As we head into the 2004 portion of the NHL schedule, we find ourselves almost halfway through it all, and here we are once again with our tell it like is progress reports.  Which teams made the grade?  Who needs to improve?  Well look no further, because here we go with the lowdown!

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – After showing a ton of resiliency on their way to the Stanley Cup finals last season, you’d think the Ducks would be more hungry, more determined, and better prepared to try and do it all over again.  However, I don’t think they had planned on Paul Kariya bolting to Colorado along with his line mate Teemu Selanne.  It’s the same old “not about money, I want to win a Stanley Cup” story which has become the free agency theme in recent years.  Enter Sergei Fedorov, who is up to his old tricks again, playing only when he feels like it, which is doing more than frustrate the team, the coaching staff and the fans, and he doesn't have his former tennis star flame to blame it on anymore.  The Ducks don’t have even one third of the offense with Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal in the lineup as they did with Kariya alone.  Where oh where has Giggy gone?  J.S. Giguere has shown small traces of his Conn Smythe trophy winning form, but hasn’t displayed the killer instinct he once had, not yet anyway.  Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of a veteran presence.  For better or for worse, Adam Oates has moved on to Edmonton and Steve Thomas has gone to Motown.  Last year around this time I reported if the Ducks could only get on a roll they may just quack their way into the postseason.  I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but it’s the same old story this time around.  They still have Sandis Ozolinsh, Keith Carney and Ruslan Salei on defense, and Steve Rucchin still has a nose for the net (even though my hockey pool doesn’t reflect it).  Only problem is Ozo will be gone for close to three months as he will undergo shoulder surgery.  The Ducks need to get back to all the simple things they did to make them successful last year.  Then and only then will they improve in the standings, even though they aren’t far off the pace considering they currently sit in last place in their division.

Atlanta Thrashers – A pleasant surprise to say the least.  Now there’s the understatement of the year.  I expected these feisty birds to challenge for a playoff spot, but I never would have thought they’d be in a race for first overall in the conference.  It’s still early, but they’ve shown all season long they can play with the best of them.  After tragedy took the life of fellow teammate and friend Dan Snyder, the team is playing as though he is right there on the bench with him, and I believe he is in spirit.  Ilya Kovalchuk is battling with the likes of Markus Naslund, Brett Hull and Robert Lang for the NHL scoring lead, and should be able to finish at least top five overall, if not first.  Bob Hartley has been able to coach the team and get them going as though they’re the Colorado Avalanche of old.  Shawn McEachern keeps going and going.  Damian who?  It’s no wonder they bought out former goaltender Rhodes contract when they have the kind of stellar goaltending both Pasi Nurminen and Byron Dafoe have produced, and young first rounder Kari Lehtonen is waiting in the wings.  Dany Heatley hasn’t played a game with the team yet as he recovers from both a knee injury and the after effects of the aforementioned tragedy, but should hopefully be back in time for the stretch run.  If you think this team is playing good now, you haven’t seen anything yet.  The emotional lift this team will receive from Heatley will be similar to what we saw a couple of years back when Saku Koivu returned to Montreal after his bout with cancer.  I expect this team to continue their winning ways and clinch the division.  Nobody else in the always weak Southeast division comes close, not even Tampa Bay.  This is only Atlanta’s fifth season back in the NHL, but should prove to be a very special one by the end of it all.

Boston Bruins – The big bad B’s are back, or are they?  After an impressive start out of the gate, the Bruins have come back down to earth.  Joe Thornton has once again been the most consistent player on the team, but the puck pretty much stops here.  Aside from Thornton, the best player on the ice has been without a doubt rookie forward Patrice Bergeron, while former Ottawa 67s defenseman Nick Boynton has led by example.  Glen Murray and Brian Rolston have helped Joe carry the load, but not to the extent needed to beat the rest of the teams in the East.  Apparently Rob Zamuner’s days are numbered as he cleared waivers and is awaiting management’s next move. I’m not entirely sure who the better goaltender has been, supposed veteran Felix Potvin or former Providence star Andrew Raycroft, both have been inconsistent.  I have to give the nod to Raycroft for staying on his feet of late.  The Bruins need to have more than just one or two lines scoring in order to do more than just compete.  A trip to the second round of the playoffs is certainly not unrealistic for this storied original six franchise, but will be virtually impossible if the team doesn’t get it going.  With all due respect to coach Mike Sullivan, maybe the Bruins should have held onto Pat Burns a little longer.  Their loss has been New Jersey’s gain.

Buffalo Sabres – After a respectable start, the Sabres have found ways to lose games.  They seem to be a very fragile bunch at the moment, they’ll get a lead and sit on it, then lose the lead and often the game.  One goal games they’d win at the start of the season aren’t translating into points today.  One could blame injuries, as Buffalo is without both its top two forwards in J.P. Dumont and Chris Drury, although Drury hadn’t done much up until he went down.  Defenseman Andy Delmore is also out.  One could argue the defense is either too young with players like Dmitri Kalinin and Brian Campbell or too old with 40 year old James Patrick and 31 year old Alexei Zhitnik.  One could blame the coaching staff and speculate what could happen next.  Whatever the reason, the Sabres have found a way to fall into the Northeast Division basement and don’t seem poised to make any noise anytime soon.  The addition of rookie Derek Roy has provided somewhat of a spark, and Daniel Briere has been consistent.  The player the Sabres really want to get going is Miroslav Satan, who usually leads the pack but finds himself struggling to be a top five scorer.  He could be traded before or at the trade deadline if the rumors turn out to be half true.  One of last year’s most impressive rookies in Maxim Afinogenov is also struggling.  He scored a highlight reel goal earlier in the season, a play which was considered one of the top five plays of the year, but hasn’t done much since.  Certainly goaltending can’t be blamed here, as Martin Biron and Mika Noronen have been fairly decent, yet the puck isn’t staying out of their end or out of the net.  If the Sabres don’t get it together the season will be yet another write-off.  Expect to see Lindy Ruff out of a job pretty soon.

