It’s time to repeat the series I wrote on this blog last year, reports about what happened during each quarter of the season. Each team has now played at least 20 games so what patterns and developments can be discerned in the first part of the new season?
Las Vegas Golden Knights
Actually the biggest surprise is no surprise at all for this award. The runaway winner which nobody has to guess at is the new expansion team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The fact that they have a winning record and have a real chance to make the playoffs shows just how good a job owner Bill Foley and general manager George McPhee have done. It is true that the NHL has tried this time to make the expansion process as generous as possible but you have to have smart ownership and management to know how to take maximum advantage of the situation. Even if the Knights were to lose every remaining game in the schedule and finish out of the playoffs, what they have done has got the franchise off on the right foot and makes however this season ends up, a success.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils got lucky by getting the number one draft choice but that doesn’t mean anything unless they produce on the ice. Now the Devils have a good chance to come up from the depths and make the playoffs this year. One word of caution; last year the Devils started off playing good hockey too but faded. Certainly they have to be watched closely for remaining three quarters to see if they have staying power this time.
Winnipeg Jets And Toronto Maple Leafs (tie)
Both of these teams are building on the improvements they made last year. The Leafs are even winning without their best player, Auston Matthews in the lineup. The Leafs goal this year is to win a playoff round and the Jets goal is to make the playoffs. Right now, it is reasonable to be optimistic for both teams.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues who lost significant talent last year and have added some this year continue to respond Mike Yeo’s coaching and now have the best record in the Western Conference. But the real test will be the playoffs if they make it. Have they improved enough to go farther than last year? Two years ago they built a team that finally got them over one hump all the way to the Western Conference Final. Last year they tore that team apart, changed coaches, and still did well in the playoffs. Can they finally get over two humps and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, something they haven’t done since their Scotty Bowman coaching days, back in the 1960s?
Sending the Avalanche to play in Europe this year, seemed a bad idea to me at the time last year because I felt the European NHL fans deserved to see a decent team in person if NHL games in Europe were to be revived. But the Avalanche have improved and at least for now, have a real chance to make the playoffs. Like the New Jersey Devils, the big question is do they have staying power? They will be closely watched during the remaining three quarters of the season.
Surprise! Everybody thought I would be picking the horrible Arizona Coyotes. But the worst boneheads of the season belong to the equally death-wish Florida Panthers who made coach Gerard Gallant, who got the Panthers into the playoffs, something they seldom have done in their miserable history, the first coach to be fired last season, even though he had a winning record at the time. I wrote an article on this blog about it last season in which I predicted that Gallant would automatically become a leading candidate for a new vacant head coaching position this season. And guess who might have been reading that article? Why none other than Las Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and general manager George McPhee who must have been impressed with the interview that Gallant gave and hired him to be the Knights first coach. Let’s see the result. Florida finished out of the playoffs without Gallant last year, are currently near the bottom of the Eastern Conference this year and are likely to miss the playoffs again while new expansion team Las Vegas has incredibly a real chance to finish with a winning record and make the playoffs with Gallant as coach. Just another example of why Florida is where it is.
An equally stupid move was to let go one of its best players, the legendary Jaromir Jagr simply because he was old. Jagr certainly can’t do what he once could do but he was not unproductive. Calgary is glad to have him.
This year NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stood before the Arizona State Legislature and pleaded for public taxpayer money to build yet another new arena in the downtown Phoenix area. The Legislature supported by the equally vociferous Glendale municipal authorities and taxpayers counter-argued that why should public taxpayer money be given to a “professional” sports franchise that has iced only one competitive team in its entire history and consistently ices bad teams that don’t even come close to making the playoffs. Of course Bettman argued that if a new arena would be built, that would change. Instead he has to witness maybe the worst Coyote team ever iced, just when he needed to have a significantly improved team the most. The Coyotes were out of playoff contention by the time the first ten games of the season were played. Try and get money now, Gary. Equally insulting was the declaration by the ownership of the NBA Phoenix Suns that they would rather repair their existing arena and make it more basketball friendly than build a new arena in partnership with the Coyotes.
And just as stupidly as Florida was in getting rid of Jagr because he was old, so the Coyotes told the most popular player in their history, Shane Doan to retire for the same reason, even though he was still productive and a box office draw. If it wasn’t for Gallant rubbing it in on Florida this season and highlighting their ineptness, the Arizona Deathwishers would be runaway choices for most poorly owned and managed team in the NHL.
