WHAT'S GOING ON ?

 

One of the things I absolutely used to loathe in school was report cards (what I used to hate more was explaining my grades to my folks!). Well now the shoe’s on the other foot, as I get the opportunity to evaluate our favorite game – so far.

We’re just barely 1/3 of the way through the regular season but already there have been plenty of surprises both on and off the ice. Without further ado then, here is the unofficial Puckin’ Around report card for every team and the NHL in general.

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – The Ducks have been fairly consistent, but not consistent enough. Can no longer rely on Paul Kariya to carry this team. Adam Oates has not lived up to expectations. Petr Sykora has been a welcome addition. If the Ducks could ever get a good winning streak going, they could actually quack their way into the playoffs, but not at the rate they’re going. They cannot allow themselves to fall below .500. Grade: C+

Atlanta Thrashers – Mixed reviews revolve around these feisty birds. If a team is not ready to play, they can bury you quick, but if a team is on their game, there’s no chance. There is light at the end of the tunnel, as they boldly signed veteran goalie Byron Dafoe, but he hasn’t done much so far to boost the team’s momentum. Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk both have picked up where they left off last season, but their weakest link is defense. If they could ever trade for a marquee defenseman they could have a chance, but not this year. Grade: D+

Boston Bruins – The big bad B’s are back! Joe Thornton is the real deal, as well as Sergei Samsonov and Glen Murray. Newcomer Ivan Huml has been a pleasant surprise, as has been goaltending from both Steve Shields and John Grahame. Clearly they aren’t missing Byron Dafoe, but look out, the B’s of late are coming back to earth and the rest of the conference has taken notice! If the first part of the season is any indication, the Bruins at the very least should be a lock for home ice advantage in the postseason, but a lot could change before then! Grade: A-

Buffalo Sabres – You can’t help but feel sorry for the NHL’s hardest working team. They lose their number one goalie to free agency/retirement and they no longer have the funds to bolster their offense or defense. The ownership situation clearly has sent a nasty message to the players and they can’t buy a goal. It certainly isn’t for the lack of firepower. Miroslav Satan, Chris Gratton, Stu Barnes and Tim Connolly have some of the best shots in the NHL. Martin Biron has been doing alright, but he isn’t Hasek. And to add injury to insult, Jochen Hecht lost part of his ear after getting hit by a puck which was shot from the point by his own teammate! What is it with the Buffalo Sabres and freak accidents? This team is better on paper than they have been on the ice, but it’s the final score that counts. The Sabres need to pull up their socks and fast. Grade: F

Calgary Flames – This team is also better on paper than they have been on the ice, yet poor Greg Gilbert took the fall for the lack of execution. Craig Button must be kicking himself in the ass for allowing what appeared to be a blockbuster trade with Colorado. Chris who? Jarome who? Both players need to pick it up, because Roman Turek can’t always bail the team out. Look for either Ted Nolan or Jim Playfair to replace Gilbert behind the bench. Iginla needs to start scoring again on a more consistent basis. This team could be playoff bound but it just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen again. Grade: F

Carolina Hurricanes – After a shaky start, the ‘Canes are picking up where they left off last season. Whether or not they can return to the Stanley Cup Finals is another story. The rest of the Eastern Conference has taken notice of last season’s feat and are out to prove it was a fluke. I don’t think they’ll secure a top seed this year, but they’ve already proven they can pull off an upset. Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour and Erik Cole are still one of the most dangerous lines in the NHL. Their biggest problem has been staying out of the penalty box. I still think they will come back to earth before the season ends. Grade: B+

Chicago Blackhawks – Consistency has been a problem with this team, or has it? Have the Hawks been as bad as they look or are the other teams around them worse? Pleasant surprises abound in rookie Tyler Arnason, plus Theo Fleury has cleaned up his act. Goaltending is consistent with Thibault and Passmore. If the Hawks can keep their head above .500 they should be alright. Grade: C