Calgary Flames – The hottest team in the NHL right now, period.  Maybe they don’t match their division rivals in Vancouver on paper, but they are playing some great hockey lately, and subsequently are challenging the Canucks and the always pesky Colorado Avalanche for first in the division.  With Darryl Sutter at the helm, finally the Flames have a coach who can get the most out of the players.  Jarome Iginla started off slow but is averaging about a point a game since Hallowe’en.  The biggest question mark came in goal as Roman Turek was lost to injury, but this was quickly addressed as a trade was made to bring in Mikka Kiprusoff from San Jose.  This could go down as the biggest steal of the year, as Kipper has held his own and has been the difference in many tight games.  Tabbed as a backup in California, Kiprusoff has proven he deserves to be in the spotlight as the number one guy and when Turek gets healthy it's going to make decisions for the coach very difficult.  Do they roll with Kipper or do they give Turek some playing time down the stretch?  This just in – they won’t have long to decide as Kipper has gone down with a knee injury and will be gone for at least four weeks.  Dany Sabourin has been called up from Calgary’s AHL affiliate in Lowell.  The goaltender plot thickens.  Denis Gauthier and Robyn Reghyr have played solid defense.  Matthew Lombardi and Shean Donovan have been lighting up the lamp.  The future is looking so bright for this team right now, don’t be surprised if we start seeing Iginla and company wearing shades on the bench.  Making the playoffs this year is not an option, they have to make it happen, for the fans and for their own good, no matter who they have in net.  If they keep it up they’ll be there and will make life miserable for whoever crosses their path.  Finally, years of hard work is paying off and heaven knows it’s been a long time coming.  As for the battle of Alberta, forget about it, Calgary holds the edge for the first time in a long time, although they still have to meet Edmonton once more.

Carolina Hurricanes – Some teams you can read like a book.  You’ll recall last June I said “expectations were a little too high after this team made its first ever finals appearance, but you can be sure they will do everything they can to rebound next season, or expect the coach to take the fall.  They’re serious this time.”  Well not only were expectations higher, they were very serious, because Paul Maurice now finds himself looking for work along with Mike Keenan and Bruce Cassidy.  The team is essentially the same team which made the finals in 2002, minus Martin Gelinas, so why can’t they get it going?  How is it they feel former New York Islanders coach Peter Laviollette will do any better?  So far he’s silencing the critics, as it seems the team has it going lately.  Ron Francis seems to have regained his scoring touch as he is now tied for fourth on the all time NHL points list with 1,771.  Marcel Dionne must really be getting discouraged as so far this year he has watched himself fall from third all time, soon to be fifth all time.  Goaltending has been back on track with Kevin Weekes and Jamie Storr sharing the load.  Jeff O’Neill once again leads the team in scoring, but is followed very closely by impressive rookie Eric Staal.  Sean Hill and Glen Wesley continue to guard the blue line, along with Danny Markov and Bret Hedican.  With virtually the same nucleus of a team they’ve had all along, you can’t help but wonder when what was once a tight ship will turn itself around.  They aren’t too far off the pace to make a difference in the second half if they can get it going, but they have to prove their recent mini streak isn’t just left over turkey and sugar from the holidays.

Chicago Blackhawks – One really has to feel for this team, one which should be considered a contender all the time as one of the NHL’s original six teams, yet has been anything but.  I’m sure from a team perspective they probably wish there were more head to head matches versus Detroit on the schedule and less against the bottom feeders like Pittsburgh and Columbus.  Of the nine games the Hawks have won so far this season, two of them have been against Detroit, and they’ve earned a point in an overtime loss.  They still meet once more in Motown in January, so perhaps they can get to the ten win plateau.  Question is why has this team been so lousy?  For starters, fans haven’t exactly been showing up in droves at the United Center.  Granted, during the first month of the season the Chicago Cubs were in the midst of their playoff run, but what’s the fans’ excuse since the World Series finished?  Perhaps the biggest reason is the fans can’t identify with the team anymore.  The Roenicks, the Chelioses, the Haseks, the Goulets, the Thomases, the Belfours, the Larmers, the Amontes, and maybe to a certain extent, the Krivokrasovs – all gone to other contenders or retired.  Can you just imagine the powerhouse this team would be if they only kept half of these players?  When the top scorer on your team is former Ottawa 67 Mark Bell, and your top goaltender is a rookie named Michael Leighton, you know you’re in trouble.  Of course, three of their mainstays in Jocelyn Thibault, Eric Daze and Alexei Zhamnov are on the shelf with injuries, but who does Chicago really have in their absence?  I’ve mentioned Leighton who has been merely mediocre in goal.  Kyle Calder and Tyler Arnason have remained consistent from last year, as has veteran Steve Sullivan.  Bryan Berard has been the only free agent signing, and quite frankly it will take more than him to turn it around.  Chicago is banking on rookie Tuomo Ruutu to be a future star, but so far he has only six points and is -14 in thirty eight games, certainly not numbers to propel the team above water.  Probably the biggest problem is the ownership of this team has the money to bring in a marquee player or two, but doesn’t seem willing to spend it.  The Hawks have been one of only a handful of teams to turn a profit since the last collective bargaining agreement was ratified, yet they’ve only made the playoffs once since 1997.  Of all the teams shopping for Detroit’s CuJo, maybe this would be the best fit for him in the long run if only they’d be willing to pay his salary.  Then again, they aren’t exactly poised to make the playoffs either, so it might be wise to wait until the off season.  For now the Hawks are just one of thirty stops on the NHL schedule, nothing more, nothing less.  If it wasn’t for Pittsburgh and Columbus, Chicago would be last overall.

