MAKING THE GRADE

 

The holidays are over, the decorations put away (at least at my house), the snow is falling – and the reports are in!  It’s been a long time coming, so here are the tell-it-like-it-is reports on all 30 NHL teams and what to expect going forward.  As always, I’ve pulled out all the stops and taken no prisoners, just in time for Hockey Day in Canada!  Here we go!

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – Remember three years ago when I reported on the Ducks and called them inconsistent?  They made a fool of me and almost won the Stanley Cup.  Fast forward to now, and it seems as though Anaheim have only been as good as they’ve had to be, yet are three games above .500 and sitting pretty in 10th in the West, on the outside looking in.  They’re a team which seems to get it done without a whole lot of talent.  Yes, they managed to get Norris Trophy winner Scott Niedermayer on their blueline, and brother Rob isn’t a bad centre either.  But this is a team just three years removed from their first good playoff run, and they are minus many of the components who got them there.  With the salary cap playing such a big role, they managed to hold on to the biggest component of them all though – their goalie J.S. Giguere.  Paul Kariya is gone, and it shows as Teemu Selanne looks absolutely lost without him.  Sergei Fedorov was shipped out of town to Columbus, and in return they managed to get a fairly consistent defenseman in Francois Beauchemin, not to mention they finally got their man Todd Marchant through the waiver wire.  Joffrey Lupul has earned the approval of Brian Burke as he has been their most consistent player, with points in his last four games as of this writing.  Burke is on the record calling him “unbelievable”.  Traditionally the Ducks have always had great second halves of their seasons, so look for them to turn on the jets down the stretch and hopefully gain more consistency in the standings.  They aren’t too far out now.

Grade: C

Atlanta Thrashers – It would appear the trade sending Dany Heatley to Ottawa for Marian Hossa and Greg DeVries is finally starting to pay dividends for the team named after a special Georgia breed of feisty bird.  This much was evident in the recent 8-3 thrashing of the aforementioned Senators.  However, they’re starting to turn it on against everybody.  Ilya Kovalchuk has started to heat up on the score sheet, Marc Savard has quietly become one of the top point getters in the league, and Kari Lehtonen is finally getting his chance to show why he is one of the top goaltending draft choices in recent memory.  It all amounts to bad news for their Eastern opponents.  As of this writing, Atlanta is fighting for the 8th and final playoff spot, and you have to think if they can keep up the balancing act in scoring and get good goaltending they will get their first ever crack at the Stanley Cup in April.

Grade: B

Boston Bruins – If you would have told me prior to the start of the season one of the biggest trades of the year would see Joe Thornton sent to San Jose, and it would be the best thing to happen to the team trying to fight their way out of the basement of the Northeast Division, I most likely would have laughed at you.  I would have been eating my words right about now.  There’s no question the big bad Bruins have been anything but, yet one would think they should be better in the standings given the team they had on paper from the beginning.  Brian Leetch has probably been the only plus sign on a team full of underachievers, the biggest of which has to be goaltender Andrew Raycroft.  Blame the equipment changes if you must, but Raycroft just hasn’t played half as well as he did in his Calder trophy winning season.  Alexei Zhamnov was a free agent signing Boston had counted on doing more than he has.  The acquisitions of Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm have created somewhat of a spark, and consistency has been the key for forward Brad Isbister.  However, Boston is going to have to do much more than win one/lose one if they hope to get back to the playoffs.

Grade: D

Buffalo Sabres – Arguably the biggest surprise of the season so far has been the play of the Sabres.  Sitting just a couple of wins out of first in their division, with Ottawa slumping, now is the time to keep the foot on the gas.  Buffalo has managed to do it without Daniel Briere and J.P. Dumont.  Ryan Miller has been a pleasant surprise in goal, and with Mika Noronen’s consistent efforts, look for Martin Biron to be the odd man out as he could be moved before the trade deadline.  You can also bet general manager Darcy Regier will be looking to get a solid veteran presence in return as they go for at least home ice advantage in the playoffs.  Even though Ottawa has had their number so far this season, they only sit three points out of first in the division and four points out of the conference lead, thanks mostly in part to their hot play and the Senators recent fall back to earth (more to come).

Grade: A

Calgary Flames – If Sidney Crosby is indeed the Next One, then for my money Dion Phaneuf is without a doubt the next pure defenseman in the NHL, a la Al MacInnis.  On top of the Northwest Division, the Flames control their own destiny – and are getting it done even though Jarome Iginla isn’t having his best season, although look out, he's starting to heat up again.  If they are to win the division though, they have to be more proficient against their divisional rivals, particularly their biggest down the road in Edmonton.  Although they have the advantage in the season series 3-2, there are 3 more big ones at Rexall Place, where Edmonton is undefeated against Calgary (if you include preseason games).  Let’s not discount the play of free agents Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty, two experienced veterans who have both been there before.  Kristian Huselius has turned his game around since being acquired from Florida.  Darryl Sutter has certainly been the coaching and management answer for a team who missed the post season for most of the 1990s and up until their Stanley Cup final run of two years ago.  It should all amount to another sizzling season on the Red Mile in Calgary, provided goalie Miikka Kiprusoff can get some much needed rest during the Olympic break, although he hasn’t looked out of place at all if you erase the first two weeks of the season.

