to become their starting goaltender. Those plans appeared to be in jeopardy, as Fernandez struggled badly last season. Some questioned if he had what it took to be an NHL starter.
Those questions have faded away in the wake of Fernandez's strong start this season, as he's placed among the league leaders in almost every goaltending category.
His critics are waiting for Fernandez to suffer a meltdown, but thus far, Manny has shown no signs of cracking. If anything, he seems to be improving with each game.
The Wild's blueline doesn't contain many "name" players, but it possesses guys who are becoming more notable with each passing game. Filip Kuba anchors their powerplay, while Lubomir Sekeras is perhaps the steadiest of Minnesota's blueliners. There is also the promise of young Nick Shultz, now starting his second season at only 20 years old, and the development of former New Jersey Devils farmhand Willie Mitchell.
Perhaps the most notable improvement of the usually defensive-minded Wild is offensively. Veterans Andrew Brunette, Sergei Zholtok, and off-season acquisitions Bill Muckalt and Cliff Ronning have average nearly a point a game.
Brunette has been a strong pickup for the Wild since he was signed away from the Atlanta Thrashers two years ago, and Zholtok showed signs last season of returning to his former 20+ goal form, which he's carried over into this season
After going all last season without scoring, and bouncing from three teams in two years, Muckalt found a home, and his scoring touch, in Minnesota. A shoulder injury has sidelined him, but if he returns to the offensive ways he began the season, he could hit 30 goals this season.
Ronning appeared to be on the downside of his career after last season. The Nashville Predators dealt him, rather than re-sign him, to the LA Kings, where Ronning was underwhelming down the stretch and in the Kings two playoff rounds.
Signed by the Wild, Ronning - like Muckalt - appears rejuvenated in Minnesota. He's off to a flying start this season, and like Dave Andreychuk in Tampa Bay, provides the Wild with the veteran leadership up front they've been lacking.
But no Wild player has created more buzz than third-year forward Marian Gaborik.
The club's first-ever first round pick two years ago, Gaborik had a promising rookie campaign, followed it up with an impressive 30-goal, 67 point sophomore season, and barring the unforeseen, could be on track for over 85 points in 2002-03.
Thanks in part to an eye-popping six point night that garnered him a Player-of-the-Week nod, Gaborik's strong play this season has raised his profile outside of Minnesota. The kid once called the best young talent no one has heard of is now becoming a rising superstar everyone is paying attention to.
But how much longer can this last?
Their critics have sneered at the quick start of these two upstarts, believing they'll tumble out of playoff contention by mid-season and take their accustomed place at the bottom of their respective divisions by season's end.
Even some of their fans, while thrilled over the impressive starts, are privately concerned the Wild and Lightning will be battling hard for the final playoff spots in their respective Conferences.
That's the trouble with an 82-game schedule spread over seven months. A club that looked like world-beaters in October can end up on the golf course by season's end. Just ask the 2001-02 Calgary Flames!
That being said, I don't consider either club to be "flashes in the pan".
I'll admit it's a stretch to expect both clubs to still be atop their respective Conferences by April, however, I believe they have a very good chance of making the post-season.
As long as Khabibulin and Fernandez carry their outstanding goaltending performances throughout the season, the Wild and Lightning have a shot.
As long as their defensive games remain solid, and their lineups stay relatively healthy, their chances will improve.
As long as their offence doesn't go south and remains consistent throughout the long season, Tampa Bay and Minnesota should remain in playoff contention.
Most importantly, as long as Vincent Lecavalier and Marian Gaborik carry their impressive early starts throughout the remainder of the season, there's no reason to believe their respective teams can't make the playoffs.
Yeah, it's a long season, full of ebbs and flows and unexpected occurences that can make or break a team's playoff hopes.
But the good people of Minnesota have been without playoff hockey for too long, and the long-suffering hockey fans of Tampa Bay deserve some success after years of supporting a laughingstock.
Besides, I love watching the rise of promising young teams. They create excitement, while challenging the status quo of long-dominant divisional and conference rivals.
Here's to the Wild and Lightning! Let's hope this ride lasts a long time.
I'll begin this article by stating I have no problem with the respective inductions of Roger Nielson and Rod Langway into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
While Nielson is a much-travelled head coach, he was an innovator who's influence on the game remains worthy of merit.
His use of video to improve his team's performance, as well as for scouting opponents for strengths and weaknesses, is now used by coaches at all levels.
Furthermore, Nielson touched thousands of hockey lives with his long-time summer hockey camp, as well as his coaching at the minor and junior league levels.