Colorado Avalanche – There seems to have been a bit of a passing of the torch in recent years in the Western Conference.  It all started in Game 7 of the Conference Finals versus Detroit in 2002, a game in which Patrick Roy was shelled for 7 goals as the Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup.  Then last season, they couldn’t put away the Minnesota Wild after getting ahead to a 3-1 series lead.  Fast forward to now and Roy has retired (but is selling more action figures than ever before!) and the team sits in a position to make the playoffs, but not much more.  Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne both came here for an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, but Kariya has been injured since late October and is out indefinitely.  Peter Forsberg is finally getting back in the lineup after his own stomach ailments kept him out for over a month.  Steve Konawalchuk was acquired from Washington to add some toughness and scoring as Kariya and Forsberg get better.  Joe Sakic is the most consistent player on the team, again.  David Aebisher has held his own in goal, putting to rest the ridiculous rumors of Curtis Joseph coming to the rescue.  The Avs are still rich in defense with solid warriors Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Derek Morris and Chris McAllister.  Karlis Skrastins has been a solid addition since coming over from Nashville.  Colorado continues their winning ways, but not to the extent everybody first anticipated.  They have played some questionable games where on paper they should have won, but the main thing is they are putting up respectable numbers.  Whether or not it will be enough in the playoffs remains to be seen, but they shouldn’t have any trouble making it in.

Columbus Blue Jackets – This is the only team keeping Chicago out of the Central division’s basement.  I personally expected better things from this fourth year expansion franchise.  After seeing Doug MacLean coach the Florida Panthers to their best years, it only seemed fitting he play a hand in building a team in a thriving hockey market.  The Blue Jackets are still a young team, but have some players who have proven themselves in the past but aren’t doing it now.  Todd Marchant, Geoff Sanderson, Andrew Cassels, Darryl Sydor, Jaroslav Spacek and Luke Richardson are a combined -41!  Richardson and Spacek, two of the team’s best defensemen are out with injuries.  Even though Rick Nash has scored 23 goals, he is a -9.  Collectively, the team is -144.  No wonder they’ve only won 9 games.  The only plus player for the Blue Jackets is former Detroit Red Wing defenseman Anders Eriksson, who has 7 assists and is +1.  If it wasn’t for the play of goalies Marc Denis and Fred Brathwaite, their record would probably be a lot worse.  Oh well, as they say, there’s always next year.  Maybe they could take some pointers from their expansion cousins in Minnesota.

Dallas Stars – What’s wrong with the Dallas Stars?  Was it the second round loss to Anaheim in six games?  Are they worried their rivals from Edmonton won’t make the playoffs, so they’ve decided they won’t either?  You be the judge.  Maybe those awful new third jerseys have made them wonder who they’re supposed to be, the Dallas Stars or the Dallas Cowboys?  Whatever the reason, this is a team right now who’s trying to rediscover their identity.  Take their captain Mike Modano for instance, supposedly one of the NHL’s biggest threats?  8 goals and 16 assists and a plus/minus of -16?  Through 79 games last season, the same Modano had 28 goals, 54 assists and was a +34.  Somehow though, his stats through 38 games are enough to be third in scoring, which goes to show he isn’t the only one not producing.  Everyone on the team is guilty of this, especially Bill Guerin, Jason Arnott, Brendan Morrow, Sergei Zubov, Stu Barnes and Pierre Turgeon.  Dallas is only scoring an average of two goals per game, which is why they’re sitting only one game above .500 as of this writing.  The Pacific Division is weird this year though.  Los Angeles sits only one point ahead of Dallas, and San Jose sits only 3 points ahead.  Perception is everything.  If the Stars can ever get back to playing their game they will be alright, although so far they have not been the Stars of old.  Maybe they still miss Ken Hitchcock.

Detroit Red Wings – Cuuujoooo!!!  It’s funny how this game works sometimes.  When Curtis Joseph became an unrestricted free agent, he was offered more money in Toronto than he was in Detroit, but at the end of the day he signed as a Red Wing.  Why?  Because he wanted to win the cup, and this year it looked as though he just might get it too – the Calder Cup that is!  CuJo was placed on waivers and sent down to Grand Rapids the very same night Detroit got their revenge over Anaheim for sweeping the Wings in last year’s playoffs.  Final score was Detroit 7 Anaheim 2, and with their backup Manny Legace in net to boot.  Then, the injury bug reared its ugly head as Hasek went down with a groin pull and all of a sudden the rabid dog is back on the hot seat, or back in the net, although he hasn’t done much as he struggles to keep his record above .500 for the year.  The moral of this story: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.  Is there a Stanley Cup in CuJo’s future?  Maybe, but I don’t think it will be with Detroit, unless Hasek doesn’t come back for awhile.  We all know Detroit is rich, but do they want to continue paying more than $20 million for goaltending, the bulk of it going to two out of three players?  Not a chance.  With the way the team is playing, it doesn’t matter who’s in net, because the Red Wings keep winning with living legends like Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Ray Whitney and Steve Thomas all on the roster, complemented nicely by younger stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.  When you’re missing two of the best defensemen in the league, let alone on your team, and it doesn’t affect you at all, you know you’re good.  Derian Hatcher was signed to solidify the blue line in Hockeytown, yet has only been able to play in a handful of games, and Chris Chelios has recently joined him on the sidelines.  It doesn’t matter though, Detroit continues to get it done and should be a contender, again, unless they happen to have the misfortune of meeting Nashville in the first round.  For some reason the Predators have their number so far.  What I’d like to see is an Anaheim-Detroit rematch, but it doesn’t appear likely to happen.

Edmonton Oilers – You win some, you lose some, or in the Oilers’ case, you win one, tie a few and lose many.  Some have said the Oilers have stopped overachieving.  I disagree.  They can play when they put their mind to it, as witnessed in every game where the opposing team scores first.  The Mike Comrie situation was more of a distraction than anything, and thankfully the team can now put it behind them.  Adam Oates so far has shot blanks, but has done well at the face off dot.  Oates is a proven playoff veteran and should bring much needed leadership, assuming the team can turn their season around and even make it to the sweet sixteen.  This team is playing way too tentative right now.  There’s a reason why their power play is almost dead last in the league, they can’t get set up, part of the reason they signed Oates in the first place.  It’s hard to score five on four when you cough up the puck in the neutral zone.  As for penalty killing, forget about it.  Five on five the team can score with the best of them, so if they can ever get their specialty teams going, look out.  I personally can’t figure out why it’s taking so long to realize if the power play isn’t working, keep it simple, get two guys near the net, get the puck to the point and let it rip!  If he’s not traded first, Jason Smith should seriously consider relinquishing the captaincy to Ryan Smyth, as he once again has been the most consistent player on the ice and in my opinion deserves to be captain more than Jason does.  But what do I know, I don’t make the decisions, I just sit and watch as the team falls apart at the seam.  Pleasant surprises have come from the younger players on the team, folks like Raffi Torres, Jarret Stoll and Marc-Andre Bergeron, yet they’re still young and make rookie mistakes at key times.  Let’s not also forget the fine play of Ty Conklin, who has played very well in Tommy Salo’s absence, and has been referred to as goaltender #1A.  This doesn’t bode well for Salo in the long run, especially if he can’t come to grips with the fact the Salt Lake City Olympics have been over for almost two years.  The time to get it going is now.  All they really need to do is pay closer attention to the finer details and minimize their mistakes.  After watching them rip apart Vancouver recently, I know they can do it, they just need to do it more consistently.  There’s too much snow on the ground right now to be thinking of golf, but if they don’t pull their socks up the players better start preparing their clubs.  I personally would hate to see Craig MacTavish take the fall and definitely don’t want to see another marquee player on this team traded for a half dozen composite sticks, but general manager Kevin Lowe hasn’t been given much of a choice lately.  One can expect inevitable change and a long second half if the Oil can’t turn it around.