Grade: A

Carolina Hurricanes – Another pleasant surprise to say the least.  It’s almost a travesty Eric Staal isn’t going to play for Team Canada at the Olympics unless somebody gets hurt, but who do you remove from the roster?  For now, the Canes are having their best season since leaving Hartford and are easily leading the Southeast division, even though going into this season everybody probably thought Tampa Bay would be.  They’ve done it with the hot hands of the aforementioned Staal, great goaltending by Swiss netminder Martin Gerber (incidentally, I predict Switzerland will be the surprise team of the Olympic tournament, but I will report more on that when the time comes!), and solid defense from veteran Glen Wesley and former Calgary Flames “hairboy” Mike Commodore.  I said when the Hurricanes lost in five games to Detroit we haven’t seen them in the finals for the last time, and if they keep it up, it could be as soon as this year.  At the very least we should see them make it to the second round.  Now what I’d like to see is more fans in the seats in Raleigh because when they fill the arena it’s as electric as any building in the NHL.

Grade: A

Chicago Blackhawks – They added Stanley Cup winning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and defenseman Jassen Cullimore along with veteran Adrian Aucoin, so the Hawks should be a better team, right?  On paper, maybe, but on the ice, definitely they have not been.  In fact, the better goaltender in my opinion has been Craig Anderson, especially of late.  When your top three scorers (Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell & Kyle Calder) only have a combined 78 points on the season, with only 33 of them goals, you know you play on a struggling team. The statistics don’t always tell the whole story about a team, but for this team the story is evident – both goaltenders barely placing in the top forty goals against averages in the league, the team a collective minus 88, the worst of which is Cullimore, a minus 14.  Worst of all, we’re only at the halfway mark of the regular season, not to mention there are two teams in the same division and conference with worse records!  It’s pretty hard to be playing for pride only this early, but for Chicago even if they win every game the rest of the way they will be hard pressed to make the playoffs, and you and I both know this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.  Look for the Hawks to be active at the trading deadline – active that is in cleaning house.

Grade: F

Colorado Avalanche – I haven’t been too surprised to see Colorado struggle towards one of the final playoff spots in the early going.  When you lose your top superstar to free agency (Peter Forsberg) and your captain (Joe Sakic) is having a sub par season, you can’t be expected to be on top of your game, or your division.  Of course, goaltending plays a part, and David Aebischer is another goaltender who has struggled with the new rules and smaller equipment.  It’s a good thing Alex Tanguay and rookie Marek Svatos are on top of their games, or else this team wouldn’t have much offense at all.  Rob Blake continues to show why he is one of the top defensemen in the league, but he can’t be expected to carry the entire team on his shoulders, and he isn’t getting any younger.  John Michael-Liles is getting better as a defenseman, but he needs to improve upon his minus 2 rating.  And can somebody tell me where has Milan Hejduk been?  Put simply, the Avalanche have lost a lot of their identity from past years thanks to the new salary structure, and it isn’t going to get any easier down the stretch.  I quietly made a bold statement at the beginning of the season, and even though they hold down a playoff spot right now, when it comes down to crunch time, I just don’t think the Avalanche can keep it up, especially when they’ve been in so many one goal games (I mean, come on, when you need a shootout to beat Columbus!?).  I predict Colorado will miss the playoffs, unless they can keep playing consistent hockey like they have in the past week or so.  If they can’t elevate their game, expect them to be overtaken by one of either Anaheim, Phoenix or Minnesota, and remember where you heard it first when it happens.

Grade: C

Columbus Blue Jackets – If anybody knows the whereabouts of Sergei Fedorov, will they please notify Doug MacLean immediately!  Anaheim’s loss certainly hasn’t been Columbus’ gain.  Clearly a salary dump for the Ducks, the Blue Jackets are seeing first hand the inconsistent play of Fedorov which has been his trademark ever since 1993 it seems.  Nikolai Zherdev, the Jackets’ first rounder, is another player who hasn’t been consistent enough, even though he leads the team in scoring with 11 goals and 22 points.  It’s too bad Rick Nash has been injured for the better part of the year, because Columbus could sure have used him, although since returning, the only thing he seems to have been able to accomplish is knocking Edmonton's Michael Peca into next week.  I hope the Olympic experience helps Nash elevate his game, because he is one of the most exciting young players to watch.  This was supposed to be a pivotal year for the Blue Jackets, but now with captain Adam Foote out of the lineup and without a bonafide goaltender, this year will be more or less a write off.  How bad have they been?  Zherdev is the only player with more than 10 goals.  There’s no question the Jackets play in the weakest division in the NHL, and so far they’ve proven it. 

