There is a wide range of issues plaguing the poor performance of several teams, from goalie issues, to coaching changes, to top players underperforming thus far. This week we will identify some of these team struggles, weighing in on the likelihood of turnarounds in those fortunes.
Goalie issues in Toronto and on Long Island
No team has performed at a playoff quality level in recent years while employing a three-man goalie rotation. The Islanders find themselves in this scenario with three healthy goalies and it's not going well. Oddly, Al Montoya, the least heralded of this group, started out playing impressively in three of their first four games this season, before suddenly being relegated to third-string status behind Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabokov, both of whom carry bigger salary cap hits than Montoya. This situation is further complicated by the fact that Montoya has clearly outperformed the other two goalies this far, with a sparkling 2.12 goals against average, which is at least .50 lower than his teammates. Perhaps the Isles are temporarily committed to their bigger contracts at the position, but they may also be showcasing Nabokov for a trade. That's the only way we can justify their reluctance to go with Montoya. Why isn't DiPietro expendable, you might ask? Have you forgotten about the albatross that is his long-term contract?
In Toronto, the Leafs have also had three goalies participating so far. However, James Reimer, who played the first five games, was knocked out of the crease by an apparent concussion, leaving the netminding chores to Jonas Gustavsson and untested minor leaguer Ben Scrivens. This duo has struggled with the workload and combined to allow an average of almost four goals against per game, which projects to be the worst goals against numbers in the entire NHL. With the shroud of secrecy over the extent of Reimer's injury and no potential return date being announced, the Leafs may see their great early season start completely offset by a swoon that may be taking place, unless they can stem the tide that has seen them lose two straight home games by a combined score of 12-1. A couple more losses here will certainly make the natives restless and call for significant changes. Drama around the Leafs? What a surprise!
A brewing goalie controversy in Minnesota?
We have all heard or read about the struggles of Roberto Luongo, who has been outperformed by his backup Corey Schneider. Yet, a similar circumstance may play out with the Minnesota Wild. Starter Nicklas Backstrom is not exactly struggling with his 2.06 goals against average to date, but it pales in comparison to Josh Harding's sparkling 1.18 mark over his first five appearances. While Backstrom is already regarded as one of the league's top and most consistent goalies, his backup is no slouch. Looking at Harding's career, we see a career average hovering around 2.50 over almost 90 career games. We wonder if he's a guy who may be pushing for an enhanced role or a change of scenery to get a larger role elsewhere. For now, this is a vey good situation for the fortunes of the Wild, a major reason for their 8-3-3 start.
Coaching change in St. Louis
Davis Payne is out and Ken Hitchcock is in as the bench boss in St. Louis. This move was brought about over the lack of offensive production from the core group of young and somewhat proven talent that has floundered so far. Apart from T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen, who lead the club with 10 and 9 points respectively, the shortfall from the rest of this roster called for a shakeup. Even in goal, starter Jaroslav Halak's goals against average (over 3.00 per game) was among the worst in the league. For a team with higher expectations, this move had to come early on. Hitchcock's first game behind the Blues' bench resulted in a 3-0 shutout win over Chicago, so the Blues showed some improvement for at least one night. In our view, this is definitely a team that has underwhelmed observers with their poor start. Perhaps this coaching change will right the Blues' ship going forward.
How have the Penguins survived their significant injuries so far?
A look at the Eastern Conference standings at the time of this column shows the Penguins at the head of the class with an impressive 9-3-3 record. It is more admirable in light of the fact that Sidney Crosby, the team's leader (and perhaps the best player in the game) has yet to play a game and Evgeni Malkin has been sidelined in seven games to date. The considerable absence of their top stars has been offset by the strong performance of the remaining players, a group that appears to be quite underrated.
One the other acknowledged leaders, Marc-Andre Fleury, has delivered top notch goalkeeping, punctuated by his 1.95 goals against average and .931 save percentage, both among the league leaders in those categories. On defense, Kris Letang is similarly ranked among the league's defensemen in minutes played per game and scoring among defensemen with 13 points in 13 games played. He is ably supported by a lot of quality veteran depth on this defense corps. Up front, no fewer than five players have scored at least three goals this season to spread the offensive load and show off the Pens' offensive arsenal. Overall, this adds up to a solid team effort and leads observers to consider that Pittsburgh will be the class of the Eastern Conference when Malkin and Crosby (whose season debut is around the corner) settle in.
A trio of forwards and one defenseman has made an impression, along with a few top draft picks that were expected to perform.
Luke Adam has accumulated 11 points in 13 games played with Buffalo. He burst out of the gate with six points coming in his first four games. The recent decline in his scoring pace bears watching because he is playing on a third line and there has been a drop in his ice time, to just under 15 minutes per game.
Cody Hodgson, the Canucks' first pick in the 2008 draft, has finally earned a starting assignment in Vancouver. The highly touted center has counted five points in his last seven games played. This is kind of production that has long been expected on this former Junior A star. He should be a safe bet to keep it up as long as he continues to get second line minutes.
In Nashville, Craig Smith, who was the club's fourth round pick in 2009, has also produced some unexpected dividends with 11 points in his 14 games. He is on a hot streak right now, playing 16-17 minutes per game and compiling seven points in his last seven games.
Among defensemen, Toronto's Jake Gardiner is making a case as the best new blueliner. He leads his peers with five points, but more impressively, he has earned a regular shift and is turning heads with his skating ability and he on-ice vision. He has the look of a future power play quarterback.
Things are not ducky in Anaheim
This club may boast one of the most dominant forward lines in the entire NHL (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Booby Ryan), which is holding up their end of the team's needs, but aside from the ageless Teemu Selanne, no other forward has scored more than one goal so far. Add to this the fact that top-scoring defensemen Lubomir Viznovsky and Cam Fowler have combined for one goal, while posting a (-7) and (-6) rating respectively. With this concentration of scoring and surrounding drop-off, this usually tough opponent is off to a less than impressive start.
Detroit's sluggish start
The Wings are another Western Conference club that has stumbled to a relatively poor start. Consider that perennial scoring leaders Pavel Datsyuk (two goals and -4 rating) and Henrik Zetterberg (three goals and a -1 rating) are both well off there normal pace and are surrounded by that same list of veteran forwards who have similarly faltered, there are little whispers that the long-time perennial contenders are finally headed for a fall. The lone exception is their venerable captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, who has six goals, five assists and a (+3) rating. I can't believe that the Wings are down for the count. History (the last 15 years, anyway) says you shouldn't bet against them. I won't, until I see more evidence.
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