Langway was perhaps the last pure defensive blueliner to win the Norris trophy, a feat he accomplished twice. An all-star numerous times, Langway was also instrumental in turning the Washington Capitals from a moribund also-ran club into a perennial playoff team during the 1980s.
He also helped raise interest in the US for aspiring hockey players, and answered his country's call in international tournaments like the Canada Cup.
Based on these accomplishments, there can be no doubt Nielson and Langway deserve to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But Bernie Federko and Clark Gillies?
Come on, now, let's get serious!
I'm sure this will offend their fans, as well as those long-time supporters of their respective clubs, the St. Louis Blue and New York Islanders. But seriously, what accomplishments did these guys make to merit entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame?
Federko chalked up 10 seasons with 50 + assists. Nice, but what else did he do to merit entry into the Hall? He's among the top fifty scorers of all time? Sorry, but as one sportswriter pointed out, he's fast falling out of that category, having dropped to 43rd overall. Within the next five years, his name will disappear from that achievement.
He twice cracked the top ten scorers? Not bad, but other players with more accolades to their name, as we'll soon see, also turned that trick, as did players with roughly the same credentials as Federko.
Did Federko garner any individual awards? Was he a perennial contender for the scoring title? Did he lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup?
At least Federko supporters have those statistics as a basis for substantiation. I'm still trying to figure out what Gillies did to gain entry to the Hall.
Yes, he was a popular player, a grinder who was overshadowed by his flashier, more skilled linemates, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy. Yes, he played tough, but fair, and only dropped the gloves if an opponent was dumb enough to tangle with him.
But what great feats did Gillies accomplish to merit inclusions amongst hockey's greatest players?
He played on four Cup winners? So did Montreal's Doug Jarvis, who still holds the NHL's "Ironman" record of most consecutive games played with 964. Jarvis also won the Selke Trophy in 1984 as the league's best defensive forward. He was one of the best faceoff men and penalty-killers ever. Certainly that's more worthy of Hall-of-Fame inclusion than being "a prototypical power forward"?
I'm sorry if this sounds petty, and I'm sure I'll hear about this from irate Islanders fans. Clark Gillies had a good NHL career, but he did nothing to merit entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
There are plenty of examples of former great players who are more worthy of being in the Hall, Doug Jarvis being only one.
How about former Boston Bruin forward Rick Middleton? Twice in the early 1980s - just like Bernie Federko - he was among the league's top ten scorers. He was an All-Star and a member of Team Canada in the 1984 Canada Cup. Middleton also won the Lady Byng as most gentlemanly player in 1984 and was runner-up for the Calder in 1973. He was also one of the most exciting and entertaining players the game has ever seen. Surely these accolades are worthy of acceptance in the Hall?
What about Carl Brewer of the Toronto Maple Leafs? He was a terrific defenceman in the early-1960s for the Leafs, playing for three Cup winners. As one sportswriter noted, he was also a four-time All-Star, a runner-up for the Norris, played for Canada's National team in the late-60s, and helped pioneer hockey in Finland.
Not worthy enough to gain entry into the Hall? Possibly, but if Clark Gillies and Bernie Federko can get in for less, why not Brewer?
Hell, I'd vote Brewer in as a builder, for it was thanks to his tireless fight on behalf of retired NHL players that fixed a huge injustice visited on them through a miserly pension scheme. His efforts were also instrumental in sending former NHLPA honcho Alan Eagleson to prison for defrauding those players he was supposed to represent, Brewer having been one of them.
That's probably why Brewer is overlooked when it comes time to consider players for selection into the Hall. He was considered a "troublemaker" by the old guard of the NHL on and off the ice. Unfortunately, there's still a lot of them around and they have a say as to who gets into the Hall of Fame.
What of Clark Gillies former teammate, Butch Goring? I've always believed one of the biggest injustices in HOF history is how often Goring gets passed over for inclusion.
He was one of the most complete players the game has ever seen. If you needed a timely goal, Goring could get it. If you wanted someone to kill a penalty, you sent out Goring. If Isles head coach Al Arbour looked for a player to check his opposition's best line, he went with Goring.
Most Islander historians will tell you it was the acquisition of Goring from the LA Kings in 1980 that was the final piece of the championship puzzle, which launched the Isles on a four-year Cup run.
Goring's play also garnered him two individual awards, the Lady Byng in 1978, and the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in 1981.
How can the HOF ignore a terrific all-round player like Goring year after year, yet grant entry to guys like Federko or Gillies?