Grade: F

Dallas Stars – One of the teams who were expected to have a tough time with the new rules in the new NHL was the Dallas Stars, but you’d never say it with the way they’ve played.  I think the key was they were able to keep the core of their team intact under the new salary system.  For a short time it appeared Mike Modano would sign somewhere else, and while nobody knows for sure what really happened, at the end of the day, he stayed put and continues to be a solid captain for the Stars.  Sergei Zubov is the cornerstone of the Dallas defense.  It also helps when you have two of the most potent scoring lines in the league, with Bill Guerin, Modano, Brenden Morrow, Jere Lehtinen, Jason Arnott and Jussi Jokinen leading the charge.  Goaltender Marty Turco hasn’t been one of the top net minders in the league by accident.  There’s a reason he was named to Team Canada, he can flat out stop the puck.  They’ve also done very well in the new NHL’s most important rule change – the shootout.  Down the stretch they may want to find a way to beat one of their biggest rivals, the Pacific Division leading Los Angeles Kings.  Regardless of where they end up in the standings, Dallas should have another fine showing by the time all is said and done.

Grade: A

Detroit Red Wings – When you play in the weakest division in the NHL, and when you have the head of the NHL’s new competition committee on your team, you’d better be in the lead.  Brendan Shanahan had one of the biggest hands in the new rule changes, but I would urge him to do everything he can to implement another big rule change for next year – automatic icing.  I don’t think anything more needs to be said.

The Red Wings may have found a goaltending gem with Manny Legace, who is having his absolute best season yet.  Nicklas Lidstrom continues to log 25-30 minutes a game on the blue line.  The aforementioned Shanahan hasn’t been too bad either.  Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have continued to light the lamp.  Steve Yzerman is probably finished after this year, but when he’s healthy he can still get it done.  I personally have been impressed with Tomas Holmstrom and Robert Lang.  Yes, the Wings continue to be deep on paper, but their team execution sometimes is questionable. 

The NHL may want to consider ditching the eight games against divisional rivals as well.  How can you honestly build a rivalry within your division when three out of the five teams in the division are the three worst teams in the NHL.  If you do the math – there’s 24 games against the worst teams in the league – is it any wonder the Detroit Red Wings lead the division and the conference?  Not to take anything away from Detroit, as they have been solid all year, but I’m sure this must help their cause.  We’ll give them an A for effort and their record, but I have been concerned with their play against other divisions, particularly the Northwest.

Grade: B

Edmonton Oilers – We missed a year of NHL hockey so that a smaller market team like Edmonton could continue to thrive and be competitive.  Most importantly for Canadian Hockey fans, we now have a system which will ensure no more teams move south of the border.  Had they continued along the old system, there is no doubt the Oilers would have been one of the next to move.  Well, dream on Houston and Portland, the Oilers are staying put in Edmonton.

The one indication the new NHL had arrived was when Edmonton made the trade for star defenseman Chris Pronger and gritty forward Michael Peca.  I mentioned how Detroit’s Lidstrom plays 25-30 minutes per game, so too does Pronger.  His calming presence has made the rest of the team around him better.  He seems to have taken youngster Marc-Andre Bergeron under his wing and they both have been exciting to watch.  Peca, while he hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard, has been a force to be reckoned with at the faceoff dot and continues to be one of the biggest agitators in the game.  Even though he's been criticized for not shooting the puck more, Ales Hemsky has been one of the most exciting younger players in the game.  Jarret Stoll has been another good faceoff man.  Linemate Raffi Torres, fourth liners Fernando Pisani and Ethan Moreau have been solid.  Ryan Smyth continues to show why he should be the captain of this team.  Even with solid offense and defense, the Oilers can’t seem to decide on a number one goaltender, and the candidates haven’t exactly made good cases for themselves.  Lately, Ty Conklin seems to be getting better and Jussi Markannen has split the duties with him.  Edmonton finds themselves in too many comeback situations, and it isn’t going to get any better down the stretch as teams jockey for position.  Still, as they say, it isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish.  They managed to go into the Christmas break with the division lead, if they can get on the right streak they could surprise everybody and win home ice advantage.  Imagine what they could do if they can get more consistent goaltending.  The name I keep hearing is Olaf Kolzig.  We’ll see what happens.  I think the Oilers will be content to just make the playoffs.  As Calgary proved last time NHL hockey was played, once you make it in, you just never know.