Florida Panthers – Can somebody please tell me why Mike Keenan was fired as coach of this team?  I can understand firing a coach when your team isn’t doing well, but the wild cats were hovering around .500 at the time of Keenan’s dismissal and have fallen further below the mark since.  As of this writing, they are only 8 points out of 1st place in the Southeast division.  They have a great goaltender named Roberto Luongo who can get it done, so if the Panthers can get some wins under their belt they may challenge both Tampa Bay and Atlanta by the end of the season.  Their best players need to start being their best players though.  Valeri Bure, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Kozlov, Stephen Weiss and Kristian Huselius all need to start putting the puck in the net.  Jay Bouwmeester and Lyle Odelein need to keep the puck out of their end.  If they can increase their scoring and decrease the other team’s chances to score they should at the very least challenge for a playoff spot.  The rest of the way should prove to be interesting in Sunrise, Florida.

Los Angeles Kings – Trading places with the San Jose Sharks for 1st in their division probably wasn’t what the Kings had envisioned going into this season, but they’ll take it.  Even though they still have the most man games lost to injury, they aren’t using this as an excuse.  The Kings have been scoring and scoring often.  Ziggy Palffy leads the pack with 15 goals, 24 assists in 31 games.  Contributions have come from all angles, including Alex Frolov, Lubomir Visnovski, Jozef Stumpel and Sean Avery.  Martin Straka has fit in nicely since being traded here from Pittsburgh.  Management hasn’t been afraid to spend money on free agents, as they not only lured Trent Klatt from Vancouver but also brought Luc Robitaille back into the fold, a player who will most likely retire a King.  Probably the biggest acquisition was Roman Cechmanek from Philadelphia, who has played well along with Cristobal Huet, who has received the bulk of the goaltending work recently.  The only question is how far can they go?  If they can ever get some of their injured players back, particularly Adam Deadmarsh or Jason Allison, it could turn into a very special season for L.A.  So far they’re playing well above expectations.

Minnesota Wild – A dead even .500 team, this is what the Wild have achieved through 38 games, 14 wins, 14 losses and 10 ties.  Although they sit in 4th out of 5th in the Northwest division, they’re only 5 points behind Colorado, even though the Avs have 3 games at hand.  Marian Gaborik missed training camp and is finally starting to get some offense going.  The comeback of the year has to be Alexandre Daigle who is playing as an even plus/minus player for the first time in his NHL career.  All of the players on this team have bought into Jacques Lemaire’s system, a simple yet effective neutral zone trapping style made famous when he coached New Jersey to their first of 3 Stanley cups.  The Wild are content to get a goal or two and sit on the lead and wait for the other team to make a mistake.  Many of the players you heard about in last year’s playoffs have been the usual suspects for Minnesota.  Players like Andrew Brunette, Pascal Dupuis, Richard Park, Wes Walz, Sergei Zholtok and Jim Dowd.  Lemaire has continued to rotate goaltenders Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez with mediocre results.  They don’t necessarily have household names on defense, but Brad Bombardir and Andrei Zyuzin are as good a defensive pair as any in the league.  The Wild are patiently trying to compete and either equal or better their result from last season, but not at the expense of their defense first philosophy.  They should be in the race for one of the final playoff spots if they continue to be consistent and don’t fall off the pace.  However, right now, their record isn’t quite good enough to make it to the dance.


Montreal Canadiens – Keeping with tradition has been hard to come by in Montreal.  Enter general manager Bob Gainey and coach Claude Julien, who have been doing everything in their power to help this team get back to respectability.  Julien has made some decisions which have been unpopular with both fans and media, but as he says, so what?  He has had the last laugh as every player who gets benched has come out the next game and responded.  Gainey has addressed the boo birds in the stands by coming out and firmly telling these unwanted “gutless bastards” not to show their faces at the Bell Centre.  The use of cell phones by the players and staff has been banned in the arena.  Media members have been told to get lost and find other travel arrangements.  So far, so good, as the Habs have been doing fairly okay in the standings.  Top scorer has been Mike Ribeiro, who despite leading the team in scoring has been under heat from the coach to produce more.  Defenseman Sheldon Souray is tied with Richard Zednik for the team goal scoring lead with 12.  Jose Theodore has found his MVP form from two years ago and has kept the Habs in some very close games.  If it wasn’t for Montreal’s quick start, they’d be on the outside looking in right now, so you can be sure the coaching staff will continue their tactics to get more production out of the players who should be producing.  We’re talking about seasoned veterans like Yanic Perreault, Saku Koivu, Patrice Brisebois, Joe Juneau, Andreas Dackell and Niklas Sundstrom.  Donald Audette was placed on waivers, indicating patience is wearing thin amongst management, and you can be sure more moves will be made if the Habs continue to drop in the standings. 