And what about European players? Sure, the number of Europeans selected to the Hall is bound to rise as years go on, given the increasing number of European stars in the NHL.
But what about former Soviet greats like Alexander Yakushev, Boris Mikhailov, or Valeri Kharlomov? Granted, they never played in the NHL, but they dominated international play, and earned rave reviews from their NHL opponents in the 1972 Summit Series. Aren't their accomplishments worthy of consideration?
How about the accomplishments of Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg? Sure, they played in that lesser league known as the WHA, but playing with Bobby Hull in the late 1970s, these two former Winnipeg Jets formed one of the most exciting lines in hockey, one that also matched up well against NHL oppositions during exhibition games.
These are but a few examples of players who, for whatever reason, are seemingly ignored for consideration by the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee.
And don't think I'm just picking on Gillies and Federko here. The HOF has a long history of voting lesser lights into their exclusive club.
For example, former Montreal Canadien Steve Shutt was the first left winger to score over 60 goals in a season, and played on four Cup winners. Good for him, but that doesn't warrant inclusion into the HOF.
Bob Pulford? He's more notable as Bill Wirtz's yes-man in Chicago than for anything he ever did on the ice during his playing career. In fact, given his unspectacular career, one is left to wonder if Wirtz and others of the old-boy network used their influence to get Pulford into the Hall.
And it's not just some players who have no business being in the Hall of Fame.
Why, in God's name, is Harold Ballard a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame? Since when did taking a beloved, respected franchise like the Toronto Maple Leafs and turning it into a laughing-stock become credentials for entry into the Hall. Let's not forget his stint in prison for fraud and tax evasion in the early 1970s. Yeah, there's a sterling guy to honour in the Hall!
Clarence Campbell? The man was a feeb! As several books on his tenure as NHL president have pointed out, Campbell was a lackey of the owners, who were the real power behind his throne.
John Ziegler? Another guy who was in the hip pocket of the team owners, as well as a close, personal friend of that well-known felon and defrauder of the NHL players pension, Alan Eagleson.
The whole point of my little rant here is to point out that, no matter how much the HOF selection committee goes on about using stricter guidelines for selecting players and builders, it's apparent they still aren't good enough.
Federko and Gillies were good, talented players in their day. They had good careers and deserve to be saluted for them. If their teams wish to honour them, great, retire their numbers, have a night for them, offer them a job with the team for life, whatever.
However, there are other former players who accomplished much more during their careers than Federko and Gillies. It is unfair for them to be passed over because of personalities, nationalities or whatever. To pass over players like Middleton, Goring, Jarvis, Brewer, Yakushev, Hedberg and others who did so much to bolster the image of hockey in favour of lesser players is ridiculous.
It calls into question the integrity and the knowledge of the members of the selection committee.
Worse, it casts the Hockey Hall of Fame into a bad light, making it's hierarchy appear to be an old-boy network where recognition is passed down only to those they deem worthy of being HOF material, while ignoring those who properly deserve it.
As one newspaper noted, it's not the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame. It's not the North American Hockey Hall of Fame, nor the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame.
It's very name - the Hockey Hall of Fame - is supposed to be a blanket one, by which it recognizes those in all the major hockey leagues and associations who have made signficant contributions to the sport.
While they have improved in recognizing those worthy of merit, it's apparent there are still problem areas that need to be addressed.
While we wait for those changes, consider this article an official nomination by one hockey fan of those players noted in it whom I deem more than worthy of induction!
SI CUTS DOWN LEAFS:The biggest off-ice news of the week was an article by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Farber, which tagged the Toronto Maple Leafs the team everyone loves to hate.
Farber writes the Leafs are the NHL's "most notorious band of whiners, divers and cheap-shot artists", singling out in particular forwards Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker and Shayne Corson for antics that have brought down the wrath of their peers around the league upon the club.
Most of the Leafs were quick to shot down the SI story with sarcasm and humour, however, the club has earned the tag placed on them by Sports Illustrated.
Sure, there are plenty of whiners, divers and cheap-shot artists on other club, but none are more noticeable than the Leafs. Their antics during last spring's playoffs made more than one Leafs fan cringe, and even earned scoldings from the more sycophantic of the Toronto press.
Not that long ago, back in the 1998-99 season, the Maple Leafs were a likeable, talented club, but they've definitely grown more snarly over the years
NO RIGHT TO SWAGGER: Former Leafs backup and now-TV analyst Glenn Healy offered up his explanation as to why the club is disliked, saying there's a "certain swagger" that comes with being a Leaf.
A certain swagger?
The Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers of the 1970s had swagger. So did the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames of the 1980s. So did the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 90s. So do the New Jersey Devils, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings. So did the Montreal Canadiens for over five decades.
Championships earn you the right to swagger. Years of being the best, or among the very best, earn you that cockiness. The Leafs have had little to feel smug about since their last Stanley Cup win in 1967.
What swagger is there in once having an owner who turned the franchise into a joke for over two decades? What cockiness is to be gained from being whiners who lack the parts to make it to the Cup finals? What earns one cock-of-the-walk rights when you possess the second longest Cup drought in the NHL?
Win the Stanley Cup, Maple Leafs, then you can strut.
WACKY WORLD OF AL STRACHAN: Perhaps no club is covered with more media fervour in the NHL today than the Maple Leafs.
One of their long-time beat writers, Toronto Sun reporter and resident Hockey Night in Canada rumourmonger, Al Strachan, attempted to find the real reasons for the club's sub-par start to the season.
First, he lashed out at Pat Quinn on November 6th with a very sarcastic article that took the Leafs GM/head coach to task for a variety of issues, from failing to sign Mike Richter or Byron Dafoe and settling instead on Ed Belfour, to an inability to sign any of last summer's big-name crop of unrestricted free agents. Strachan even offered a snide suggestion that Quinn was attempting to rebuild the Vancouver Canucks of the mid-1990s by bringing in Garry Valk, Gerald Diduck, Jyrki Lumme, Alex Mogilny, Josh Holden, Mike Penny, Murray Oliver, and Rick Ley.
But Strachan was only getting warmed up. He then ripped Quinn for an apparent policy of not trading for a player unless someone in the organization has scouted the player in question. The reporter finished by taking the Leafs GM to task for lack of a plan to build the club into a winner.
Two days later, on November 8th, Strachan apparently changed his mind, deciding the real root of the Leafs problem was veteran winger Shayne Corson.
He wrote that Corson, along with brother-in-law Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi and Travis Green were part of a trouble-making "clique" who are dividing the Leafs dressing room, with Corson the leader of the pack.
According to Strachan, those Leafs who were aggravated with Corson were afraid to confront him, as the winger's skills as a scrapper both on and off the ice are well-known. The reporter claimed Corson was trying to assume the leadership role normally held by Gary Roberts, who's out of the lineup with injuries, but that Corson lacks Roberts leadership skills.
The following day, however, on November 9th, Strachan changed his mind again, deciding neither Quinn or Corson were to blame for the Leafs troubles this season. No, by golly, the real culprit was team president Ken Dryden.
In an article dripping with so much sarcasm you could use it to clean a kitchen floor, Strachan took Dryden to task for a lengthy list of transgressions, suggesting the Hall of Famer had done little, if anything, to improve the Leafs on-ice product.
He blamed Dryden for the situation whereby Quinn is the only GM/coach in the league, that Quinn has to agree to a successor for the GM job, for the failure of the club to make decent trades, and for the "arrogance" the Leafs have that has earned them the hatred of their peers.
Strachan suggested Dryden was ill-qualified to be a team president, having spent the 16 years between his retirement as a player and his hiring as Leafs president paying little attention to the game. He also took Dryden to task for the Leafs having apparently little to show for the fifth-highest payroll in the league, burdening Leafs fans with ticket hikes to watch their so-far mediocre product, and little depth on the blueline. He ended his slam of Dryden by suggesting the Leafs need someone "who has lived his whole adult life in hockey and who has vast experience running a hockey operation. "
Gee, Al, why don't you tell us what you really think?
So who is the real bad guy here? Who's the scapegoat? What next, is Carlton the Bear up next for a slam job?
I don't recall Strachan being upset with Quinn's management style in 1999, when the Leafs vaulted from a moribund also-ran into a Cup contender.
In January 2000, in fact, Strachan was flowing with praise for Quinn's development of young talent and for making some good trades to bolster the club.
Corson may or may not be a negative influence on the Leafs room, but Strachan didn't appear too upset when the Leafs signed him as a free agent in the summer of 2000, noting Corson would help bring a gritty edge to the forward lines that had been lacking in the 2000 playoffs, when the Leafs were pushed around by the eventual Cup champion New Jersey Devils.
As for Dryden, Strachan has long loathed hockey's renaissance man. Maybe it's because Dryden starred for the Leafs long-time rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, in the 1970s. Maybe it's because Dryden has written two well-regarded, best-selling books on hockey that has Strachan green with envy. Or maybe it's because Dryden has a better grasp of the English language than the monosyllabic Strachan.