Grade: B

Florida Panthers – The teams who have struggled the most under the new NHL rule changes have been the ones who play a defense first, ask questions later style.  Florida is one of those teams who made a living in the old NHL with the neutral zone trap, and they didn’t do it very well, except maybe for 1996 when they faced Colorado in the Stanley Cup Final.  Although it seemed like a good move at the time, Jacques Martin hasn’t been able to accomplish in Sunrise what he was able to get done in Ottawa.  Could it simply be the new NHL has simply passed its way by the coaching style of Jacques Martin?  I say definitely.  Early on it seemed the Panthers couldn’t lose.  Roberto Luongo started off the season with a bang, shutting out his first two opponents.  Shortly thereafter, the wheels fell off.  Gary Roberts was temporarily injured.  Kristian Huselius turned off his production like a water tap, which led to his being traded to Calgary.  The top players on the team were and still continue to be the younger talents like Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Olli Jokinen.  I thought we’d see more out of Jay Bouwmeester after watching his stellar performance at the 2004 World Cup, but so far this season he has yet to light the lamp.  Defensively he’s a minus 10.  It isn’t going to get any easier for Florida, but at least they shouldn’t have much trouble staying out of last place, as Washington is way off the pace, but on the flipside they aren’t making the playoffs anytime soon either at the rate they’re going.

Grade: F

Los Angeles Kings – One of the best trades prior to the lockout brought former Montreal Canadiens backup goaltender Mathieu Garon to California, although they haven’t had to rely on him too much.  Jason Labarbera has fit in quite nicely in his rookie campaign. Free agency was kind to the Kings, as both Jeremy Roenick and Pavol Demitra have so far had outstanding seasons, even though Roenick is currently injured.  Calgary will tell you their best free agent signing of them all, however, was Craig Conroy, and they’d be right - 16 goals, 45 points and a plus 21, good enough for second in scoring on the team (Demitra is first).  Joseph Corvo is probably somebody you haven’t seen much of unless you live in L.A., but he has been one of the best defensemen in the league – he is one of the NHL leaders in plus/minus, a plus 27, good enough for second best in the NHL, in between Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson of Ottawa, and plus 2 better than rookie Andrej Meszaros, also of Ottawa.  Corvo, as you might well imagine, gets a lot of power play time and plays a lot of minutes.  If you think the Kings will be pushovers this year, think again.  Their play through the first half has been outstanding.  Oh yeah, and I just can’t resist talking about this one – Sean Avery, the team pest, finally seems to have found somebody who can make him shut up – none other than “puck bunny blogger” girlfriend Elisha Cuthbert.  Cuthbert has starred in “House Of Wax” and “The Girl Next Door”, and writes a daily blog at NHL.com.  Don’t believe me?  Check it out for yourself.

Grade: A

Minnesota Wild – One of the best all time quotes I’ve ever heard about this team was when Brian Burke said “the Wild are not a hockey team, they’re a cult”.  And do you know what?  Although his quote was criticized heavily at the time, it wasn’t too far from the truth.  I’ve mentioned how the defense first system hasn’t worked too well for teams in the new NHL?  The Wild are the exception.  Jacques Lemaire more often than not is a coaching genius – with a little bit of tweaking of his old stifling defense, he’s managed to make the same neutral zone trap style work in the new NHL, but he’s needed a few key components to make it work.  First of all he has arguably one of the best goaltending tandems in the entire league with Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson, yet the question has been who will they keep?  Roloson has been rumored to be on the move.  The offense has been anchored by two former Ottawa Senators, Todd White and Alexandre Daigle.  Their top offensive threats have been Brian Rolston, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and the always dangerous Marian Gaborik.  One of the pleasant surprises have been rookie centre Mikko Koivu, brother of Montreal’s Saku Koivu.  The Wild keep getting it done with a virtually no-name defense.  I know Filip Kuba played in the last all star game, but he isn’t exactly a household name.  Neither is Brent Burns, Kurtis Foster or Andrei Zyuzin.  It just goes to show how good the Northwest Division is – the Wild are two games above .500 and are in the division basement.  Yet, the way the standings have unfolded so far, all five teams could make the playoffs.  Interpret it any way you will, but the Wild will need to do better against their division rivals in the second half, period.

Grade: C

Montreal Canadiens – This storied franchise seems to be working their way back to respectability.  I would have laughed at a prediction for the Habs winning the Stanley Cup this decade a couple of years ago, but now I’m not so sure.  Bob Gainey has done with this team what he was able to do with Dallas – build a team who will play hard, in your face hockey.  Saku Koivu has done everything you’d expect a captain to do, play hard and score.  Michael Ryder has been the most consistent forward – even when the team was going through their recent slump.  There is probably nobody in the NHL happier over Jason Spezza’s injury than Sheldon Souray, he’s been undressed twice by the star forward, once the goal I spoke of in my last article.  Souray seems to be getting on the score sheet much more lately.  Like most teams, the Habs have had to go through injuries, and are now getting their players back.  The return of Alexei Kovalev, Radek Bonk, and Andrei Markov seems to have lit a fire in Montreal.  As of this writing the Habs are barely on the outside looking in, but the way they played at the beginning of the season and the way they manhandled Ottawa today in a 4-1 victory proves to me for better or for worse the Habs are back.  They need to translate today into a winning streak now and they shouldn’t have a problem.  There are a few other teams vying for the last playoff spot, so it won’t be easy.  Watching some of the games the Habs have played during the first half, it would appear the old Forum Ghosts have forgiven the team for leaving the old shrine.  Ottawa, Buffalo and Toronto better look out in the second half.

