There are plenty of topics to touch on as two months of the NHL regular season are now done. The coach carousel has begun as three teams have already pulled the trigger on headmasters who started the season with their clubs. A star forward is rumored to be on the trading block. Montreal is another team that will face salary cap issues even sooner. Meanwhile, organizational depth and early success make the Leafs a buyer. We're on Rookie Watch in Buffalo. A couple of players have moved up on their team's depth charts. Finally, we're chasing penalty minutes in hockey pools.
In St. Louis, Davis Payne was unable to convince the Blues of the need to look after the club's defensive end. This talented young roster was expected to make a big jump this season but they struggled to produce offense and their team goals allowed were the only thing to jump up. Replacing Payne with veteran coach Ken Hitchcock, a stickler for defensive acumen, was an easy call. Since that change the Blues are rolling. They are 8-1-2 and have allowed a total of only 13 goals against to vault themselves into a playoff position, even in hot pursuit of the top rung in the Central Division. The Blues have the talent to stay there all year long. A lack of experience of this roster may be the only concern.
Last week, Paul Maurice earned the rare distinction of being fired for a second time by the same team, as Carolina management sent him packing. Kirk Muller, highly regarded for his work as a top assistant coach in Montreal over the past couple of seasons, was plucked from the AHL ranks, where he was coaching the Milwaukee Admirals. Muller has long been considered a top coaching prospect and he will be challenged by the Hurricanes situation. This has been a team that saw an aging core of forwards carry the club's fortunes and now the fact is that outside of super-sophomore Jeff Skinner, a group of underperforming forwards that includes team captain Eric Staal has been struggling mightily. Muller needs to rally them and coax big-ticket free agent acquisition Tomas Kaberle to snap out of his season-long funk. This is looking like a big mountain for Muller right now.
Perhaps the most intriguing scenario is unfolding in Washington. As I speculated last week, Bruce Boudreau was backing himself into a corner with his inability to placate his stars in a defensive system. When you go against the talented Alexander Ovechkin, you are risking your job and Boudreau paid the price for it. Former Capitals' great, and more recently a very successful junior hockey coach, Dale Hunter is the new face behind the Capitals bench. So beloved is Hunter among Capitals' fans that the onus seems to have shifted to Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, among other players, to dig down deep within themselves and commit to this club. A continued failure by this talented team will quite probably lead to a potential overhaul. The fiery Hunter will demand effort. The question is will his players deliver?
By this time, some teams start to realize that they may be headed for a down year, while others begin to seek ways to fuel their rising fortunes. A meeting of the minds could result in a blockbuster trade possibility. One such circumstance appears to be circling around Anaheim Ducks winger Bobby Ryan. The Ducks have compiled a 6-13-4 mark and are one point out of last place in the league today. Club management must be looking ahead to next year, with concerns about having to re-sign Ryan's linemates, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the acknowledged team leaders here. A number of clubs have figured this out and if all the speculation is true, Ducks GM Bob Murray will probably be fielding significant offers for this 24 year-old stud winger, who is one of a handful of players who has topped the 30-goal mark in each of the last three years. The Ducks have to be concerned about a lack of depth on defense and this is also helping to fuel the speculation around Ryan. You have to be prepared to give up quality to fill the roster needs in Anaheim.
Another club that has some nearer term salary cap issues is the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs' management team is absolutely hamstrung by the bad contract that still carries a $7.357M cap hit on Scott Gomez's current deal, which has two more seasons left in it. Add the $5.75M deal with the same remaining term for injured blueliner Andrei Markov and that's over $13M for two players who haven't scored a goal this season. Add the fact that only two defensemen, Markov and Yannick Weber, are signed for next year and starting goalie Carey Price needs a new pact and the Canadiens have some very serious salary cap concerns.
Conversely, some teams have set themselves up by better management of the cap. The Maple Leafs are one prominent example on the plus side of this issue. Consider that they are battling for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, despite having to play with an injury list that has included as many as seven regular players at times during their first 24 games and you have to think this hot start is no fluke. The Leafs have two of the league's top scorers in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, who were two players acquired by trades and GM Brian Burke has used his trading skills to surround them with depth at every position. In addition, the highest salary cap hits on this roster seem to be money well spent on Kessel and Captain Dion Phaneuf. While a number of key players are signed through next season, the Leafs are well positioned to pursue high end talent and can put together impressive packages of assets to make more significant moves later this season.
Last week's feature game was the Boston Bruins' first tilt against Buffalo since the Ryan Miller injury, caused by Bruin winger Milan Lucic. The Sabres tried to send a physical reply, which was admirable, but it came up short of proper retribution when Lucic won his fight against Paul Gaustad. It was telling that the Sabres called up their 2009 first round pick, Zack Kassian, who is a projected power forward with the requisite size and toughness in his 6'3” 230 lb. frame. He is exactly that missing ingredient that Buffalo has been missing, a force modeled after Lucic, oddly enough. Kassian's development and the manner in which he is used in Buffalo's scheme will be worth watching.
For fantasy pool owners, this is a good time, with enough of an early season form chart to get a handle on players who have risen on their team's respective depth charts.
In Calgary the Flames have reunited two of their most skilled players, Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen, on the team's top line. A bigger surprise is the consistent upward trend that has catapulted winger Curtis Glencross into that front line group. He has seen his goal totals rise in each of the last three seasons' with a career high of 24 tallies last season, but has never been afforded such an opportunity in Calgary. With 13 points in 22 games, while playing in a secondary role, he was already in line to surpass his career high for points (43) and, if he sticks with this line he should smash that mark quite easily.
The New Jersey Devils have given rookie Adam Henrique a similar opportunity in handing him a role alongside the two best players on the roster in Ilya Kovalchuk and Zack Parise. With five goals and nine assists and this assignment for the foreseeable future, Henrique figures to be a surprising addition to the rookie scoring race in the NHL this year.
I have one final note for fantasy owners, who are in pools that reward penalty minutes in their scoring systems. Don't just focus on those players at the top end of the penalty minute parade, because you will be sacrificing offense and plus/minus ratings in taking players who may only be playing three or four minutes in their role as designated tough guy. Look instead for those tough guys who have taken on more regular ice and chipped in offensively. Cal Clutterbuck, Derek Dorsett and a soon to be healthy Chris Neil should be high on your wish list of more sensible penalty minute options because they have each shown some skill in notching points in the scoring columns this season.
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