Whatever the reason, Strachan's attack on Dryden came across more like a jealous high school kid firing spitballs with a peashooter at the school's best athlete, who's also on the honour roll, than an intelligent reporter calling the record of the Leafs president into question.
There is some merit in Strachan's assessment of Dryden, but the reporter overlooks some crucial facts in his diatribe. It was Dryden who was instrumental in bringing Curtis Joseph to Toronto in 1998. It's Dryden who goes to the ownership to get the money management claims it needs to build the Leafs, and it was Dryden who okay'ed bringing in Pat Quinn.
Strachan may have his panties in a bunch now, but if the Maple Leafs rebound, make the playoffs and - miracle of miracles - wins the Stanley Cup, you can bet he'll be the first one loudly singing the praises of Dryden, Quinn and Corson.
All I can say is, if that does happen, I'll have a lot of fun using Strachan's own words to give him a dose of his own medicine! Not that he'll care, or even know, but it'll be cathartic nonetheless!
With a quarter of the 2002-03 NHL season completed, here's a look at how the 30 clubs are faring thus far.
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: After a sluggish start, the Ducks have made notable improvement at the quarter-mark, presently battling with the rival LA Kings for second in the Pacific Division. Key factors for this include a healthy Steve Rucchin, the off-season addition of forward Petr Sykora , a promising start for rookie winger Stanislav Chistov, the outstanding goaltending of JS Giguere and, of course, team captain Paul Kariya. Their offensive game should improve with the return from injury of Adam Oates. While it's still too soon to predict a playoff berth for any club, Ducks fans are beginning to feel optimistic about their team's hopes for a post-season berth.
ATLANTA THRASHERS: After failing to post up a win in their first 8 games, the Thrashers have played over .500 hockey since then. Forwards Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk show no signs of the "sophomore jinx", the off-season additions of Shawn MacEachern and Slava Kozlov bring in much-needed depth and experience to the scoring lines, and 1999 first round pick Patrik Stefan seems poised for his long-awaited breakthrough season. Credit GM Don Waddell for recently addressing two problem areas by obtaining playmaking centre Marc Savard for a little-known Russian prospect, and signing veteran netminder Byron Dafoe. Despite the recent additions, their defensive game needs improvement, which Waddell admits to shopping for. They'll need it if they're to stay at .500 the rest of the season.
B0STON BRUINS: Despite losing key players to injury (Samsonov, Lapointe), free agency (Guerin, Dafoe) and holdout (McLaren), the Bruins remain one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Robbie Ftorek deserves praise for the B's strong team game. Other notable factors include steady goaltending from an unheralded goaltending trio (Shields, Grahame and Thomas) and the strong play of forwards Glen Murray and Brian Rolston. Credit also the addition of mobile rearguard Bryan Berard to their blueline, the development of young defenceman Nick Boynton and most importantly, team captain Joe Thornton's ascension to stardom. Despite all this, it will be interesting to see how well the goaltending tandem holds up as the season progresses.
BUFFALO SABRES: It's been a grim time to be a Sabres fan. The team is playing terribly, promising forward Maxim Afinogenov is out indefinitely with a concussion, other key players are struggling, and there was, until recently, uncertainty as to who might buy the team, and if they'd keep them in Buffalo. There are, however, two rays of hope for the future. Local businessman Mark Hamister is poised to purchase the Sabres and intends to keep them where they are, and the surprising performance of oft-maligned centre Chris Gratton, off to the best start of his career. For now, however, the Sabres have a very deep hole to dig out of if they want to salvage this season.