Colorado Avalanche – What has happened in Colorado? Some say the elevation, some say injuries. The trade of Chris Drury to the Flames seems to have played a big factor in the Avs demise, not to mention they can’t win at home to save their life. Now with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg nursing injuries, they will be hard pressed to improve anytime soon. Patrick Roy is not the Patrick Roy of old, no matter what anybody says. In fact, I am predicting Roy will retire at the end of this season, you heard it here first. You have to wonder how many times he’s replayed Game Seven of the Colorado-Detroit series in his mind. Although there is some improvement of late, the Avalanche will be hard pressed to qualify for the postseason at the rate they’re going, much to the delight of the rest of the Western Conference. Grade: F

Columbus Blue Jackets – When the franchise named Doug Maclean president and general manager of the team, we all knew this team would be a force to be reckoned with, it was just a matter of time. So far, this team has quietly become the 2002 version of the Florida Panthers 1996 team which Maclean led all the way to the finals. The Jackets are strong on defense, with Jamie Allison and Scott Lachance. The Hartford Whalers reunion of Geoff Sanderson and Andrew Cassels has put a spark into the team. Rick Nash is one of the strongest draft picks in a long time and is definitely earning his spot on the team. Marc Denis is proving himself as a capable starting goaltender. This is one of the few teams that have been able to pack their arena to full tilt. I will not at all be surprised to see this team make the playoffs, but they still have a lot of work to do. Grade: B+

Dallas Stars – It seems spending a little money does in fact pay off. The Stars are doing everything in their power to avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight season. Unless they experience a complete and total meltdown, they should be a lock for at least a division title. Bill Guerin has added the offense the Stars were expecting, Mike Modano and Jason Arnott are as dangerous as ever, and Marty Turco is proving there is life after Ed Belfour. Dallas should be a strong contender again. Grade: A

Detroit Red Wings – The Stanley Cup Champs are at it again. Dave Lewis has been a capable replacement for Scotty Bowman, but let’s be honest here. I could probably coach this team, because they really don’t need much coaching. The talent and depth speaks for itself. Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov and Chris Chelios are all on the All Star ballot (and will most likely all make the trip to Florida). Curtis Joseph has fit in nicely as a suitable replacement for the retired Dominick Hasek, but fans in Toronto and Edmonton already knew he would before the season even started. Pavel Datsyuk is having a fine sophomore season, and rookie Henrik Zetterberg is becoming a potent offensive weapon. “Lucky” Luc Robitaille gets my vote for quote of the year so far: “Shhhh! It’s Hat Twick Season, and we’re hunting Stanley Cups!” If you haven’t yet seen it, this is one of the television ads for NHL 2003 by EA Sports (you can read my review in Video Game Corner). Early indications are this team is a serious threat to repeat as champs, just don’t tell the rest of the league! Grade: A+

Edmonton Oilers – Times are tough in Edmonton. Craig MacTavish is on the hotseat. Just when we think the team has hit rock bottom, they go on a winning streak. Ryan Smyth, Anson Carter and Mike Comrie have all figured into the scoring. Mike York is starting to become the player Edmonton hoped he could be. Tommy Salo clearly has put the Olympics behind him, and Jussi Markaanen is a capable backup. The Oilers have proven once again to be a well-oiled machine, but like last year, they have to win those divisional games or they could find themselves on the outside looking in, again! Grade: B-

Florida Panthers – With the exception of Jay Bouwmeester and Peter Worrell, the Panthers are lacking a physical prescence on their team, and the rest of the league has taken notice. Florida has the most European players of any NHL team with fourteen, but this could be a good thing in the long run given the way the referees are officiating this year. Valeri Bure has hit the shelf along with his brother Pavel as both are out with injuries. Kristian Huselius has been scoring big goals when the team needs it. If it wasn’t for Roberto Luongo Florida would probably be in the basement of the Eastern Conference. Perhaps a little consistency and a little more physical play will push the Panthers over .500 for the first time since they made it to the finals. Grade: C-

Los Angeles Kings – It seems the Kings are attempting to sneak into the postseason again like they have the past two seasons. Mike Cammalleri has been a pleasant surprise, all five foot nine of him. Felix Potvin has continued to shine. Injuries have been a big problem for Los Angeles, but with Adam Deadmarsh back they should be able to get some more offense going. Zigmund Palffy has not seen the kind of numbers he is capable of. The biggest test will come down the stretch when positioning becomes ever so important. Grade: C+

