Now that we are almost two months into the NHL regular season, let’s take a look around the league to see who’s hot, who’s not and who has already been shown the door.
The young NHL season has already seen the firing of two head coaches, and they have come from the same division. The first coaching departure occurred when the Atlanta Thrashers’ Bob Hartley was fired on October 17. After losing the first six games of the season, Hartley was relieved of his coaching duties and was replaced by General Manager Don Waddell for what was originally a short-term assignment. However, the Thrashers responded immediately to the change, and after climbing from the bottom of the Southeast division to third place, Waddell has secured his position behind the bench for the time being.
While Atlanta went from the basement to the middle of the hunt, the Washington Capitals’ season so far has had the opposite result. The Caps came out of the gate with a 3-0 record and finally appeared to be showing the positive effects of their stellar combination of young talent and veteran offseason acquisitions. Things quickly took a turn for the worse, however, and the Caps found themselves off to their worst start in 26 years and in the bottom of the standings, collecting only 13 points in 21 games. Washington sought a solution in the same way as Atlanta and fired Head Coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day. Replacing Hanlon on an interim basis is Bruce Boudreau, head coach of the Caps’ AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. The seasoned and successful minor league coach was deserving of the call up and won his first two games with the Capitals.
Staffing-change rumors have also begun to surface around another struggling Eastern Conference team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although the Leafs denied the Monday afternoon reports that Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. unsuccessfully tried to fire Head Coach Paul Maurice, talk has surfaced throughout the league that a change must come in Toronto. The Leafs are in the bottom of the Northeast Division and are struggling mightily for yet another season. Keep your eyes on the news because heads are surely soon to roll in Toronto.
As the first seven weeks of hockey have come and gone, the Eastern Conference has two teams surprisingly occupying the bottom of the standings. The first of these two teams is the Buffalo Sabres. After winning the Northeast Division a season ago, the Sabres are tied for the bottom spot in the division after Monday night’s play. At this point in the season a year ago this Buffalo team held a record of 19-3-2, while this year they are teetering around the .500 mark. Although the dip in the standings can be attributed to their loss of some key players, the Sabres have showed a resurrection of late and have a five-game winning streak through the beginning of the week.
Another team not living up to its potential in the east is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Returning much of the same team as last year, many believed the Pens to be a playoff threat. Though star captain Sidney Crosby remains atop the NHL rankings in points and assists, Pittsburgh’s win production remains down. The yellow and black find themselves in the basement in the Atlantic Division after two months of play.
The Philadelphia Flyers are one of the bright spots in the Eastern Conference. Sitting proudly on top of the Atlantic Division standings, the Flyers have only lost two games in their Wachovia Center home. Goalie Martin Biron, a late-season acquisition last year, is tied for second in the NHL in wins and is providing a solid effort backstopping the team. Leading the offense is Mike Richards, who is currently eighth in the NHL in goals and 15th in the league in points. This strength on both ends of the ice looks to continue Philly’s winning ways and propel the team well into the postseason.
Best in the West
The Western Conference has been the stronger of the two conferences for the past couple of seasons, and the opening weeks of NHL play did little to challenge this standard. While the Detroit Red Wings are, as expected, dominating the Central Division and the West as a whole, there are several teams with strong starts. A pleasant surprise in the Pacific Division, home to such powerhouses as the Anaheim (No Longer Mighty) Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, is the streaking Dallas Stars. Winners of their last seven of 10 through Monday’s play, the Stars hold the most points in the Pacific. After slow starts from the Stanley Cup Champion Ducks and the Sharks, these two teams have turned up their play, proving the Pacific Division to be entertaining to watch in the second half of the season.
Along with the Pacific, the top three teams in the Northwest have shown to be strong as well. Vancouver, Minnesota and Colorado are only separated by one point and, despite a few lags in their play throughout the beginning of the season, have come to compete at this quarter mark in the season.
Another interesting team to watch in the West is the Chicago Blackhawks. Initially written off as a rebuilding team, the young tandem of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews has lit up the rookie scene throughout the league. Kane and Toews lead all rookies in points with 22 and 16, respectively, and have quietly led the Blackhawks into third place in the Central Division. These two youngsters are the age of a college sophomore, but they hold skills and ability well beyond their years. Watch for this duo to continue to shine brightly in the Windy City.