Grade: B

Nashville Predators – If the Central Division was more competitive, I dare say Nashville could be leading the Western Conference.  Sure, they haven’t beat Detroit yet, but the one loss to the Wings is the only blemish on an otherwise solid first half.  You can’t underestimate what Paul Kariya has brought to this team, a one-two punch with Steve Sullivan.  Jordin Tootoo, after a conditioning stint in the minors, is back where he belongs in the NHL, and he is taking no prisoners.  Tomas Vokoun could very well be the most underrated goaltender in the league.  Kimmo Timmonen and Marek Zidlicky have been their usual solid selves on the blue line.  Vernon Fiddler has come on of late.  Yanic Perreault continues to dominate the faceoff circle.  Detroit is the only thing standing between the Preds and tops in the conference, and they will take a 1-0 lead into the make up game – the one they stopped in the first period when Jiri Fischer collapsed.  After that, six more meetings with the Wings should more or less tell the story the rest of the way.  This could be the beginning of a special second half in the Music City.

Grade: A

New Jersey Devils – The new NHL hasn’t been very kind to the cloven hooked boys of winter, and no wonder. When you lose a veteran bruiser like Scott Stevens to retirement and Norris trophy winner Scott Niedermayer to free agency, it’s no wonder Martin Brodeur has looked anything but Martin Brodeur.  Vladimir Malakhov did Lou Lamoriello a favor by announcing his retirement as up until then he couldn’t block a beach ball.  Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez have been as consistent as they have had to be.  One of the rookies you don’t hear much about has been Zach Parise, but he’ll be one of the future stars of this team.  Perhaps the biggest question mark at this stage is what will happen to the $3.5 million man, Alexander Mogilny?  Is a Lamoriello blockbuster in the works?  Patrick Elias’ return from a bout with hepatitis has injected some much needed offense into a team struggling to find an identity in the new NHL.  We all know the force they have been in years past.  The fans all say “In Lou we Trust”, and it will be interesting to see what the Devils do down the stretch to at least salvage what hasn’t been their best outing in recent memory.  You get the sense if the Devils can keep their current streak going they will give Montreal, Atlanta and Tampa Bay (say what?) a good run for the last playoff spot.

Grade: C

New York Islanders – Now here’s a hard team to read.  One night they’ll be absolutely brilliant on the ice, and other nights it’s like they’re just going through the motions.  At one point they were holding down a playoff spot, now they’ll be hard pressed to make it.  Let’s put it to you this way – Boston and Florida are both tied with the New York Islanders in points.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but what kind of team could this Islanders team be if Mike Milbury wasn’t running it?  Who else in their right mind would give Alexei Yashin $8 million a year?  I mean, if he wasn’t worth it in Ottawa, whatever made Milbury think he was worth it in Long Island?  At least when Yashin is on his game, he’s really on his game – but at the expense of almost 1/3 of the entire team’s payroll?  The better players in my opinion have been Jason Blake and Mike York.  Miroslav Satan hasn’t played up to expectations, a minus 7 as of this writing.  When your best two defensemen are Alexei Zhitnik and Brent Sopel, you know it’s going to be a long season.  No disrespect meant towards these players, but when you consider the talent this team has traded away over the years, you really have to wonder.  If the Islanders miss the playoffs again this year, the front office brass should do the right think and run Milbury out of town before all the fans cross over to Manhattan and support a resurgent Rangers team.  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little bit, but the Isles will have to work hard if they plan on making the post season.

Grade: D

New York Rangers – What a difference a lockout and a few rule changes make.  The most improved team by far this season has been this year’s edition of the Rangers.  Although they’ve been on a bit of a slump lately (although they’ve still managed points for extending games to overtime), the Rangers seem to back in business, ironically enough, ever since Mark Messier decided to finally retire.  Jaromir Jagr appears to be a reinvigorated player and looks to be having fun playing the game again.  At his current pace he could win the scoring title again.  He has been nicely complemented by Martin Straka, Michael Nylander and Martin Rucinsky.  Rookie Petr Prucha has lit it up as well.  There hasn’t really been any one area of overall success, the Rangers have simply played like a team again as opposed to playing individually, something they did for far too many years.  The only question I have is how can they translate the rest of the regular season into both a playoff spot and playoff success?  While goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been solid so far, he has no playoff experience.  No matter what happens, Tom Renney has to be given a lot of credit for the turnaround and should be considered among voting for the Jack Adams award.