Minnesota Wild – This has been the most pleasant surprise of the season so far. Jacques Lemaire has this team playing like they’re the New Jersey Devils or something. Marian Gaborik is new to the scoring race, but has earned his spot in the top ten. Cliff Ronning, Wes Walz and Jim Dowd give veteran experience to such a young team. After being shuffled around the expansion teams, Andrew Brunette seems to have finally found a home in Minnesota. Manny Fernandez is trying to show Dallas they were wrong to give up on him. It’s too early to tell, but wouldn’t it be something to see a first round Columbus-Minnesota match-up? I say believe it! Grade: A

Montreal Canadiens – The Habs have come back to earth, but still seem consistent enough to be a threat in the Eastern Conference. There seems to be some controversy over which goalie is better, Jeff Hackett or Jose Theodore. The fans don’t like the fact that Theodore has been sitting for most of the season, but quite frankly he hasn’t really earned his salary of late. If it hadn’t been for Hackett the Habs’ record would be a lot worse, a reality the francophone fans in Montreal have been slow to recognize. Doug Gilmour is playing every game like it’s his last., Saku Koivu is back in top form, and newcomer Randy McKay has added a missing physical aspect. While I don’t think a Stanley Cup is in the Habs’ future, never ever count them out. I predict a dogfight between the Habs and the Leafs for the final playoff spot. Grade: B-

Nashville Predators – Early indications are the Predators could lose some money this year. The team promised fans if the Predators don’t make the playoffs this year they will refund a portion of their season ticket costs. Looks like they could be looking to make good on that promise. Currently in the basement of the NHL Standings, the Preds haven’t done anything to make their lineup any better. They just traded away Mike Dunham to the New York Rangers for a few marginal at best players. Tomas Vokoun is capable but in all probability will not carry this team down the stretch. Rem Murray may find his footing here, but it will be too little too late. Andreas Johansson was on a tear, but now he’s injured. Maybe next year fans will have something more than mustard colored jerseys to cheer about. Grade: F

New Jersey Devils – If you look at the standings you’d think the Devils were not doing all that well under Pat Burns, but in reality the top of the Eastern Conference is so close all it will take is a streak by New Jersey and they’ll be in top spot. The top guns of Sergei Brylin, John Madden, and Joe Nieuwendyk have been firing on all cylinders. Brian Gionta and Christian Berglund have been pleasant surprises. Martin Brodeur continues to add to his all-star stature. Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens continue to be solid on defense, but they seem to be taking a lot more penalties than they should be. The Devils are aching for a rematch with Carolina in the playoffs, and if it happens, look for the tables to turn on the Hurricanes. Should be an interesting team down the stretch. Grade: A-

New York Islanders – The Isles are another team whose record should be better than it is. Of late they have been a little better, but Mike Peca and Alexei Yashin alone are not going to get it done. Where is Brad Isbister and Dave Scatchard? If anybody knows, please notify the NY Islanders. They have to get above .500 if they have any hope of making it to the postseason. Chris Osgood has to be more consistent in net. Oh by the way, what is with those god awful third jerseys? Are you the New York Islanders or the New York Pumpkins? Grade: D+

New York Rangers – And where do I begin with the most expensive team in the league? For starters, they’re just barely on the outside looking in, and unless they get it going they’re going to stay there. Newly acquired Mike Dunham should help a little bit, but will he fit in New York? Mike Richter and Pavel Bure are both presumably gone for the season. Where are Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis? Simply put, this team cannot rely on Eric Lindros and “The Moose” Mark Messier to get it done. The Rangers have unfairly expected Dan Blackburn to bail them out, but let’s be realistic here. Blackburn is twenty years old, and has many great years ahead of him, but they need somebody to help him out. I’m not sure Dunham is the answer. They also unloaded Rem Murray to the Nashville Predators. More trades are apparently imminent to fill the void left by Theo Fleury, so stay tuned to the newswire. I had predicted at the very least a first round visit to the playoffs for New York, but I’m not so sure now. If they can get on a streak they’ll be fine, otherwise it’ll be another long summer for Glen Sather. Grade: D+

