A quarter of the way into the season is traditionally a time when teams take a good, hard look at themselves. The early-season sample is thought to be large enough to make an educated guess as to what is right and what is wrong with teams. It's a time when general managers start making decisions that will affect the rest of the season and future of a franchise. The science is inexact because there is still a lot of season left, but this is where the line in the sand is drawn. With that as a backdrop, this week's rankings analyze the biggest issues teams are facing with one quarter of the season in the books. The weekly feature appears every Tuesday throughout the season, and reflects only the results and ranking up to the day it's published.
1. San Jose Sharks (17-3-1, Previous: 1) – Yes, it's the second-best first-quarter start in the least 25 NHL seasons, but 20 games a season do not make. The fact 43-year-old Claude Lemieux is being given as much as a 25-game look-see in Worcester tells you GM Doug Wilson still wants to add more grit to the mix. Depth on defense, especially of the physical variety, could be another area the team explores.
2. Detroit Red Wings (14-2-4, Previous: 2) – So much talent, so little cap space. GM Kenny Holland is going to have to convince some stars to take a little less money, an area in which he has had success in the past, or there will be changes to this roster before next season. And if Holland gets the idea he could lose some players for nothing, he could be proactive at the trade deadline.
3. Boston Bruins (14-3-4, Previous: 4) – Taking a pretty good team last year and adding a healthy Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez to the mix seemed just too simple in terms of making this a very good team, but that's exactly what has happened. In addition, the Bruins have discovered how to score, which blows the theory that Claude Julien can only coach defensive teams right out the window. Why change anything?
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (12-5-3, Previous: 3) – The Penguins are winning games and earning points despite injury woes on defense early on and in goal recently. We suggested the team could be better off in the long run because of the adversity, and they're right on target. Divvying the money is a challenge here, too. Jordan Staal is going to need a contract extension to keep him off the restricted market in the offseason.
5. New York Rangers (15-7-2, Previous: 5) – New York has to feel pretty good about moving on from the Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan era. Youth is being served and youth is delivering, just as it is in a lot of places around the league. The blue line was going to be the key for this team heading into the season, and it appears the new personnel and the holdovers are jelling.
6. Montreal Canadiens (11-5-4, Previous: 6) – The Canadiens showed last season and early on that they are close, very close, to being a serious Cup contender. Montreal wants more scoring, and many feel the real wild card out there that could put this team over the top is free agent Mats Sundin. With less than $2 million in cap space, that's not an easy deal right now. Stay tuned.
7. Vancouver Canucks (14-6-2, Previous: 13) – The Canucks can exhale somewhat, knowing now that Roberto Luongo should be ready by the New Year, at the latest, but that doesn't deter the team from hoping it can win the Sundin sweepstakes. Long term, the Sedin twins need an extension, but if that's not in the offing, it's bye-bye to Daniel and Henrik and the franchise will take on a decidedly different look.
8. Philadelphia Flyers (10-6-4, Previous: 11) – Remove the six-game winless stretch at the outset, and the Flyers are 10-3-1. Philly's turnaround has come, too, despite its banged-up defense. We suggested the Flyers could be formidable with the return of Simon Gagne, and his 11 goals and 25 points in 18 games are making that prediction a reality.
9. Chicago Blackhawks (10-4-5, Previous: 12) – Management waited all of four games to replace popular Denis Savard with the experienced Joel Quenneville behind the bench. And no one has a problem with the results. Step 1 is to get the Blackhawks into the playoffs, and Quenneville has proven he can do that with teams. Win it all? That's another story. For now, however, the Hawks are selling out every home game, they're young, exciting and back on the map in Chicago. You can't ask for much more than that.
10. Anaheim Ducks (12-8-3, Previous: 9) – Interesting place the Ducks find themselves – a recent champion having a hard time recapturing the elite level of play and suddenly featuring a new GM calling the shots. Incoming Bob Murray has some work to do to clean up the payroll issues Brian Burke left behind, along with a lot of aging talent. Why does Anaheim still take too many penalties? It's not as much discipline, the problem they overcame to win the 2007 Cup, but the fact they can't keep up with other teams' skaters. The Ducks have to figure out how to get younger and faster.
11. New Jersey Devils (11-7-2, Previous: 17) – The Devils are in the process of learning a lot about each other now with Martin Brodeur lost for months. There's certainly no replacing the future Hall of Famer, and it's hard to imagine a Lou Lamoriello-managed team changing too drastically. It's going to be up to the players to all take on a little more.
12. Minnesota Wild (12-6-1, Previous: 8) – About the only thing you can say about Marian Gaborik is nothing will happen until the fragile superstar finds a way to get healthy – no trade will be consummated, no extension will be signed, no nothing. Kudos to the Wild for putting this distraction aside – Gaborik has appeared in only two games and he's the big piece that holds up everything else the team might want to do.
13. Washington Capitals (11-7-3, Previous: 7) – It looked a bit dubious on paper before the season started, and the goaltending still is a big question. Only five teams had worse goals-against averages than the Caps before Tuesday night's action. Jose Theodore's numbers – 3.19 goals-against average and .889 save percentage – are going to have to get better. Right now he's getting outplayed by backup Brent Johnson.
