A quarter of the NHL season is in the books and now things get interesting.
Traditionally, general managers wait until after the first 20 games to decide where their teams need help. Especially true under the new salary-cap era in hockey, teams are more willing to give young players a chance to see what they can do. For some teams, it’s working. For others, it’s time to make personnel changes.
So from the start of the second quarter going forward, expect GMs to be more active in terms of player movement – trades, use of the waiver wire, promotions from the minors, and even landing the odd free agent who has sat out until this point.
Here’s what we learned from the first quarter.
Best team: Ottawa. No hangover syndrome from the Stanley Cup finalists that we can see, certainly not like what bit the last several runner-ups in Calgary and Edmonton. One difference is the Senators really are a championship quality team where the Flames were a No. 7 seed and the Oilers a No. 8 when both Alberta teams ran to Game 7 of the Finals before losing to Tampa Bay and Carolina, respectively.
Best division: You’ll get an argument from teams in the Central because all of them are or will be over .500 after 20 games, but the Atlantic boasts the best talent. Philadelphia has made a nice bounce back, the Rangers are winning despite a lack of goal scoring, the Isles are a tough team to play against and Pittsburgh is obviously loaded with talent. The only team that looks to be lacking is New Jersey, yet the Devils are only one game under .500 after 21.
Worst team: The Capitals have dug a hole, winning just three times in their last 18 games. That cost coach Glen Hanlon his job. Atlanta got a surprising boost when GM Don Waddell fired his coach Bob Hartley and ventured behind the bench himself. Maybe the Caps will revitalize under interim Bruce Boudreau.
Worst division: The Pacific teams have underachieved so far. San Jose, Anaheim and Dallas have all disappointed early. Phoenix is committed to its youth, so growing pains and probable non-playoff contention is expected. Los Angeles doesn’t look like it can hang in a playoff race, either. Dallas shook things up by firing its GM, Doug Armstrong, and probably will make more changes. The Ducks need to get Scott Niedermayer back and acquire another scoring threat to form two scoring lines to contend again. And the Sharks still have to mature as a group, which is taking longer than it should.
MVP (Eastern conference): Goalie Henrik Lundqvist has almost single-handedly kept the Rangers in the race while the team tried to find offense. Honorable mentions: Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh; Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa.
MVP (Western conference): Red Wings left wing Henrik Zetterberg (what is it with these Swedes named Henrik?). He set a franchise record by scoring in each of the first 17 games (13 goals, 27 points) and sparked the Wings to a great start. Honorable mentions: Jarome Iginla, Calgary; Joe Thornton, San Jose; Pascal Leclaire, Columbus; Patrick Kane, Chicago.
Comeback player (East): Goalie Martin Gerber of the Senators seized the No. 1 role and has reestablished himself as a dependable goalie to help chase the whispers that he couldn’t survive in the new NHL.
Comeback player (West): Forward Jeremy Roenick of the Sharks is sincere about wanting to play a mentor role and contribute what he can to the team as opposed to sticking out as an individual. Roenick, the team’s surprising second-leading scorer, has provided a tremendous example on and off the ice.
Rodney Dangerfield Award for a lack of respect (East): Islanders coach Ted Nolan should get more recognition for the job he continues to do in New York.
Rodney Dangerfield Award for a lack of respect (West): The St. Louis Blues. Sure, they fell off the map the last couple of years, along with it attendance and interest waned in the Gateway City. But under the persistent work of team president John Davidson and underrated coach Andy Murray, the Blues look like a team that will remain in the hunt all season.
First quarter dogs: Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary; Patrik Elias, New Jersey; Patrick Marleau, San Jose.
They’re dinosaurs now: Fighting may be up statistically, but you sure don’t hear much from Jody Shelley, Columbus; Scott Parker, Colorado; Darcy Hordichuk, Nashville; Brian McGrattan, Ottawa or Donald Brashear, Philadelphia.
Two minutes for too much time in the training room: Martin Havlat, Chicago; Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta; Todd Bertuzzi, Anaheim; Steve Sullivan, Nashville.
Youthful exuberance: Probably the most impressive part of the season to date is the significant contributions made by not only young players, but kids who are still teenagers. Chicago’s 1-2 punch of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews head the list. Other surprising teens include: Sam Gagner, Edmonton; Nicklas Backstrom, Washington; Peter Mueller, Phoenix; and David Perron, St. Louis – all forwards.
Don’t forget these rookies either: They may have left their teenage years, but they’re all in the thick of the Calder race: Montreal goalie Carey Price, 20; Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom, 23; and San Jose winger Devin Setoguchi, 20.
Free-agent struggles: Colorado defenseman Scott Hannan is logging 23 minutes a game, but he was minus-11 in his first 20 games. Edmonton defenseman Sheldon Souray got injured after six games and forward Dustin Penner had just four goals and 10 points in his first 21 contests.
Best goal: Toews vs. Colorado on Oct. 19, a one-on-three rush that ended with fancy stick handling and a pinpoint shot against Avalanche goalie Jose Theodore.
Best save: Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh (another good comeback story) dove at the side of the net and, with his stick fully extended, deflected a puck out of mid-air from crossing the goal line in the third period of a tie game against Anaheim on Nov. 17.
Second-quarter predictions: Scott Niedermayer will decide to return to the Ducks. Teemu Selanne will continue to defer. Edmonton and Buffalo will rally from the depths to get back into playoff contention. New Jersey, Toronto, Los Angeles and Calgary will be active in the trade market. The Outdoor Game in Buffalo on Jan. 1 will be snowed out.