Ottawa Senators – Say hello to one of the best power plays in the NHL. The rule changes have definitely helped this team. From the get go, it took a very humbling 6-1 loss in Boston to get this team fired up, but they haven’t looked back since and are quickly closing in on Boston for the Conference lead. What’s been the difference? Confidence. When you’re hot, you’re hot, and Patrick Lalime has continued to shine in net for Ottawa. Goal scoring is coming from every line, with Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Daniel Alfredsson leading the way there. The Sens have yet to lose in overtime this year (knock on wood), which has also helped their cause. I know everybody is saying this is just regular season, but I firmly believe this team is ready to make the next step in the playoffs, and if it just so happens to be against Toronto victory will be that much sweeter. Those Matthew Barnaby for Magnus Arvedson rumors won’t go away, and given John Muckler’s previous relationships with Matthew I say it’s all but a done deal, but we’ll see. If the Sens do meet the Leafs with Barnaby in their lineup, Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker will most likely behave themselves. Only thing I’d like to see is Jason Spezza back with the club, but with a streak like they have going why rush a future star? Grade: A+

Philadelphia Flyers – As expected, the Flyers are once again on top of their division, at least for the time being. And this is without John Leclair. Jeremy Roenick is again on top of his game, newcomers Michal Handzus and Marcus Ragnarsson have added depth to an already potent lineup, and there’s that name again, Andre Savage has filled in nicely in Leclair’s absence, playing with Roenick and Justin Williams. Roman Cechmanek has played brilliantly in goal, and Robert Esche is finally proving to be a capable backup. Bob Clarke is never satisfied though, which means we’re likely to see a trade or two before the end of the regular season. Probably the biggest reason to expect Philly to be a contender in the East, head coach Ken Hitchcock. Look out though, they have some key match-ups coming up against Dallas, Ottawa, and what should be gimmes against Atlanta and Colorado. They can ill afford to stop rolling now. Grade: A+

Phoenix Coyotes – Wayne Gretzky’s team is behind the eight-ball in a big way. Sure, they lost Sean Burke to injury, but with the firepower they have they should be in the top eight. Tony Amonte was supposed to add some life to this team and so far this has not happened. Where have all the goals gone? The Coyotes were one of the hottest teams down the stretch last year, now have all but run away like real coyotes in the desert do. Gretzky swears up and down the coach will not be fired, but what is it going to take to get some of the dogs to turn rabid? Amonte for sure has to light a spark under his pants, as well as the regular scorers like Claude Lemieux, Kelly Buchberger and Brian Savage. Daniel Briere has been the most consistent player, but it’s going to take a team effort to get the dogs back into the sunshine. Grade: F

Pittsburgh Penguins – Surprise, surprise, our old friend Alexandre Daigle cleared waivers with the wingless birds. Even playing with Super Mario has not boosted his ability to put the puck in the net. Mario Lemieux, on the other hand, has lit up the lamps more times than anybody in the league up to this point, and he’s expected to keep up his torrid pace. Outside of Lemieux, though, that’s about it. Johan Hedberg has been great in net, but he can’t stop them all. The only reason Alexei Kovalev is having a good year is because he’s up for contract renewal at the end of the season. Martin Straka has not been the same since his injury. Maybe Mario can convince his old friend Jaromir Jagr to come back under the right circumstances, or perhaps he should trade himself to Washington. Grade: D-

San Jose Sharks – Darryl Sutter was the first head coach to be fired in the NHL this season, and for good reason. How can a team with so many stars be in their division’s basement? Although they haven’t been as pitiful as the Phoenix Coyotes, they have been bad enough to be way out it and would have to go on a streak of Vancouver Canuck proportions to even have a hope of securing a playoff spot. Where is Owen Nolan? Where is Teemu Selanne? Seems both were spotted shopping at the mall recently. New head coach Ron Wilson couldn’t get it done in Mighty Ducks land or in the U.S. President’s lair, what makes the Sharks think he can get it done in San Jose? They have improved a little bit over the past little while, but they need more from their top guns. Grade: F

St. Louis Blues – With games at hand, they’re very close to taking over top spot from the Dallas Stars.  Fred Brathwaite has been unbelievable in net, how did Edmonton and Calgary ever let this guy go?  As backup, when called upon, Brent Johnson has continued where he left off before the Detroit series last year.  Doug Weight is healthy again and is proving he’s worth every penny of his salary. Keith Tkachuk, Tyson Nash, Scott Mellanby, Cory Stillman and Al MacInnis have all been getting the puck in the net when needed. Newcomer Eric Boguniecki has been lighting it up as well. Recently they signed Martin Rucinsky as a free agent. The Blues are on a roll and don’t look to be letting up anytime soon. Time will tell if they can take out Dallas at the top, but it will be fun trying I’m sure. Grade: A

