We're a quarter way through the regular season and like any other NHL season, there's been plenty of surprises, both good and bad. Let's recap.
If you had told me the Flyers would finally unearth a top 15 netminder in Sergei Bobrovsky, they would've been my pick to win the Atlantic. Michael Leighton is skating again but both him and Brian Boucher would find an uphill battle to unseat the Russian netminder with a 12-3-2 record and sixth-ranked .926 SV% for goalies with at least 10 games played. I noted that Claude Giroux was a star in the making but what he's done this far has exceeded my expectations.
So how about that Carey Price!? No longer am I somewhat hesitant to voice my support for the BC native who was picked by the Habs to be their franchise goalie and he couldn't have chosen to break out at a better time. Not having to look over his shoulder for Jaroslav Halak has helped him tremendously, but all he needed was just some time, to mature and soak in everything. And you know when Price turned the corner? When he showed his unwavering support for Halak in the playoffs last year. That type of off-ice maturity bleeds on to the ice. Forget about Marc-Andre Fleury, who's an overrated regular season goalie, Price is the future netminder for Canada. He beats out Cam Ward and Steve Mason for that spot.
<img src="http://www.nhlsnipers.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/277-Stamkos-Game-Photo-3.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">Even as unreasonable a Steven Stamkos fan I am, what he's done this year boggles my mind. He's not going to score 82, or 76 to tie Teemu Selanne and Alex Mogilny, but my bet is that he scores 60. He's the best sniper I've seen since Brett Hull (even looks like him too) and even though he prefers that left face-off spot he can score in a variety of ways, unlike one-trick pony Dany Heatley. But everyone should've seen this coming. The World Championships are often overlooked because of the playoffs, but Stamkos really stood out with 7 goals in 9 games in the 2009 tournament. While both Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin are both adept at scoring goals, they're really fun to watch and compare because they're so different. Ovechkin's a bull - he'll do everything at high speed with raw talent, skill, and strength, but he'll also do the same thing 20 times even if he's failed the previous 19 times. Hal Gill really showed us how they could shut down Ovechkin by taking away just one of his moves. Stamkos is a different. He's a much more finesse sniper.
One of the few teams that has really surprised me is Atlanta. I thought the biggest piece Chicago would miss would be Dustin Byfuglien, but it's actually Andrew Ladd that has been the key cog in Blueland. You'd think that losing your most talented player in Ilya Kovalchuk would hurt, and they were better last year with him in the lineup than without, so that Rick Dudley and Craig Ramsay have turned this franchise around in such a hurry is really encouraging news. Dudley, who was with Chicago last year, clearly knew which players he wanted to target. And finally the franchise is putting some confidence in Ondrej Pavelec.
Don't let Boston's eighth rank fool you - they've played less games than everyone else and are currently in a slide, but this team is much better than its record suggests. Nathan Horton, with 8 goals in 22 games, is on pace for 30, the most since 2007. A healthy Milan Lucic gives this team an even more physical dimension and he's proving that he's a legitimate top six winger. Tuukka Rask has only one win (no fault of his own - Boston has scored just 12 in his 7 starts) but Tim Thomas has come back more determined than ever. If you need any proof that a good backup is key, just look at what Boston's been able to do, and to a lesser extent, the Jackets' Mathieu Garon, the Rangers' Martin Biron and Vancouver's own Cory Schneider.
Are we finally seeing the Cam Ward that we saw (quite unfairly, actually) win the 2006 Conn Smythe? Ward's been posting the best numbers in recent memory. His goals against is trending down and his save percentage is trending up. Ward turns 27 in February, the prime of his career but it may be all for naught if the Hurricanes can't find more breakout players like Jeff Skinner. Drayson Bowman, Jamie McBain, and Zach Boychuk, all highly lauded prospects, haven't had the same impact. It's hard to see Ward's numbers get even better than they already are now because Carolina's just not a very good team.
Ryan Miller isn't the best goalie this year and that shouldn't surprise anyone. It's so hard to predict which goalie is going to the best in the league ever year. There was a time when Martin Brodeur dominated every category but he's on the downside of his career so it's wide-open. Case in point. League leaders in SV%: Thomas, Garon, Ondrej Pavelec, Price, and Brent Johnson. Wins: Price, Jimmy Howard, Bobrovsky, Michal Neuvirth, and Thomas. I guarantee you no one had those goalies at the top of their lists in their fantasy draft (except maybe Howard). If Darcy Regier can turn this team around he and Lindy Ruff will stay, but owner Tom Golisano is under some pressure.
<img src="http://images.ctv.ca/archives/CTVNews/img2/20101111/600_maple_leafs_lose_101111_430241.jpg?2"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Florida's been another nice surprise this season. Tomas Vokoun has been spectacular as usual (9-8, 2.44 GAA, .923 SV%) on a team that can't score. Their highest scorer, Michael Frolik, has 13 points and Stephen Weiss still hasn't stepped up his game, which I thought he would with Horton's departure. It's nice to see that the Panthers, like the Canucks with Jeff Tambellini, has given proven AHLer scorer Mike Santorelli, formerly of the Predators organization, a chance to stick with the big club.