Grade: A

Ottawa Senators – Injuries have taken their toll on what has been the top team in the NHL so far, but you won’t hear the Sens using this as an excuse.  But let’s be totally honest, when you lose two players who are leading the entire league in scoring, a top sniper who was lighting the lamp almost at will, and a promising young rookie who was also starting to find the net, what more can you do?  Yes, the Senators are without captain Daniel Alfredsson, centre Jason Spezza, as well as wingers Martin Havlat and Brandon Bochenski.  But you don’t hear them complaining.  Most nights, they still manage to get it done offensively by reverting to the defensive style Jacques Martin taught them.  Their current slump, if you can even call it that, has seen Ottawa lose to two divisional rivals as well as a team with which they made one of the biggest trades of last summer with, Atlanta.  It’s been a long time since a team has been able to beat Ottawa by a score of 8-3, but they bounced back the next game and beat Washington 3-1 before their current losing streak has taken them to a whole 2 games.  The Senators still haven’t lost 10 games in regulation, so don’t look for too many other teams to have a lot of sympathy for their injury situation.  Bryan Murray knows the only way the team will persevere is by playing hard every night, which they have done for the most part, and eventually the top players will return and keep this team rolling.  Throughout, Dany Heatley still manages to maintain his almost point a game pace, Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden continue to help their cause on the blue line, and some of the hottest rookies to come to Ottawa in years are getting ice time.  Patrick Eaves, Chris Kelly, Andrej Meszaros, Christoph Schubert, the list goes on.  These players could all be playing in Binghamton right about now, but have been able to take the step needed to play at the NHL level.  Do I have any concerns about the team almost all the so-called experts are picking to win it all this year?  In fact, I have 3.  Can Dominik Hasek stay healthy?  Can the Senators ever get their power play going?  And can the Senators keep their composure and implement a little more discipline?  All will be essential to get them over the playoff hump and into the finals, especially if the NHL continues to officiate the game the way they say they will.  If and when they get there, look for the government to declare an unofficial holiday in Canada’s Capital.  It may actually turn out to be necessary because this city will go absolutely insane.

Grade: A

Philadelphia Flyers – Don’t look now, but the Flyers have temporarily overtaken Ottawa for top spot in the Eastern Conference, by a single point.  Here’s where I rant about the extra point for an overtime or shootout loss.  Take away both for Ottawa and Philadelphia, and Ottawa is still #1 with a bullet.  But in a league where we award bonus points for regulation ties, regardless of the outcome, Philly can bask in the limelight for the time being.  Their time will come.  Yes, they’ve got two outstanding netminders in Robert Esche and Calder Cup champion Antero Niitymaki.  Yes they have Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne.  What worries me is the Flyers’ aging defense.  They did get bigger and stronger by signing some big names, but Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher aren’t getting any younger.  They have a well balanced attack and a punishing defense, but I can’t help but thinking a long seven game playoff series will wear them down.  Philadelphia is certainly going to be a contender again, but at what cost?  Goaltending has been the story in the past, but this has been addressed, at least so far.  Time will tell if the Flyers can get over their own playoff hiccups of the past and finally say “take that” to the NHL.  Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen, but they will give a few teams fits down the stretch, you can bet on it.

Grade: A

Phoenix Coyotes – Wayne Gretzky’s team is starting to fade quickly from the Western Conference playoff picture.  If they’re going to go anywhere, they have to win those games against their division, something they just haven’t been able to do so far.  They’re a far cry from catching Dallas and Los Angeles at this stage, but Anaheim is certainly within reach.  Curtis Joseph has been among the top ten goaltenders in the new NHL, but has anybody noticed?  I think the biggest news to come out of Phoenix this year has been Brett Hull announcing his retirement.  Since then it’s been downhill to say the least.  They still have a fairly decent roster on paper, but just haven’t been able to get it done on the ice.  Derek Morris was a top four defenseman in Calgary, but in Phoenix Paul Mara gets more ice time.  Mike Comrie, Ladislav Nagy and Shane Doan have accounted for most of the offense this team has been able to muster.  It’s almost a shame it’s come to this.  Before leaving Winnipeg, this team was among the most exciting in the league to watch and their fans rivaled those of any team.  Now they play in a market where they could play baseball year round, and their beautiful new building has yet to have its rafters severely tested with screaming fans.  A playoff appearance is desperately needed or you could see this team on the move again before long.  The Coyotes embark on a crucial Eastern Canada road trip in the coming week which will see them stop in Ottawa and Toronto.  If they can’t build some momentum away from Glendale Arena, perhaps it’s time to start the rebuilding process all over again.