Nashville Predators – People in Nashville seem to have taken a long time to start taking notice of the Predators, but I think they like what they see this year.  They were almost there last year as they came close, but not close enough to making the playoffs.  This year they are making a strong case for themselves as they hover around 3rd place in the Central division, not far behind St. Louis in 2nd.  Like Chicago, they probably wish they could play Detroit more, as they’ve won all three meetings versus the Red Wings so far this season, one of them a come from behind third period victory where they scored four unanswered goals.  The Predators have shown some grit with rookie Jordin Tootoo in the lineup, and have shown some scoring prowess as well with Scott Walker, Marek Zidlicky, and David Legwand.  Tomas Vokoun so far has proven me wrong as he has been stellar in net.  I wondered why Nashville got rid of Mike Dunham and wasn’t convinced Vokoun could carry the load, until I had the opportunity to watch him play.  He’s clearly graduated to the number one goalie position, and Chris Mason has been a capable backup.  The Predators have a good mix of veterans with Rem Murray, Jason York, Andreas Johansson and Jim McKenzie.  So far so good for Nashville, who should once again challenge for a playoff spot.  If they don’t do it this year, they’re certainly making satisfactory progress.

New Jersey Devils – Like the Energizer bunny, this team just keeps going and going.  Unlike many teams who win the Stanley Cup and stumble out of the gate, the Devils are playing like a team on a mission to do something they haven’t yet been able to do – win it all two years in a row.  So far so good as they are right up there fighting Philadelphia for the conference lead.  Martin Brodeur is producing shutouts like they’re going out of style, as he chases Terry Sawchuk’s all time shutout record of 103, a record which has stood since 1970.  He only needs 31 more to tie it (he has 72 right now), and oddly enough is only 31 years old.  He has eight so far this season and may challenge George Hainsworth’s season record of 22.  Outside of Martin Brodeur, the Devils are essentially the same team they were in June.  Ken Daneyko retired a three time champion (as well he should), and replacing him was Igor Larionov, a veteran in his own right.  Scott Stevens continues to lead by example, tallying 3 goals and 8 assists through 34 games.  Jeff Freisen, who broke Ottawa fans’ hearts last spring continues his consistent play.  Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, Sergei Brylin and John Madden have all figured into a balanced attack.  Just how good are the Devils?  Only three players have a negative plus/minus score, Christian Berglund with a -2, Grant Marshall with a -4 and Jiri Bicek with a -1.  The team is a collective +94.  Of course this statistic only measures full strength play, but it says a lot about your team when you can score more than you get scored against 5 on 5.  Last time I checked when you can score more goals than the opposition, you win.  If the Devils don’t repeat as champions, they’ll only have themselves to blame, as they are fully capable of getting there.  Now if only they can beat those Islanders…

New York Islanders – You have to think ownership of this team have grown a little tired of Mike Milbury and his so called expertise in trying to rebuild this team, one which not so long ago used to strike fear in the hearts of every player who didn’t wear an Edmonton Oilers uniform.  The number of prospects this team has traded away in their angst to win today could help turn more than a few teams into contenders before long.  Jason Spezza, Roberto Luongo, Wade Redden, Bryan Berard, Brad Isbister, Raffi Torres - the list goes on and is a long one.  Alexei Yashin, otherwise known as the nine million dollar man, will miss at least 3 months with a serious arm injury.  Ironically enough, the team hasn’t missed a beat since, going 3-0 since Yashin went down and currently are on a five game tear, two of the wins coming against New Jersey.  Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery.  A year ago, Mariusz Czerkawski wasn’t even good enough to play for the Hamilton Bulldogs during his short stint in Montreal, now since rejoining the Islanders he leads the team in scoring.  Rookie Trent Hunter has reminded me of Dale Hunter, even though they aren’t related.  He is a tough guy to play against and can score.  Garth Snow and Rick DiPietro have played well in net.  Michael Peca continues to be a force to be reckoned with.  They have good defense with Roman Hamrlik and Adrian Aucoin.  One has to wonder how much longer this team can underachieve before major changes are made at the management or coaching level.  With the way they’re capable of playing they should be up there with the best of them, but will be hard pressed to make the playoffs if they can’t keep their streak going. 