CALGARY FLAMES: Despite possessing one of the best young defence corps in the game, the addition of forward Chris Drury, and the presence of Art Ross winner Jarome Iginla, the Flames '02-'03 season is in jeopardy. A lack of offence, notably from Iginla, Drury and Chris Conroy, is costing the Flames, and in turn, quickly dampening the playoff hopes of their long-suffering fans. If they don't reverse their fortunes soon, not only could head coach Greg Gilbert face the axe, but the Flames could be out of the post-season picture by mid-season.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: After struggling early through the dreaded "Cup Finals hangover", thanks in no small part to poor goaltending by Arturs Irbe, the Hurricanes have rebounded and are in position to challenge for first in the Southeast Division. Backup goalie Kevin Weekes has taken over as the 'Canes starter from Irbe, who has demanded a trade if he doesn't get more playing time. The roster continues to play head coach Paul Maurice's team system, which has compensated for the lack of offensive production from Sami Kapanen and playoff heroes Erik Cole and Bates Battaglia. The Hurricanes will need more from these three, however, if they're to build on last season's success.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Experts believed the 'Hawks would struggle early, due to a back injury suffered by sniper Eric Daze, the rehab woes of free-agent addition Theo Fleury, and questions about the goaltending of Jocelyn Thibault. Their offensive has dropped off compared to this time a year ago, but the Blackhawks continue to buy into head coach Brian Sutter's system, keeping them over .500 and within reach of division rivals St. Louis and Detroit. The main reason Chicago remains in contention is the oft-maligned Thibault, whose eye-popping performance ranks among the top goaltenders in the league. If "T-Bo" has truly reached the next level, and should Daze and Fleury can return to bolster their offence, the Blackhawks could be challenging for first in the division by mid-season.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Overlooked because of the strong start of their expansion rivals from Minnesota, the Blue Jackets are a much improved team thus far, hovering around. 500, and only a handful of points out of first in their division. Free agent acquistions centre Andrew Cassels and veteran blueliners Luke Richardson and Scott Lachance, combined with the improved play of veteran Ray Whitney and the promise of rookie Rick Nash, have the Jackets keeping pace with their divisional and Conference rivals. Cassels and his former Hartford Whalers teammate Geoff Sanderson have rekindled their chemistry, giving Columbus an potent one-two punch. It remains to be seen how long the Jackets can keep pace, but they're not going to be an easy two points anymore.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: Trouble appears to be brewing for this long-time Western Conference powerhouse. Despite a superstar-laden roster, the Avs are barely staying above .500 and are struggling to win on home ice. Goalie Patrick Roy, hampered by a hip problem, has publicly blamed his club's defensive play, which may not have gone down well with his teammates. Still, there can be no denying the Avs aren't as dominant in their own end as they once were. If Roy continues to struggle with injury, the club fails to tighten up defensively, and their home ice record doesn't improve, the Avs could be faced with an unusual situation: battling for one of the last playoff berths in the Conference down the stretch.
DALLAS STARS: Amazing what a coaching chance and a few savvy free agent signings can do. The Stars have put their lamentable 2001-02 season behind them and are once again one of the most dominant teams in the league. Bill Guerin has given Dallas additional offensive punch, Phillipe Boucher and waiver pickup Stephane Robidas give the blueline corps more depth, and Ron Tugnutt has combined with Marty Turco for one of the best goalie tandems in the league. First-year coach Dave Tippett has opened up the Stars offensive game, which has been a breath of fresh air to a team shackled too long to the defensive styling of the previous coaching staff.
DETROIT RED WINGS: After a so-so start, the defending champs are showing signs of returning to their dominant form of a year ago. They're rolling out their balanced attack, led by Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan and Norris-and-Smythe winner Nicklas Lidstrom. Free agent signee netminder Curtis Joseph also started slowly, but like his teammates has been improving as the season progresses. GM Ken Holland actioned the potential season-ending injury to rising blueline talent Jiri Fischer by trading for Jason Woolley, who's thrilled to be out of the doldrums of Buffalo. Team captain Steve Yzerman remains sidelined as he recuperates from knee surgery, but with the Wings apparently shaking off their "Stanley Cup" hangover, there's no need for him to rush back to action.
EDMONTON OILERS: Like their interprovincial rivals from Calgary, the Oilers are a team loaded with talent that inexplicably cannot play up to expectations. The Oilers, in fact, possess a deeper roster than the Flames, so their average play this season is inexcusable. Granted, there remains a lack of experienced depth on their checking lines, and they still need another offensive forward for their second line. That being said, a club with Tommy Salo, Eric Brewer, Janne Niniimaa, Jason Smith, Anson Carter, Mike Comrie, Ryan Smyth and Mike York on their roster is capable of much more than they've given thus far. Perhaps a coaching change is needed to snap this bunch out of their mediocrity.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: Not much was expected from a young, rebuilding Panthers squad this season, but head coach Mike Keenan wasn't buying that. "Iron Mike" has done a terrific job thus far, getting maximum effort from most of his roster and keeping the Swamp Cats near the .500 mark. Keenan is to be commended for bringing out the best of the previously disappointing Olli Jokinen, who finds himself among the league's leading scorers. GM Rick Dudley also deserves praise with his acqusition of goaltender Jani Hurme, who has played so well he may have stolen the starter's role from Roberto Luongo. Still, no Keenan-coached team is without controversy, and questions linger as to how much longer forwards Val Bure, Viktor Kozlov, Stephen Weiss and defenceman Dmitry Yushkevich will remain with the club.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Despite a series of injuries to key players like Jason Allison, Ziggy Palffy, and Adam Deadmarsh, the Kings have managed to remain competitive, staying above .500 and battling with the Mighty Ducks for second in their division. Two pleasant surprises are rookies Alexander Frolov and Jaroslav Bednar, who've benefitted from the sidelining by injury of more experienced players. Still, the Kings are struggling to score this season, and clearly miss Allison and Deadmarsh. Their prolonged absence could become a factor as the season progresses.