Grade: D

Pittsburgh Penguins – Life has been the Pitts yet again in Pittsburgh.  They managed to get one of the most exciting players to come along since Wayne Gretzky retired, yet they can’t give the poor kid any support.  Anybody who saw the Atlanta-Pittsburgh home and home series this past week knows what I’m referring to.  Sidney Crosby certainly was expected to be good, but I’m not sure if anybody really thought he’d be as good as he has been playing for the team he is playing for.  Can you imagine if this kid played in Ottawa or Philadelphia?  It would be lights out every night, no questions asked.  Yet, in Pittsburgh, nobody was willing to put Ilya Kovalchuk’s lights out for mocking Sid the Kid.  Some may argue Crosby brought it upon himself, but back in Gretzky’s day Kovalchuk would have had both Marty McSorley and Dave Semenko to deal with.  Are you telling me not even Mark Recchi or John Leclair couldn’t have come to Crosby’s aid?  Isn’t Andre Roy back from suspension yet?  And another thing, is Pittsburgh as a community going to decide if they want or even need the Penguins?  I know the fans of the team say sure they need the team, but why aren’t they showing up to the games?  Why isn’t the mayor of Pittsburgh doing more to convince the Pennsylvania State Government a new arena is needed to keep the Penguins from moving?  I’m sure these are questions which will get answered in due time, but Super Mario can’t be expected to carry this team on his back much longer, if at all.  He may not even come back.  Now there’s talk of how the team may need to send goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the minors because they won’t be able to pay him any bonuses, especially if Crosby meets all of his incentives.  I won’t waste any more time writing about it, the team hasn’t played like one, and their record reflects it.  Off the ice, the team is in a shambles.  The only thing left to be answered is how much longer can the Penguins remain in Pittsburgh?

Grade: F

San Jose Sharks – A big surprise in the sense of where they are in the standings.  After the run they had in 2004 I think the Sharks had much higher expectations.  I know I did.  Let’s start with the obvious.  Joe Thornton has really helped this team regain their identity of late, but let’s be honest.  The Sharks were another team who relied heavily on the neutral zone, lull you to sleep style which is the old NHL.  They have quickly found out this style won’t win them another division title.  Thanks to the Thornton trade, the Sharks are finally ending up on the right end of some close games, the most recent a 3-2 triumph over division leading Los Angeles.  But, as I’ve said many times when Big Joe was a big bad Bruin, a team cannot live on Joe alone.  The offensive attack has done alright, as Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Alyn McCauley have all chipped in, but outside of Nicholas Dimitrakos and Tom Preissing, San Jose just doesn’t have the defensive corps they once had.  Evgeni Nabokov missed some time early on in the season, but even he hasn’t been half as good as he’s been in the past.  It all amounts to does this team want it bad enough, and if they do, they could bite into an already crowded stretch run.  I’m not sure if they’re consistent enough to make it happen, but we’ll see.

Grade: D

St. Louis Blues – I’m not too sure I want to waste a lot of breath on what has become just a total collapse in St. Louis.  To me it just seems as though they’ve found a way to lose hockey games.  If the object of the game was to lose as many one goal games as you can, the Blues would lead the league.  Every player has a plus/minus rating of at least minus 3 or worse (the worst being -17), nobody on the roster has scored more than 14 goals, with the vast majority scoring less than 10, and they can’t find a goalie who can stop the puck.  Patrick Lalime will probably never find a job even in the East Coast Hockey League after this season, and for a goaltender who is only three years removed from almost winning a Stanley Cup, this is not a good thing.  Lalime had better luck in Pittsburgh for crying out loud!  Where did the Blues go wrong?  Surely losing Pavol Demitra wasn’t a big deal, was it?  Why haven’t Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk been able to light the lamp?  From here on in, it won’t be how many games the Blues can win, it will be what players will move before the trading deadline?  I would think with a new owner this team will be content just to play out the string and rebuild, but then, does a new owner really want this team?

Grade: F

Tampa Bay Lightning – Will the Bolts be the next team to go from Champs to Chumps?  The Stanley Cup Champions trail Southeast division leading Carolina by 12 points and are in danger of surrendering the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  The obvious reason has been no Nikolai Khabibulin in net.  For the most part, the Lightning were able to maintain most of the key components of their championship team, particularly Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, all of whom, not surprisingly, lead the team in scoring, along with the returned and reinvigorated Vaclav Prospal.  Without the “Bulin Wall” and with captain Dave Andreychuk a glaring minus 13, is it any wonder the playoff hangover has worn off?  If Tampa Bay can’t win games against teams below them in the standings, especially when they have a lead (they blew a 3-1 lead to Boston), how can they be expected to get it done even if they do make the playoffs.  John Tortorella’s message seems to have worn thin on the team, and if they’re ever going to go anywhere they need to either get a goalie or work within to find a solution.  They truly control their own destiny at this point in the season.