I used to hate having to watch the Leafs every Saturday night, but now I quite like it. Despite what people may seem to think about their lack of effort, I really think it's just a lack of talent. Sometimes it's visible, but most other times they're just plain bad plays and bad giveaways. Phil Kessel may be taking lots of flak for not scoring but it's not hard to see that he plays hard every shift and it's not really his fault he gets knocked on his butt every other time. All teams need to do to shut down the Leafs offense is to contain Kessel. The Leafs don't have a centre to dish him the puck or a strong winger to create some room for him. Most nights it looks like he's carrying the offense all by himself because Kris Versteeg clearly isn't comfortable being to a go-to guy after playing second fiddle in Chicago. The Leafs have improved, despite that awful Kessel deal, since Brian Burke came in. End of story.
As long as Kovalchuk is in a Devils uniform, that franchise is going nowhere. It's not so much that he's a bad player, he's really talented, but it's that contract. If that deal costs the Devils Zach Parise, it'd go down as the worst gamble in NHL history. While Lou Lamoriello still has some pieces in the organization, the Devils are certainly trending down. Martin Brodeur isn't what he's used to be and there's no heir apparent. Jeff Frazee isn't ready yet. Even when his team's struggling, Kovalchuk hasn't changed his game to suit the Devils' system. This inability to adapt or change isn't something that's applied to Kovalchuk, but to a lot of Russians. Ovechkin's gotten better at what he does but he hasn't added to his repertoire like Sidney Crosby or Stamkos has. It's also why I'd take Crosby over Ovechkin any day - because I know Crosby will always strive to be a more complete player (and also because he's a centre).
St. Louis will only go as far as Halak takes them. When Halak's head is in the game he's great, but once in awhile he'll just implode and let in 7 goals. With TJ Oshie out for the long-term, there hasn't been anybody who's stepped up their game. Patrik Berglund has responded nicely after clashing with Andy Murray last season but Brad Boyes has just 5 goals, David Backes has 13 points, and Andy McDonald, a good centre but miscast as a number one guy, is the team's leading scorer. The team needs to find the consistency that has to be present to win in the West - the Blues go 3 wins to start November, then allow 29 goals in 5 games, then win 3 straight after that.
If there's any team that will challenge Vancouver for the division title in years to come it's Colorado. Does anyone see a little Joe Sakic in Matt Duchene? That draft couldn't have worked out any better for the Avs and Duchene and in three years they may be the scariest team in the West along with the Kings. They need that franchise goaltender but the pieces are all there - Kevin Shattenkirk, Paul Stastny, Chris Stewart, Ryan O'Reilly, and Duchene.
Five years down the road, should Dean Lombardi not put his team in some sort of cap headlock, the Kings are going to be the team to beat in the West. A franchise player in Anze Kopitar, a future fab four with Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Colten Teubert, and Thomas Hickey, and a franchise goalie in Jon Quick. They've got a good mix of veterans right now and would be a dark horse to win the Cup despite their inexperience. Dallas may have the division lead right now but the Kings will be so far ahead by the end of the season they won't be able to the Stars in the rear view mirror.
Is there any other team that is as misinformed as the Sharks? I feel stupid for picking the Sharks to win the Pacific (albeit barely). The Sharks are a non-Cup contender posing as one. Their defense was porous to start the season and since Marc-Edouard Vlasic can't move the puck to save his life it's now just Dan Boyle, Doug Murray, and four other guys. The Sharks, even with Joe Pavelski, are a one-line team. As much as Todd McLellan wants to mix up the Big Three, he's continued to have to force the trio back together because they can't get anything going without one another. The goaltending is suspect and even though you don't need an elite goalie to win the Cup, you can certainly lose a season with two underperforming goalies. There's just no depth on this team.
<img src="http://therattrick.com/files/2009/08/48154_Flames_Bouwmeester_Hockey.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">I've also never seen a player with a worse brain to talent ratio than Jay Bouwmeester. This guy can skate like a wind but thinks like a brick. Really, sometimes the stuff he does just makes you question your own sanity. He's paid franchise player money when he clearly can't play like one. As long as he is the anchor of the Calgary defense, and he has to because he's paid the most, they will never win a Cup. My guess is that by the end of the year the Flames will dump Darryl Sutter and ironically name Jay Feaster, the former Lightning GM who defeated the Flames in 2004, as GM. I'm guessing Brent gets another year because a lack of good personnel isn't exactly his fault.
I think this is one of the few times i've praised East teams more than West teams and what we're witnessing is a shift in power. it's probably more apparent this year than ever. All the years of the East being inferior to the West is no more. The East has stockpiled so much talent over the years and slowly their patience is being rewarded. All of the league's young stars - Crosby, Malkin, Backstrom, Stamkos, the Staals, Price - are in the East. While the West may have more parity, more and more the good teams are separating themselves from the teams that still haven't adjusted to life in the cap era.
Hart: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
Vezina: Tim Thomas, Boston
Calder: Jeff Skinner, Carolina
Art Ross: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
Norris: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit
Lindsay: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
Adams: Guy Boucher, Tampa Bay
Selke: Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit
Richard: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay
But, wait! Where's Vancouver, you say? Well, they get a blog post all of their own and I think it's going to be a dandy, one that (hopefully) gets some good discussion going. Stay tuned!