MINNESOTA WILD: One of the biggest early surprises to this season is the play of the Wild, who presently sit atop the Northwest Division and among the best teams in the league. Thus far, they show no signs of slowing down. Led by emerging star Marian Gaborik, rejuvenated veteran Cliff Ronning, and the red-hot goalie tandem of Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson, the Wild use their team speed to effectively check their opponents into submission. Still, the Wild will continue to have their detractors, who'll expect them to cool off and slip down the standings by mid-season. It may take that long to determine if this club is for real.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: For most of this season, Les Canadiens have been living dangerously. Although they're above .500, they have a bad "Hab-it" of playing poorly in their own zone. In almost all their games this season, they've been out-shot, at times by a two-to-one margin. If it weren't for the goaltending of Jeff Hackett and, to a lesser extent, Vezina-winner Jose Theodore, the Habs would be near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. While Hackett, team captain Saku Koivu, linemate Richard Zednik and defenceman Andrei Markov have played consistently well, the same cannot be said for most of their teammates. If the Canadiens are to build on last season's success, they need improved performances from guys like Donald Audette and Mariusz Czerkawski, as well as a significant improvement in their own zone.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: The anticipated development of the Predators into a playoff contender has failed to materialize. Things are getting ugly in Nashville, where the Preds have more one-goal losses than any other NHL club. The offence expected from forwards David Legwand, Scott Hartnell, and Denis Arkhipov has fizzled, while they're among the league leaders in goals-against. As the season heads into the second quarter, it doesn't look like they're going to halt this trend, which could cost head coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile their jobs.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: There's a concern over the lack of offensive production, but no one can deny the success of the defensive methods of new head coach Pat Burns. The controversies and turmoil from a year ago are gone, and committment to team defence, and great goaltending from Martin Brodeur, is back in New Jersey. As a result the Devils presently sit among the top four clubs in the Eastern Conference. While the Devils look like they're a playoff contender at this point, the anemic offence and Brodeur's heavy workload could be factors as this season progresses.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: After such a strong season last year, the Isles reverted to the woeful club they were in the six years prior to their '01-'02 campaign. Granted, the absence of team captain Michael Peca was a factor, but they're basically the same club that won over 40 games and posted 96 points a year ago. There's talk most of the players are dissatisfied with the coaching of Peter Laviolette, but GM Mike Milbury has hinted he'll move players if the club doesn't improve. Recently, the Isles have shown signs of rallying, but it remains to be seen if this improvement is long-term. One thing is certain: heads will roll if the Isles remain on the losing path.
NEW YORK RANGERS: The good news is Mark Messier is playing like he's ten years younger, sophomore winger Mikael Samuelsson is already close to his entire offensive totals of a year ago, and 19-year-old goalie Dan Blackburn is bravely tending the Rangers net. The bad news is, key players like Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure aren't playing up to expectations, UFA signee Bobby Holik is sidelined by injury, veteran netminder Mike Richter is out indefinitely with a concussion, the defensive game remains horrid, and the coaching of rookie bench boss Bryan Trottier is under attack from the New York fans and media. It's obvious this early in the season the Rangers need Lindros and Bure to step up, for Trottier to get a better handle on his roster, the defensive game must improve, and a skilled veteran backup to help Blackburn carry the load until Richter can return to action must be found if they're to make the playoffs.
OTTAWA SENATORS: Another club that started slowly, the Sens have regained their winning ways and are climbing up the Eastern Conference standings. The usual cast of leaders - captain Daniel Alfredsson, forward Marion Hossa, and blueliner Wade Redden - and the continued development of strapping defenceman Zdeno Chara into a future Norris contender has contributed to the Sens recent improvement. Still, the future of rookie Jason Spezza with the club, and a significant drop-off in offensive production beyond Alfredsson and Hossa, are key areas that will have to be properly addressed as the season progresses.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: The soap-opera storylines that dogged the Flyers in recent years are absent this season, thanks in no small part to the no-nonsense coaching of Ken Hitchcock. The Flyers are playing a better all-round game compared to years past, and have benefitted by the return to goal-scoring form of a healthy John LeClair and the goalie tandem of Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche. Still, there are concerns over the so-so performance of winger Simon Gagne, and talk of reliable blueliner Dan McGillis struggling under Hitchcock's system. As long as the Flyers keep winning, however, these concerns will be minor ones, but at some point, they may need to be addressed.