Grade: C

Toronto Maple Leafs – We could see a defenseman hit the 100 point plateau for the first time in a long time.  What’s most surprising is Bryan McCabe is the guy.  49 points through the first half of the season is best among defensemen in the NHL.  As for the rest of the Leafs, nobody seems really sure how, but this team keeps getting it done, night in and night out.  Somebody once told me the karma of the Leafs could destroy a Jedi Knight (although if you saw Star Wars Episode III, you could make the argument the Jedi could have used a little karma).  Darcy Tucker has been called “a warrior” by coach Pat Quinn, and has been the most consistent forward on a team full of players who weren’t expected to do much, even though they do boast the likes of Mats Sundin, Jeff O’Neill, Jason Allison, and Eric Lindros.  Most nights it seems if either goalie Belfour or Tellqvist aren’t on their game, the Leafs lose.  If the goalies shine, so do the Leafs.  Such has been the bread and butter of the Toronto organization – overcome adversity and stick to the game plan.  So far it has worked and worked well, but the Buds seem to have some glaring holes on defense which the more elite teams have been able to exploit.  If it wasn't for McCabe who knows where they might be?

Grade: C

Vancouver Canucks – If the Canucks need a goaltender as badly as the fans and media say they do, don’t tell the players.  Vancouver seems to be plugging along just fine without Dan Cloutier in their lineup, probably the most overrated goalie there is.  Alex Auld in my opinion has earned himself the number one job, even when Cloutier is healthy enough to return.  Besides, maybe a new face in net is just what the doctor ordered for a team who has struggled in recent years to get over their own playoff hump.  Todd Bertuzzi is back, but if you believe the rumors, he may not be in a Canucks uniform much longer.  Question is, who wants him, and if he is traded, will Markus Naslund sulk until he’s traded as well?  Probably the biggest breath of fresh air has been the addition of Anson Carter, as he has helped elevate the play of the Sedin Twins.  On defense, Ed Jovanovski has been his usual relentless self, and Sami Salo has got his blistering shot back, but this is another area the Canucks may want to address.  Here's some good news - Brendan Morrison seems to have found his game again.  Some have gone so far as to say the coach Marc Crawford should be canned.  All of this, yet collectively as a team the players still seem to find a way to be among the best in the Northwest Division.  After a couple of wins, they are right back in the thick of things.  If you ask me, the Canucks should go with what they have and see where it takes them.  How many goaltenders are truly available anyway?

Grade: B

Washington Capitals – Not worth my time or my energy.  At this point they are too far out of the playoff race, and the fans couldn’t care less.  I refuse to try and offer a supportive word for a team who's best player is rookie Alexander Ovechkin, by a long shot.  Take away Ovechkin, and the Capitals are downright scary, and I mean that in the worst way.  Hey George McPhee, do yourself a favor, trade Olaf Kolzig, and do it now, and let the NHL get on with life.  Better luck next year.

Grade: F

NHL – Early indications are the league is back with a bang.  It is expected the salary cap, which now sits at $39 million, will be raised to a yet to be determined level next season.  Players got some good news to kick off 2006, as they will see less money deducted from their paychecks to support Escrow.  12% of all players’ salaries went towards the fund up until now.  This number has now dropped to 4%.  If the league is truly doing as well as they say they are, the players could see a good chunk of this money refunded at the end of the season. 

I am concerned when I see half empty buildings in Washington, Carolina and Pittsburgh, just to name a few.  I can understand the fans in Washington and Pittsburgh don’t want to go see a team lose, but a team will tell you a full house will get them pumped up to the point where the probability of winning has just increased that much more.  As for Carolina, there is no excuse.  The team leads their division and has one of the most exciting young players in the game today.  All teams have done their part to try and entice fans to attend, some to the point of actually giving away their tickets (you wouldn’t have to ask me twice!), yet still there are buildings which would sell more tickets to a snail race than to an NHL Hockey Game.

I guess if you look at the big picture, given the NHL left us in the dark for a whole year and given the fact the game has come back better than ever with the new rule changes, the fact there are still some markets that either don’t get it or don’t care isn’t all too surprising.  I’m going to be very interested to see the year end totals and then I’ll decide for myself if the new NHL is really truly thriving or if Gary Bettman is just full of hot air again.

For me, it’s just nice to actually have NHL hockey back.  It just wasn’t the same without it, I don’t care what anybody says.  Now if they can actually get some referees who can officiate…

Grade: A

And as another masterpiece comes to a close, I'd like to wish you all a Happy New Year and may your favorite team make all your dreams come true this year.  Stay tuned as we’ll have lots of hockey to talk about with the upcoming Winter Games in Italy, followed by the trading deadline (it’s earlier this year!), not to mention the always fun playoff races, and the Stanley Cup Quest. 

 

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