14. Calgary Flames (11-9-1, Previous: 15) – The inconsistency suggests something is not right. The Flames spend too much time in their own zone. The defense is not nearly as efficient and punishing as in recent seasons. It's not easy in this salary-cap age, but there needs to be some tinkering on the blue line, or minutes are going to have to be redistributed – and that could mean too much ice time for key veterans needed down the stretch.
15. Carolina Hurricanes (11-9-2, Previous: 14) – Coach Peter Laviolette is frustrated by his team's inability to play a full game. That might explain the 'Canes' streaky nature. Mental preparation, the work ethic and leadership from all corners needs to be better. Are the answers in the room?
16. Edmonton Oilers (9-9-2, Previous: 18) – The Oilers need to unclog the three-headed monster in goal, and certainly they are trying to deal someone. But, in these cases, you want to make sure you keep the right two goalies and that hasn't really settled itself out yet. Either way, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers has showed he could be that goalie of the future the organization has been searching for the last couple of seasons.
17. Buffalo Sabres (9-8-3, Previous: 10) – Frustrated coach Lindy Ruff opined last week that his club was overrated by most heading into the season. The Sabres have followed a 6-0-2 start with a 3-6-1 stretch, giving every indication the defense is soft, there's not enough support, Tim Connolly is too fragile to be counted upon and Ryan Miller can't do it all by himself.
18. Nashville Predators (10-9-1, Previous: 20) – Quite simply, the Preds need a break. The franchise that has had to battle so many off-ice distractions – unsettled ownership, a possible move, the defection of a young star, lingering injuries to key players – continues to find a way to stay in the race. Whatever they do, the Preds have to hang on to GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz. They both have had long-term stability with the team – rare in the NHL – and do impressive work.
19. Colorado Avalanche (9-11-0, Previous: 16) – The injury bug has started to bite, and the Avs are all too familiar with that adversity. Not much a general manager can do but hope there's depth in the organization and, knock on wood, pray for more healthy days ahead.
20. Columbus Blue Jackets (9-8-3, Previous: 21) – There are some missing pieces – a bona fide, experienced No. 1 center and a quarterback on the blue line – but the Blue Jackets are getting a look at what Steve Mason can do between the pipes, and that could help cover for some deficiencies.
21. Ottawa Senators (7-9-4, Previous: 23) – If there's one team probably aching to make a deal it's this one. The Senators have been on the downhill slide since midseason last year, and the coaching change has done little to improve their fortunes. The team has a lot of individual talent that just isn't making the whole better than the parts.
22. Atlanta Thrashers (7-10-2, Previous: 19) – The fact the team has five alternates but no single player designated as the captain tells you everything you need to know. The Thrashers desperately need a player to lead them, and he's simply not in the organization.
23. Phoenix Coyotes (8-10-2, Previous: 22) – The current six-game losing streak is disappointing, but not all that surprising considering the young roster. The Coyotes have to be applauded for their patience since the start of last season, and they fancy themselves as a playoff contender, but staying the course with what they have is the most important factor.
24. New York Islanders (9-10-2, Previous: 25) – What to do about Rick DiPietro? Not much the Islanders can do. They should have learned something from the signing of Alexei Yashin years ago before doing the same thing with the now injury-prone and unmovable goaltender. It's hard to feel sorry for this team. At least Joey MacDonald has given the few fans who show up a reason to cheer. Sad what this franchise has become.
25. St. Louis Blues (8-8-2, Previous: 28) – The team's evaluation turned into action Monday with a rather interesting deal. The Blues acquired defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and center Alex Steen – high draft picks who haven't lived up to expectations – for Lee Stempniak, who has been productive for St. Louis in the past. If the Blues are simply looking for healthy bodies, this might be a shortsighted deal. They have to remain patient: This is not a playoff season, even if the Blues don't want to admit it.
26. Los Angeles Kings (8-8-3, Previous: 26) – GM Dean Lombardi is always a man with a plan, and as long as ownership gives him enough time to execute it, there are signs the Kings could be good in years to come. Everything won't fall into place this season, but there are definitely flashes by the youth splashed all over the roster to give Los Angeles hope.
27. Toronto Maple Leafs (7-8-5, Previous: 27) – They're not as bad as everyone predicted and they sure are entertaining. And now the Leafs are probably going to start up the soap opera again by finally hiring Brian Burke as the organization's top man. Regardless of what happens, patience has to be the mantra, from the start to the finish of the season.
28. Dallas Stars (6-10-4, Previous: 24) – This team was already thought to be mentally fragile before losing captain Brenden Morrow to injury for the rest of the season last week. Marty Turco has to get his act together. There is no one to take his job, and no real market for a trade since the Stars would need a stud goalie in return and who is going to pull that trigger with the way Turco is playing? On one hand, the Stars are a three-game winning streak from .500. On the other, they're at the bottom of a very challenging conference. There might be very little the Stars can do but ride this season out.
29. Florida Panthers (8-11-1, Previous: 29) – The Panthers are still searching for an identity, probably because they're just 20 games in with a new coach. The slow start by Jay Bouwmeester is disappointing, both for the team and the unrestricted free-agent defenseman who hasn't done as much with his league-leading ice time totals as he would have liked.
30. Tampa Bay Lightning (6-8-6, Previous: 30) – You really don't know what to expect one night to the next with this group. Obviously the assessment starts over after the recent coaching change. Roles will change, minutes will be redistributed. The real problem, still, is the personnel on defense. Nothing positive is going to come about until the blue line sorts itself out.