Tampa Bay Lightning – What a difference a year makes. The Lightning are enjoying their best start ever, thanks to a former first round draft pick and the right mix of veterans and newcomers. Vincent Lecavalier is a force to be reckoned with. Former Ottawa Senator Vaclav Prospal is becoming everything Ottawa expected of him before they traded him away. Andre Roy is a tough customer who won’t give anybody an inch. Nikolai Khabibulin is finally living up to his nickname “The Bulin Wall”. And yet another trade Calgary is regretting, Martin St. Louis is turning heads. Backing up Khabibulin is former Red Wing Kevin Hodson, who should be able to bring some Stanley Cup wisdom to a team that needs it desperately. The Lightning are attempting to become this year’s Carolina Hurricanes, and are proving the Southeast Division is not as weak as we once thought it to be. Even though they aren’t zapping everything in sight, it should be an interesting run for the Bolts this time around. Grade: A

Toronto Maple Leafs – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Exit stage left Curtis Joseph, enter Ed Belfour. Listen for all the boos from the fans. Watch Mats Sundin put the puck in the net. Hear Pat Quinn bitch and complain about the officiating and the lackluster play of his team. See Tie Domi in his office, aka the penalty box. Sports Illustrated calls them the most hated team in pro sports, and I would tend to agree. Then watch the Leafs put together a winning streak. See Ed Belfour save the day and hear the fans scream “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” Like it or not, the Leafs are back. Die hard fans are wondering what took so long, while most Ottawa Senators fans could care less if their plane ran out of fuel. It’s just another season in the life of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here to stay. Just let me say and leave you all with this thought: 1967. Grade: B-

Vancouver Canucks – The Canucks are picking it up where they left off last season, on a high. The team seems determined to better their effort from the playoffs when everything crumbled and the Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup. Thoughts of “What If?” have been on the Canucks’ daily menu ever since. What if that Nicklas Lidstrom centre ice shot didn’t fool Dan Cloutier? What if the Canucks had actually pulled off the ultimate upset? The team seems determined to get there again and they want a rematch. With players like Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, the Sedin twins, and Brendan Morrison in the lineup, who can blame them for riding on a high. Sami Salo, acquired from Ottawa has proven to be a solid defenseman now that his shoulder woes have been corrected. And of course, Dan Cloutier has been solid and Peter Skudra has played well as backup. Brian Burke had confidence in his team and coach, and now the team has confidence in themselves. The Canucks could be a serious contender in the West if they could ever get by Dallas, Detroit or St. Louis in the playoffs. Grade: A+

Washington Capitals – Word from the capital city is a shakeup is imminent. That is unless the team starts putting it together. Let’s start with Jaromir Jagr. This man is making way too much money to be putting up the substandard numbers he’s putting up. The problem is, there are only about three teams who would be crazy enough to trade for him and his fifty five million dollar contract. Peter Bondra is another player who could be looking at a trade if he doesn’t get it going. Olaf Kolzig has not been getting it done in goal, and backup Craig Billington hasn’t fared much better. Mike Grier has been consistent as usual, I can’t believe the Edmonton Oilers even considered trading him away, but here he is. Robert Lang is another player who is not playing to the potential the Capitals thought he could play when they signed him in the summer. In a nutshell the Capitals cannot capitalize and it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to catch up anytime soon. Grade: F

The NHL as a whole – The rule changes (or as I put it, rule enforcements) have opened up the game to levels we haven’t seen since the New Jersey Devils first implemented the neutral zone trap to perfection. Attendance has become an issue in all but a handful of arenas, but the commissioner is confident with the league as a whole, and that means we should be too. Many issues are left to be solved before 2004 and many questions are left to be answered. We have the commitment and optimism of Gary Bettman to help ensure each team can thrive in their respective markets and be competitive. If Bettman has his way, every one of these teams will be able to play within their budgets and earn an A+ rating. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it.

And with that I wish you all the very best for the holiday season, and remember Hockey Rules!


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