New York Rangers – Somebody in a high position in the Rangers organization has finally realized money doesn’t buy championships.  The Rangers spent a lot of salary money the past several seasons, only to become spectators by January.  This year seems to be a little bit different.  They’ve held on to some of those money players like Bobby Holik, Eric Lindros, Brian Leetch and Mark Messier, but haven’t tinkered too much with their lineup.  They brought in Anson Carter at last year’s trade deadline, and signed a few low profile free agents like Pascal Rheaume, Greg De Vries and Martin Rucinsky.  The resulting lineup has produced a respectable record.  Sure there are still higher expectations of this team and they could definitely get much better before the end of the season, but at least the Rangers are contending for a postseason berth and aren’t out of it by any means.  The retirement of Mike Richter had paved the way for Dan Blackburn to be an everyday player, but the coaching staff realized he can’t carry the heavy load of an 82 game season, so they brought in Mike Dunham and Jussi Markannen, and both have been fairly decent.  Alexei Kovalev along with Lindros, Holik and Messier have led the charge, putting to rest the ongoing Jagr to New York rumors, at least for the time being.  Tom Poti has been an overtime hero of late, scoring in two straight trips to the extra session.  The one area the Rangers will want to improve in the second half is their power play, it just hasn’t been good enough, yet their penalty killing has been fine.  One thing’s for sure, Glen Sather will do everything possible to get this team into the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Ottawa Senators – Funny what a difference a month makes.  Did I miss something, or did they shorten the regular season by 41 games?  You’d swear it was a lockout shortened season already the way people are reacting to the Ottawa Senators this year.  After making it within a goal of the Stanley Cup Finals last season, the Senators, to say the least, came out fairly flat to start the season, as many teams do after going deep in the postseason (just ask Carolina or Anaheim).  The Sens bandwagon had so much room on it in November it was a wonder they sold any tickets at all, even though in reality overall attendance is actually up from one year ago.  If we allowed the fans to run this team, there’d be no players left as Patrick Lalime, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Radek Bonk, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Daniel Alfredsson would all have new postal codes by now.  The fans would probably do something stupid like trade them all for CuJo, who has yet to prove himself in the playoffs when it really matters.  Then who would be left?  Jason Spezza?  Mike Fisher?  Todd White?  Who would lead the charge on D?  Zdeno Chara?  Karel Rachunek?  Shane Hnidy?  Maybe just maybe they’d have room for Wade Brookbank in the lineup!  If you’ve been paying attention to the waiver wire, Brookbank has been involved in a war of the waivers, he’s gone from Ottawa to Nashville to Vancouver, back to Ottawa and now to Florida, who has put him on waivers again.  And who would tend the nets?  Ray Emery?  Martin Prusek?  In all fairness to these players, they’re all good in their own right, but aren’t anything without the aforementioned in the lineup.  I’ve never seen CuJo with four shutouts in a playoff year.  Enough said.  I’ve really been baffled when I listen to the radio call in shows after what have been some closer games than the fans think and hear the kinds of things they’re saying.  I often wonder what would happen if management decided to rebuild like they’ve been doing in places like Montreal, Pittsburgh or even Edmonton to a certain extent since their heyday.  You certainly don’t see the fans abandon their team when the going gets tough.  When the Senators were in their mini slump, they weren’t exactly getting blown out (with the exception of maybe a Sunday afternoon wake up call at Madison Square Garden).  Many people at the beginning of the year picked this team to contend for the Stanley Cup, and I hate to say to the misinformed Ottawa fans I told you so, but after getting it together in December, the Sens are once again on top of their game and poised to meet everybody’s expectations.  If you listen carefully you can now hear the sound of the Sens bandwagon, and there isn’t even standing room left on it.  You might be able to find a seat on the roof, but I sincerely doubt it and wouldn’t recommend it as it may collapse under everybody’s weight.  Even some of the major media players in Ottawa seemed to be down on the team, and I called them and the fans especially out on it in an e-mail to one of the post game shows, only to be laughed at by a well known color commentator who shall remain nameless.  Well, maybe in the end I along with the real hockey fans and commentators will have the last laugh.  At least the captain Alfredsson seems to mirror my sentiments and has guaranteed Ottawa will win the Stanley Cup, maybe even as soon as this year.  When your captain is confident, it sends a message to the rest of the team and spreads like wildfire.  Hell, even the CBC are on board this time around, as Bob Cole has been seen calling more Saturday night Senator games than Leaf games!  Expect a different Senators team the rest of the way, especially when Anton Volchenkov and Vaclav Varada return from their respective injuries.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, relax Ottawa, it’s only a game.

Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers, to say the least, are flying.  Many long time Philly fans have compared this edition of the team to the Broad Street bullies of old.  Given their home record, it’s easy to see why.  They went undefeated in their first 14 games at the Wachovia Center, and as of this writing are up there with Detroit and New Jersey for first overall.  This a carefully crafted team of All Stars, many of which will make the trip to Minnesota in February, not to mention the World Cup of Hockey next summer.  Ken Hitchcock has put together a no nonsense system which the team has been buying into.  Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, John Leclair, Mark Recchi, Justin Williams, Simon Gagne, Keith Primeau, Eric Desjardins, Eric Weinrich, the list goes on.  Is it any wonder this team is sitting in first in the East?  Of course without good goaltending you don’t go very far.  The Flyers have held their own with Jeff Hackett and Robert Esche.  Like New Jersey, the Flyers only have three players negative plus/minus numbers.  The difference here is two of the three players have only played three games.  As if they didn’t already have a potent lineup, enter Mike Comrie fresh off his contract impasse with Edmonton and Philadelphia has as strong a team as they’ve ever had.  The goaltending has been enough so far, will it be enough in the playoffs?  Hackett?  Maybe.  Esche?  Probably not.  You can bet the Flyers will be looking to get a proven goalie in their lineup by the time the trade deadline comes.  Who will it be?  Many have said CuJo, but it’s hard to tell.  Right now they’re riding so high they don’t seem to care, although they better watch their back with New Jersey, Ottawa, and Toronto all breathing down their necks.

Phoenix Coyotes – A change of scenery is supposed to be a good thing, yet for the Phoenix Coyotes, so far it’s been somewhat of a distraction.  Mind you, they’ve only played three games at the new Glendale Arena, hardly enough time to adjust to new surroundings, but it’s been the same old dog days of winter for the newly dressed Coyotes, win one, lose one, tie one.  The dogs start off every game tentatively and then attack like there’s no tomorrow, many times coming from behind to salvage a tie.  If a hockey game only had two periods, Phoenix wouldn’t stand a chance.  At this stage they’re merely a .500 team, which won’t get it done in the Pacific Division, not with Anaheim on their heels, and Dallas, Los Angeles and San Jose getting further out of reach.  Ladislav Nagy has been the best player night in and night out, and should be able to hit the 30 goal plateau by season’s end.  Shane Doan and Daymond Langkow have also been offensive spark plugs on a team lacking spark.  Daniel Cleary seems to have it going lately and should add some jump, but it’s players like Brian Savage, Mike Sillinger, Mike Johnson, Tyson Nash and Brad Ference who need to step it up.  Goaltending has been probably the most positive aspect, with Sean Burke continuing the carry the load.  Brian Boucher and Zac Bierk can’t seem to decide who the better backup is, but it’s been Boucher who’s been called upon more.  The whole team will need to take charge in their new building like they did recently against L.A. and show folks they won’t get pushed around in Glendale like they did at America West Arena.  Expect a strong second half from the Coyotes in their snazzy maroon with golden trim uniforms.  What can I say, they’re growing on me.

Pittsburgh Penguins – When your best player is a 19 year old rookie goaltender, you know you’ve got problems.  I’m taking nothing away from Marc-Andre Fleury, the goaltending sensation who is turning heads for Team Canada over in Finland at the World Juniors, he is nothing short of amazing with great goalie skills, but let’s face it, he’s just starting his career and should either be playing in the minors or in a backup situation, not the number one guy.  Whether it’s Ed Olczyk or myself, we could probably both coach this team to the same result, dead last in the league.  They are one of only three teams who haven’t yet achieved ten wins on the season.  With Mario Lemieux out of the lineup with an ailing hip which has taken longer to heal than initially expected, they don’t have much to cheer about short of Fleury and rookie forward Ryan Malone.  Kelly Buchberger and Mike Eastwood bring veteran leadership, but not much else.  Rico Fata is considered their top goal scorer, but he only has 10.  Specialty teams have been a non-factor.  If they could ever get Lemieux back it would not only help get their power play going, perhaps they could help Fleury achieve a better goals against average than 3.20.  There’s talk if the collective bargaining situation doesn’t get sorted out in time to avoid a lockout, this team could be history.  Let’s hope not, but the future doesn’t look too bright right now, especially if Mario is forced to retire.

