One month into the season, we see no fewer than five surprise teams near the top of the NHL standings. Conversely, the Stanley Cup finalists are both struggling. This week we will review those clubs and determine which are in position to sustain their early level of success or recover from poor starts.
So, in looking at the NHL standings Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa, Dallas, and Colorado are all off to better than expected results.
In Toronto, we point to the fact that, for the first time in GM Brian Burke's tenure at the helm, he can point to the presence of six bona fide top-six forwards who occupy the top two lines. Prior to this season, opponents neutralized much of the Leaf offense, which was often a one-line attack. Not only is Phil Kessel leading all scorers and gelling with linemates Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly, but the Grabovski unit is also picking up where it left off last year. Defensively, the club is led by a rejuvenated captain Dion Phaneuf and gifted offensive-minded rearguard John Michael Liles, a solid free agent acquisition. The goalie tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson have given the Leafs a chance to win every night. The future is looking brighter for the league's second youngest roster
Speaking of young rosters, the Edmonton Oilers are on the verge of cashing in with the stream of young talent that they have brought with all the high draft picks that the recent struggling Edmonton clubs generated. While first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has earned most of the plaudits from this year's rookie class and is adding his skills to the work of sophomores Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, it is the Oilers defensive record, tops in the entire NHL that is primarily responsible for their impressive start. Veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the 38-year-old veteran is leading all goalies with a miniscule 1.12 goals against average to go with his 5-0-2 record. This great start by the Oilers is fueled not only by the experience star goalie and young guns on offense, but also due to the defensive efforts of a pair of former castoffs who are helping to form a cohesive core here. Corey Potter and Cam Barker have bounced around the NHL, but seem to have found things to their liking in Oil country. Teaming up with holdover steady types like Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid, they form a solid quintet, which may improve later in the year if the offensively-gifted Ryan Whitney can overcome a pair of leg injuries (currently he is nursing a knee problem for another three weeks after recovering from offseason ankle surgery).
Canada's capital city was expected to be mourning the plight of the hometown Senators, who have been sliding toward the bottom of the league standings in recent years and projected to reside there this season. Instead, they have been led to their early success by a revitalized trio of veterans and the successful efforts of a crop of relatively inexperienced teammates who saw ultimate success with the club's AHL affiliate, the championship winning Binghamton Senators last season. Jason Spezza has found a great working relationship with Milan Michalek and they have conspired to spearhead the league's most potent power play with their early efforts. Given that Spezza hasn't topped the 60-point mark in two prior seasons, his 15 points in 13 games is a pleasant surprise here. Similarly, Michalek, a four-time 20 goal scorer who has slumped to a total 67 points over the last two seasons, has turned back the clock and has posted eight goals and 13 points in 13 games played. Up front, even resident tough guy Chris Neil has chipped in more than usual with seven points in 13 games, to go along with 52 PMs. Defensively, Sergei Gonchar, a target of the local boo-birds, has rediscovered his prior all-star form and helped form a very potent tandem with young phenom Erik Karlsson at the back end of that fearsome power play. The spike in Ottawa's results is also being powered by the likes of youngsters Colin Greening, Eric Condra and Stephan Da Costa up front and the development of their towering rookie defenseman Jared Cowan.
Dallas figured to take a step backwards with the offseason loss of team leader Brad Richards to free agency. Instead, the surprising Stars stand atop the Pacific Division standings with an 8-3 record. How are they doing it? Well, the offense has been led by young guns Jamie Benn (2g, 8a), Loui Eriksson (6g, 3a) and veterans Brendan Morrow (2 g, 4 a) and Mike Ribeiro (1 g, 7 a) who are anchoring the club's top two lines. Superpest Steve Ott has also added a surprising eight points in his 11 games played. On defense, the club picked Sheldon Souray off the virtual scrapheap and he has responded to this career-saving opportunity with eight points and a team-leading (+8) rating in October. He adds his considerable offensive talents to the proven skills of Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley and Stephane Robidas to form one of the more talented quartets among the ranks of NHL defenses. In goal, former number one draft pick, Kari Lehtonen, is off to a career-best start with an 8-1 record which is supported by his 1.75 goals against average and a similarly gaudy .948 save percentage.
Colorado has been mining the junior ranks with great results for a few years, in recent drafts and it appears that this is yet another young squad that may be on the verge of big things. Rookie winger Gabriel Landeskog (with seven points in 11 games) looks like a very good addition to an offense that flows through talented centers Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny. Milan Hejduk remains a potent scorer (four goals in 11 games) as the old man of the offense, at 35 years of age. In goal, the pairing of a decorated veteran (J.S. Giguere) and young talent with a solid early career resume (Semyon Varlamov) forms a credible combination. Defensively they are led by another former high draft pick (Erik Johnson) and a solid effort from Kyle Quincey, who is enjoying a fine bounce back from his injury-plagued 2009-10 season. The remainder of this roster is dotted with interesting pieces, players who have conspired to give the club its current 7-4 record and plenty of room for optimism.
Of these clubs, I am (all prejudice aside) of the mind that the Oilers and Leafs are the most likely of these teams to sustain their early success because of the very clear plan of the development (through differing means) that they have followed to accumulate the depth of talent in their current rosters.
What about Boston and Vancouver? Both clubs are apparently victims of their long playoff runs from last season, as they have both stumbled out of the gate this season. The defending Champs have only made one slight alteration to their lineup in promoting Tyler Seguin to a regular role among their top six forwards and he has repaid that faith by leading the Bruins in scoring (11 points in 11 games) thus far. The only other material change is that Joe Corvo was signed on to replace the departed Tomas Kaberle. These guys are virtually interchangeable. After that, blame for the club's poor start can be shared equally by the rest of this under-performing roster. We have to believe that they will round into form because the core group is still that young, big and strong group that stormed through the playoffs last year. In fact, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, two key cogs have shown signs of life in the past week. This club may be on the cusp of a restored profile.
The Canucks are a more complex case. The struggles of goalie Roberto Luongo, arguably the club's signature player in terms of his profile in the league, continue to plague this team. He has given up more than his share of soft goals and currently sports a 3.20 goals against average, which is the highest its ever been since his rookie season (1999-2000 with the Islanders). The home fans have made matters worse by displaying their loss of faith in this former fan favorite. In addition, the Canucks are trying to work in a couple of youngsters (Cody Hodgson and Dale Weise) into their top scoring lines. They have endured some growing pains with this added responsibility. Add to that, the fact that they miss the departed Christian Ehrhoff, as a catalyst on their power play and that last year's club-leading 41-goal shooter (Ryan Kesler) has only played seven games (with 1 goal and four assists) and is still showing some effects from injuries he sustained in last year's playoff run. While there are more moving parts in Vancouver's troubles, as opposed to the Boston situation, the same conclusion points out the fact that this remains a very talented team that should shake out of its current doldrums and will likely finish the regular season as a serious Stanley Cup contender.
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