The start matters for teams and for players, which is why, for years, NHL general managers have followed an unofficial timetable of using U.S. Thanksgiving as the first benchmark to make assessments of their team’s performances and, in many cases, to make their first roster changes.
In the case of the St. Louis Blues, however, they didn’t wait until carving the turkey before putting the knife in coach Davis Payne. They then dragged Ken Hitchcock and his Stanley Cup resume out of the recycling bin alongside his contract off the books of the Columbus Blue Jackets – who were everyone’s choice to create the first coaching casualty. There was certainly no shortage of early season surprises and disappointments.
There was also no clear indication - or shall we say “reason” - to inspire confidence, that a Canadian team would end a drought extending back to 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens were champions, and finally win the Stanley Cup. Alas, you could argue that the best Canadian team was one that many thought would be amongst the worst, at least for the short term, but the Edmonton Oilers were one of the big stories of the early season. The Oilers hit rock bottom over the past few seasons, but have done a nifty job of retooling through the draft, adding top picks such as Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but few expected that they would be as good as they were this early. Most would have guessed that the young guns would have been involved in their share of shootouts, but instead the Oilers were a top defensive team.
It started largely with goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who has had legal battles and distractions in the past year and no one had any real expectations for him, but he emerged in the new season as the second coming of Georges Vezina. Or, for the not-so-elderly, Grant Fuhr. Simply put, Khabibulin was lights out over the first month with godly goals against and save percentage numbers. And he pulled it off at the tender age of 38. The fact is, Edmonton was arguably the best Canadian team through the first 15 or so games. They’ve played with confidence and incredible attention to detail. And though the kids didn’t light it up every night, there were times when they handled the puck the way the Harlem Globetrotters handled a basketball. Heady praise indeed.
|James Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins|
Other early season surprises were the Pittsburgh Penguins, who continued to thrive and succeed despite not having superstars Sidney Crosby, who hadn’t played since the first week of January, and Evgeni Malkin, who had lingering knee issues. But it didn’t slow the Penguins down last season and it hasn’t this fall either. The Penguins brought winger James Neal in to play alongside Crosby, which didn’t happen, and he went a stretch of scoring just one goal in 20 odd games last season. Enter 2011 season and suddenly Neal’s off to a great start, scoring eight goals in his first 10 games.
Another interesting story was the Washington Capitals, who started like a house on fire, levelled off a tad and had a major controversy when Bruce Boudreau, who is fighting for his coaching life, didn’t put star Alex Ovechkin on the ice in the final minute of a game, with the goalie pulled. Lip readers determined that Ovechkin wasn’t pleased, though he was on the ice in overtime when the Capitals scored their winning goal.
Further south, few people expected the Dallas Stars to still be in contention for a playoff spot by the time the first snow fell, but instead, they’re still sitting near the top of the Western Conference standings. Show of hands, for everyone who saw that coming. And show of hands for everyone who thought defenceman Sheldon Souray, who had been dispatched to the minors with his big salary by the Edmonton Oilers the previous season, would have the positive influence he has had on the Stars. Probably the same people who thought the Oilers would be an
Other surprises, that fall into the category of disappointments, begin with the defending Stanley Cup champion, Boston Bruins. These guys definitely had a Cup hangover, but are now starting to find their way. Elsewhere, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who spent buckets full of money in the off-season, were an unmitigated disaster.
Besides Khabibulin and Souray, it appeared that Jaromir Jagr, back from a couple of seasons in the KHL, was a nice pick up by the Philadelphia Flyers. On a team that traded away some leadership and offence in Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, Jagr provided a little bit of both, going point-per-game through the first 17 games.
The Vancouver Canucks, who came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup last spring, had a different beginning to the season highlighted by the usual slow start of goaltender Roberto Luongo. In the meantime, both Daniel and Henrik Sedin, continued to lead the offence and be their best players. About the only thing the Canucks required was valium for a nervous Canucks nation.
The Calgary Flames were left to wrestle with the question of whether their cup was half full or half empty and whether it was time for a full retool. That is never an easy question to contemplate, or answer. But they were just average and average will not secure a playoff spot.
In the East, the Toronto Maple Leafs got off to a terrific start but it took precisely two losses back to back on home ice – a 7-0 loss to Boston and
a 5-1 loss to Florida – that left Leafs Nation a quivering, doubting mess.
But Kessel has had a great start – managing 11 goals in his club’s first 15 games and remains seated atop the scoring leader board – and the Leafs have managed to survive, for the time being, without injured goaltender James Reimer.
The Ottawa Senators, who many expected to be brutal didn’t disappoint in the first week or two. But, just when they were left for dead, they started running off the wins and were better than expected, especially when they were missing captain Daniel Alfredsson with injury. They aren’t likely to make the playoffs, but the Senators, with Jason Spezza playing really well, were more competitive than expected.
Unfortunately for Habs fans, the Montreal Canadiens have been a major disappointment. They had big time injuries on the back end, and they struggled mightily early on. They weren’t good at home and some felt that goaltender Carey Price had to take his game to another level, but then a winter without goaltending questions in Montreal would be like a winter without snow.