St. Louis Blues – So far the Blues haven’t been singing the blues.  They’ve been red hot to start the season, but nowadays injuries are starting to plague the team.  Already without Al MacInnis, St. Louis will have to do without goalie Chris Osgood, and Pavol Demitra is day to day as well.  They still have plenty of offensive firepower to get them through, with Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Chris Pronger, rookie Petr Cajanek, and recent callup Eric Boguniecki who had a fine rookie season last year and actually returns from an injury.  Brent Johnson has proven before he can handle the job between the pipes, so the Blues should be alright as Osgood works to get back in the lineup.  My take on St. Louis is they lack a killer instinct in the important games.  While they boast an impressive 12-3-3-0 record at home, Detroit, who they’re chasing for 1st in the Central division, are 15-3-1-0.  The Blues hold the edge over Detroit with their road record, but it’s their divisional play where they’ll need to improve if they have any hope of improving in the standings.    

San Jose Sharks – Quick!  Without looking, tell me where the Sharks are in the standings.  Well if you guessed 1st, you’ve been paying attention.  As of this writing, they sit just a point ahead of Los Angeles.  The Sharks have improved their play of late as they actually have won some games rather than simply trying to get out with a tie.  Any team will tell you they’d rather a tie than a loss, but in San Jose’s case it was starting to get ridiculous.  I came out and said in this very column they could become the first team ever to qualify for the postseason by virtue of ties, and don’t rule the possibility out just yet.  However, since I mentioned this, they’ve won more games than they’ve lost, and have only tied twice.  The great play starts with the goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov and backup Vesa Toskala and extends to the defensive core of Mike Rathje and Kyle McLaren.  The Sharks have two rookie defensemen in Tom Preissing and Christian Erhoff, both who have looked anything but newcomers.  Marco Sturm, Vincent Damphousse, Jonathan Cheechoo, Wayne Primeau, Scott Thornton, Alyn McCauley and Mike Ricci have all figured into the scoring.  As I predicted, McCauley is on pace to a career year in scoring.  Everybody picked the Sharks and Kings to make the playoffs last year, yet it was Anaheim with all the heroics.  If the first half is any indication, the Ducks could find themselves on the sidelines and L.A. and San Jose will renew their ongoing rivalry.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Whatever the Bolts do this year, they have to somehow get coach John Tortorella and star forward Vincent Lecavalier to see eye to eye, or they are going nowhere.  While it’s unfair to base the fortunes of a team on one player, it can’t be denied, when Lecavalier is going, so too are the Lightning.  A trade is not the answer as it will prove to be a step backward rather than forward.  Let’s face it, if it wasn’t for Atlanta, the Lightning would be the first place team in the Southeast division, but not because of one player.  It’s taken the effort of Martin St. Louis, Cory Stillman, Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin, Dave Andreychuk, and more.  Of course, goaltending has needed to be good, and has been, with both John Grahame and Nikolai Khabibulin sharing duties.  Andre Roy has added grit but has a wicked shot, and the coaching staff wants him to start using it.  Coach Tortorella doesn’t care if he has to bench all of the so called top players and doesn’t care if players “rot in the minors”, he will get what he wants from the team because at the end of the day they have the potential to go far, at least back to the second round anyway.  Whether they make it will remain to be seen.

Toronto Maple Leafs – Just to show you the arrogance and ignorance of many Toronto Maple Leafs fans and media (and before everybody and their dogs from Downsview starts E-mailing me, I said many, not all), yet another well known broadcaster who shall remain nameless apparently needs a geography lesson, not to mention he needs to lay off the junior stars, but that’s another story.  Let’s just say if you watch Hockey Night In Canada you know full well who I’m talking about, and it’s no secret he’s a Leaf fan.  His theory over the Leafs’ early season slump was the trip they took over to Sweden during the preseason.  When confronted by the fact the 1994 edition of the Leafs took a trip over to London and then started the season 10-0, he said “that’s England, not Europe!”??  I’m sorry, but when I look at a map, Europe includes England, Sweden, France, etc.  Sure Toronto has turned it around of late, but I don’t think they’re going to meet Detroit in the finals like he is predicting.  It’s way too early to be trying to predict who’s even going to make the playoffs, let alone win the Stanley Cup.  Granted, they are one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference as their key personnel of Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker all have it going.  For a team supposedly lacking defense, players like free agent acquisition Ken Klee and sophomores Wade Belak and Karel Pilar are getting the job done.  Ed Belfour is playing arguably the best hockey I’ve ever seen him play.  The Leafs are giving Toronto and their fans every reason to believe this could be the year they erase their thirty seven year Stanley Cup drought, but the skeptic in me says we’ve seen this movie before.  Time will tell though, and don’t look now, but their provincial and Northeast division rivals from Ottawa are creeping up there in the standings, with games at hand and still five more head to head clashes to come.  Oh yes, my friends, we’ve only just begun.  The snow storms you’ll hear about in the weather reports will be nothing compared to what’s about to transpire on the ice.

