Today, in From the Pressbox:
Talk of realignment has resurfaced so I will take a look at possible new divisions and playoff formats that are being discussed. We will also look at the current schedule and examine some of the impact of the rivalry games. The early returns show a big surprise near the top of each Conference and a couple of floundering teams, who are currently outside playoff spots. We will examine the likelihood of those (mis)fortunes continuing.
According to a few sources, the talk of divisional realignment was part of the lockout landscape. In fact, we've been hearing about possibilities for a couple of years. Emphasis will be shifted toward the intensification of divisional rivalries in the possible new set-up, but lingering issues remain.
Looking at the Eastern Conference, the proposed divisions are fairly straightforward.
One likely scenario includes the movement of the two Florida-based teams in with the current Northeast division teams (Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. That would leave Washington and Carolina to join the teams of the current Atlantic Division (New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh).
The one remaining current Eastern Conference club, Winnipeg would happily move over to the West.
But the breakdown of the 16 clubs that would reside in the Western Conference is where the difficulty lies.
For example, there are loud whispers that Detroit will be accommodated with a switch to the East, likely joining the Northeast Division. This has long been implied, as the Wings have complained long and hard about not having any Conference rivals in their own time zone.
The resolution of the Detroit situation is the toughest issue, but not the only one. Do the four western-based Canadian clubs form the basis of one of the Western divisions along with the three California-based clubs (Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose) or would another split make more sense?
At the end of the possible realignment, the league executive would envision the playoffs being contested within the Divisions, with the Division winners meeting for the Conference titles and, subsequently, the Conference winners competing for the Stanley Cup.
This possibility would not preclude fans from seeing every team, with a home and away game for each club with every team from outside their Conference, likely to be a staple of a new schedule.
The biggest wins are for the intensification of Divisional rivalries and reduced travel for all clubs.
The impact of the current lockout-shortened schedule
With a 48-game schedule in this lockout-impacted season, the league was hoping that the importance of every game would be heightened, resulting in more heated competition. It's safe to say that this has been the case with fans coming back in record numbers in many locales. Everyone realizes that early gains can set up some teams for the rest of the season, while deficits can be a portent of eventual doom. The specter of free agency and a couple of buyouts in a year like this will also have a great impact on possible trades and player movement that might otherwise not be likely.
This, too, will generate more interest from fans who follow the sport closely and create more difficult front office decisions across the league.
In the meantime, division rivals will battle, tooth and nail, in those critical four-point games which will go a long way toward the final standings, leading to higher anxiety and a more frenetic atmosphere in those games.
Big Surprise at the top of each Conference so far
The New Jersey Devils currently sit atop the Eastern Conference with an 8-1-3 mark. I did not see this coming, as you may recall, I did not have the Devils in a playoff spot in my preseason predictions.
Let's look at the key contributors here.
In goal, they have Martin Brodeur, who has already earned my nod as the best to ever play his position. As he approaches 41 years of age, he's still at the top of his game, in posting a 6-1-2 mark, based on his 2.29 GAA and 91.1 SAVE PCT. This performance might certainly have been expected of him.
However, in their scoring leaders, there are a couple of surprises. David Clarkson leads the club with nine goals and six assists, coming on the heels of a career-best 30- goal season, which was almost twice as good as ay previous year in his career. Patrick Elias (14 pints) and ilya Kovalchuk (10 points) are next in line, as expected. After them, the next most productive forward is Adam Henrique, who returned from a thumb injury to record six points in seven games. Beyond this quartet, no other forward has even six points in the club's 12 games.
Ultimately, it's that lack of secondary scoring that leaves me feeling that the bubble will soon burst here.
Out west, the Anaheim Ducks are currently second best, with their 8-2-1 record. I thought that the big story here would be the outcome of the Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry salary negotiations, in anticipation of their possible entry into the free agent sweepstakes at the end of this season. Indeed, that storyline still exists, but the fact that the Ducks are proving to be a deeper team than anticipated, and not solely relying on these two stars, might give the club a leg up on resigning both of them. In the meantime, the club's scoring leader is their 42-year old sniper, Teemu Selanne, with 14 points and a (+6) rating. He has formed a dynamic partnership with fellow veteran Saku Koivu (13 points) and talented scorer Bobby Ryan (11 points), to take a significant share of the offensive burden from the acknowledged number one line. Daniel Winnik (nine points) has moved seamlessly into the left wing slot, alongside Getzlaf and Perry, to give the Ducks two legitimate high-end scoring lines.
In goal, rookie Viktor Fasth, 5-0, with a 1.72 GAA and 93.2 save percentage is pushing the struggling incumbent, Jonas Hiller, for time in goal. At the very least, this gives the Ducks a solid tandem back there and that's another advantage over most other clubs. Rejuvenated veteran defenders, Sheldon Souray (7 pts, +10) and Francois Beauchemin (5 pts, +9) are earning accolades fir anchoring this defense.
Too many things are going well to forecast a collapse here, any time soon.
On the flip side, we've already noted the sluggish start of the defending champs, the L A Kings, (3-5-2; 14th in the West) and continue to wait for them to find their groove.
The good news for them is that key offensive performers, Anze Kopitar (6 points 7 games) and Dustin Brown (5 points in seven games) have both started to find the range up front. That is a good indicator that the offense is about to take flight. The biggest remaining concern is the indifferent work of their top blueliner, Drew Doughty, who has only four assists and a team-worst (-10 rating).
Over in the East, the Philadelphia Flyers continue to coast outside a playoff spot, with a 5-6-1 record, putting them in 11th place.
On paper, this is a club that should be among the top-scoring teams in the whole league, but they've only scored 29 times in 12 games and that's a big surprise, until we are reminded that one of their leaders, Scott Hartnell, has only played in three games due to a foot injury. He's having the cast removed next week and could begin skating with the club soon after that. His infusion of drive and heart could be the catalyst to spark a reversal of fortune for his team. Otherwise, it will be up to youngsters Sean Couturier (5 points in 12 games) and Brayden Schenn (two goals and six assists) to take on a greater leadership role here.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and has been an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (statsman22).