PHOENIX COYOTES: A rash of injuries to several key players (notably star goalie Sean Burke and blueline mainstay Teppo Numminen) have hamstrug the Coyotes development thus far. The offensive production of free agent addition Tony Amonte, last season's 30-goal man Daniel Briere and playmaking centre Daymond Langkow has been disappointing thus far, leading to speculation the 'Yotes may be in the market for an upgrade. Despite their woes, the Coyotes are playing close to .500 hockey, but they'll need to improve - and get healthier - between now and mid-season to avoid losing ground to their divisional rivals.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: After a red-hot start, thanks to the offensive stylings of Mario Lemieux and Alexei Kovalev, the Penguins have cooled off of late. One need look no further than the lack of significant offence beyond the Lemieux line and an average blueline squad as the main culprits. Lemieux and his linemates may be difficult to shut down, but the same can't be said for the other Penguins forwards. Meanwhile, defensive breakdowns and a struggling penalty kill are hurting the Penguins. Super Mario can do a lot of things, but he cannot be expected to carry this club by himself. If Lemieux gets injured again, the Penguins playoff hopes will go up in smoke.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Losing their best goaltender, goalscorer and defenceman would be the kiss of death for most hockey clubs. Not the Blues, who've somehow managed to not only lead their division, but are among the top four in the Western Conference. Thank the steady goaltending of backup Fred Brathwaite, a healthy Doug Weight, the improved play of former doghouse-dweller Cory Stillman, the surprising goalscoring of minor-league castoff Eric Boguniecki, and an overall good defensive game for the Blues odds-defying performance thus far. Still, this a team that can ill-afford to lose more players to injury, and will need to get some of those already injured back soon.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Another club that got off to a horrible start, the Sharks have made noticeable improvement in recent games, thanks to the return from contract holdouts of starting goalie Evgeny Nabokov and defenceman Brad Stuart. With their roster now intact, the Sharks are climbing back up the standings. However, a disturbing trend of late has been a lack of defensive consistency, which thanks to Nabokov hasn't been as costly as it could be. This club needs to get it's collective act together over the next quarter of the season if they're to continue gaining ground in the West.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Is this club for real? That's the question posed by most experts as the league's former laughingstock continues to sit atop the Southeast division and among the top four clubs in the East. The goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin, the goalscoring of dimunitive Martin St. Louis and the long-awaited breakthrough season of Vincent Lecavalier powered the Bolts to a fast start, however, a recent slump has observers believing the Lightning are about to collapse. That remains to be seen, but all eyes will be focussed on the Bolts as they head into the second quarter of the season. The next twenty games could well determine if the Lightning are an emerging force or a flash-in-the-pan.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Has "Canada's team" seen their best days? The once-mighty Maple Leafs have struggled early, battered by injuries to important players like defenceman Bryan McCabe, questions about the goaltending of Ed Belfour, and off-ice turmoil. A recent 5-4-1 stand have some Leafs fans convinced the club is turning the corner, but the burden of carrying underachievers (Robert Reichel, Mikael Renberg, Jonas Hoglund) and aging veterans (Shayne Corson, Jyrki Lumme) could be the Leafs undoing as the season progresses.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Like several other clubs, the Canucks started the season slowly, but have found their footing over the last ten games (as of this writing) posting up an 8-2 record and the third best points total in the West. Two early season trades (Sami Salo from Ottawa, Marel Malik and Darren Langdon) brought in much needed defensive depth and toughness, and in turn snapped the roster out of their early-season malaise. While notable Canucks like Naslund, Morrison, Bertuzzi, Jovanovski and Cloutier appeared to find their games, there's concern over the lack of development of the Sedin twins, while little-used forward Jarkko Ruttu displeasure has boiled over during practice.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS. Despite notables like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Olaf Kolzing on the roster, the Capitals have been underachieving this season, currently sitting under .500. It's led to questions of rookie head coach Bruce Cassidy tactics. Clearly, several Caps players (Jeff Halpern, Dainius Zubrus, and recently acquired Mike Grier) aren't playing to their best, and this is something Cassidy must successfully address if Washington is to atone for missing the playoffs last season.