Vancouver Canucks – They’re considered Canada’s best chance in the West, and so far they’re proving it.  The ownership and management had faith in the players and they in turn have responded.  This year’s edition of the Canucks is pretty much the same team who made it within one win of facing Anaheim in the Western Conference final last year, and expectations are this team will be there this time around.  Who can blame them?  They boast one of the toughest top lines in the entire league with Markus Naslund, Scott Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi.  All three players can score and score often.  Dan Cloutier is a clear cut number one and has a pretty darn good backup in Johan Hedberg, although he’s currently injured.  Alex Auld has played well as backup number two when called upon.  Ed Jovanovski and Mattias Ohlund have guarded their end of the ice nicely, as Sami Salo and Brent Sopel have been another good defensive pairing.  All eyes are on rookie Jason King, who has found a home on a line with the Sedin twins, and is making a serious run for the Calder trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.  The games are on late on the East coast, but you can be sure they’re staying up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland to watch this young lad play.  Magnus Arvedson hasn’t done much offensively since coming over from Ottawa, but still manages to log valuable ice time as a third line defensive specialist.  The Canucks have what it takes to be a contender, and you know they’ll want to end the season in first place so as to not only gain vital home ice, but to prove they can actually do it.  They were so close last season but lost on the last day of the regular season to allow Colorado to vault over them and clinch the division title.  You can bet this has been uppermost in every player’s mind and watch for a more consistent second half as they will look to solidify their position long before the final weekend.  Where they go from there is entirely up to them.

Washington Capitals – Our friend Bruce Cassidy held the distinction of being the youngest NHL coach ever, and now he finds himself looking for work.  Let’s be serious here though, the blame for the situation in Washington shouldn’t fall entirely on the coach.  When you spend money for a team which on paper should be a legitimate contender and they end up in the Eastern Conference basement, heads have to roll somewhere.  So far it appears to have worked, as the players have taken notice of the coach’s dismissal and have played a little better, just they aren’t at the level they should be.  Jaromir Jagr, for instance, has got to go, whether it be to the New York Rangers, back to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, or to the minors, he has to be moved before his carefree attitude keeps the Caps out of the playoff hunt year after year.  Players of Jagr’s caliber should be leading the league in scoring, not just because of the money they’re making, but because they have the ability and should at the very least show the mental willingness to get the job done.  Just as it’s not fair to single out the coach, it isn’t entirely fair to single out one player, but Jagr is one who should be doing more than he is.  It’s not as though the team isn’t producing either, it’s just they’re making mistakes at key times and subsequently it’s costing the team points in the standings.  Robert Lang by far has been the best player on the team, if not the entire NHL.  Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Dainius Zubrus and Kip Miller have all been producing.  Jagr, throughout all his trials and tribulations is second in scoring on the team, just nowhere near where he can be.  It all comes down to special teams for Washington, they basically don’t have any.  In all fairness, when was the last time you saw the Capitals score shorthanded or better yet kill off a penalty?  Two players they definitely miss are Ken Klee, who signed as a free agent in Toronto, and Sergei Berezin, who last time I checked was playing roller hockey somewhere in Siberia.  There was talk of him going to New Jersey but I’ve yet to see him play anywhere this season.  One can only hope new head coach Glen Hanlon can get out of the team what Cassidy was unable to.  So far he seems to be getting a better effort, but it hasn’t improved their position in the Southeast division, and don’t look for anything to change anytime soon. 

NHL – The league has tried to make strides towards improving the game, awareness, and attendance.  The game itself is exciting to watch on most nights, but for some reason this league is killing it for the fans.  For starters, the officiating stinks.  One would think with one of the most respected referees of all time in charge this would be rectified in a hurry, but it hasn’t been consistent enough.  Sure you can make the argument to just let them play, what goes around comes around, every bonehead call or missed call will balance itself out.  To this I ask why is there even a rule book?  How is it a star player can enter the offensive zone and end up with not one but two sticks on him and a player trying to jump on his back for a ride and it’s not called, yet a composite stick breaks as often as they do and a hand goes up?  The players will tell you it’s a joke today, there is no flow to the game because they simply don’t know what will be called and what won’t be.  The most frustrating thing for me as a fan is to watch two referees put their whistles away, only to bring them out again with two minutes to go in the third period.  Want to increase scoring in the league, call the game by the rules, plain and simple.  I saw a game recently with only two power plays, one for each side.  How do you boost offense or improve your specialty teams when you only get one chance to score five on four?

As for the so called scoring dilemma, the league wants to alter the rules yet again in order to boost scoring.  They want to try everything from moving the goal lines, to widening the blue and red lines, to eliminating the red line altogether.  I’ve even heard the suggestion to forget about clearing the puck at the blue line and use the whole half of the ice from the red line in as the offensive zone.  They do this in ball hockey, and soccer uses just the centre line as an offside marker as well.  Give me a break!

Want to increase scoring?  Well let’s move the goal line back to where it was when Gretzky was playing (ironically enough, it was because of Gretzky they moved it in the first place!).  Let’s scale down the goalie equipment to a level it was at in the 1980s, or maybe we can compromise and bring it down halfway between what it was like then compared to now.  Finally, call the game the way it’s written and be consistent about it so the players know what will be called every time, and let’s take the whistles away from those officials who aren’t making the calls.  Getting rid of the two referee system would probably be a good thing too, as there is no difference between when there was one referee versus two today.

Maybe the solution is as simple as changing the high sticking rule.  Right now the rule is if you raise your stick above the shoulder it’s a penalty.  I guarantee you if they would change the rule from “above the shoulder” to “off the ice”, and if they actually called it, obstruction would be all but eliminated.  Think about that for a second.  No more changes to the red or blue line, no need to revert to 4 on 4, just a simple change of a rule which has always been there, and a reinforcement of what coaches have tried to drill into players heads for over a century, keep your cotton picking stick on the ice!

We also have the collective bargaining agreement looming over the league’s head which is set to expire in September of 2004, yet the man in charge acts as though there isn’t a problem and tells everybody not to worry.  There have been a few managers meetings and a couple of NHLPA meetings, but has anything really been discussed?  Look around many arenas now and the fans are apparently priced out of the market or just fed up.  The players themselves are laughing all the way to the bank, as well they should as both the league and team owners have allowed them to.  There are too many empty seats in many major markets for my liking, and while the resolve from the league is there to make improvements, the fans aren’t convinced, yet.  The sad thing here is the NHL is still such a great game to watch on many nights, so while I can’t give a failing grade here, what has become a mediocre product for many fans could be so much better if only they’d put more effort into it.  When you get more fans at a minor league game than an NHL game, you know there’s something wrong.


And with that, Happy New Year everyone!  There will be more hockey talk in 2004, you can be rest assured of that!


More Puckin' Around...