Last year owner Terry Pegula of the Buffalo Sabres took note of how the Edmonton Oilers with their new star player, Connor McDavid; the Toronto Maple Leafs with their new star player, Auston Matthews; the Winnipeg Jets with their new star player Patrik Laine; all drafted around the same time as the Buffalo Sabres new star player Jack Eichel; improved while the Sabres stagnated. Envious and impatient, he abruptly fired his management and coaching staff and now the Sabres are significantly worse. They still have a chance to make the playoffs but they seem to be going backward instead of forward. Another high draft choice appears to be on the horizon and it’s going to be made by a management and coaching staff that may be worse than the ones whom Pegula fired.
Speaking of the Oilers, currently they hold the title of Mr. Regression. After going ten years without making the playoffs despite getting repeated high draft choices, Edmonton finally ended the drought last year and even won a playoff round. But this year they find themselves ahead of only the Coyotes in their conference. A strong reason may be that they have a mediocre coach, Todd McLellan, who has done nothing noteworthy in his career as an NHL head coach. The next quarter of the season, games 20 to 40, is crucial for Edmonton. If they continue to fade and any 8 Western Conference teams manage to pull away so that the playoffs are out of reach (St. Louis is already close to that), McLellan could be the first coach to be fired this season.
Montreal and the New York Rangers both got off to horrible starts, but whereas the Rangers have righted the ship somewhat and have a chance to make the playoffs, the Canadiens are still struggling with a losing record including a recent defeat to the horrible Arizona Coyotes on home ice. The fans are going to love that. The main reason is horrible guesswork by general manager Marc Bergevin. Two years ago, Montreal seemed to have a playoff position sewn up only to lose it when goaltender Carey Price got injured. Bergevin started hunting for scapegoat players who didn’t respond when the goaltender went down and zeroed in on popular defenseman P.K. Subban who was traded to Nashville. For a while Bergevin was laughing his head off when Montreal was near the top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was struggling to make the playoffs, but as everyone who followed last year’s playoffs knows, by the end of the season Bergevin was watching Subban in the Stanley Cup Final while Montreal was eliminated in only the first round.
Two other factors have to be mentioned. First Montreal lost two veteran defensemen. And Price himself is a suspect NHL goalie even though he has won Vezina Trophies. He wins international championships when he has defenses like the ones Team Canada can put in front of him, but it is a different story in the NHL when he has the Montreal defense. He was playing poorly this year when he got hurt and in his entire NHL history, he has never been able to take Montreal beyond the second round. Just as bad is Bergevin’s inability to provide decent backup goaltending for the past three years.
Teams Playing Better Than They Should Be
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings glory years are in the past and right now they should have a bad record while they are injecting high draft choices into a rebuilding lineup. But the Red Wings are playing respectable hockey yet again and at least for the first quarter, they have a chance to make the playoffs. Just shows what a quality organization can do.
The Sedins are in their declining years, and like the Red Wings, the Canucks should have a bad record while experimenting with new players. But at the end of this quarter, they have a respectable record and a chance to make the playoffs.
End Of An Era?
All was going well for the Chicago Blackhawks last year who were the favorites in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season to make the Stanley Cup Final when an unexpected shameful 4-game sweep by the Nashville Predators, whom the Blackhawks had always handled easily in previous playoff match ups occurred in the very first round. For the first time, the fabled veterans who had come through in the clutch so often during the previous ten years failed them. And worse, none of the new players whom they were developing stepped up. Not even three time Stanley Cup winning coach Joel Quenneville could salvage anything. This year the Blackhawks have a respectable record and could make the playoffs but they could also not make it. Is the greatest era in Chicago Blackhawks history so far, finally over like their cousins in Detroit? Is all that is left is who is going into the Hall of Fame in a few years? This team certainly bears watching for the remainder of the season.
And Have They Found Themselves Again?
The best team in the Western Conference after the Chicago Blackhawks during the previous decade has been the Los Angeles Kings. But they slipped a bit in recent years and made a coaching change last year, plus added new players and draft choices this year. They are leading their division again at the end of the first quarter. Are they back? Are they a Stanley Cup contender again? They need to be watched closely as the season progresses.
Team Back Where It Should Be?
The Tampa Bay Lightning, not the Washington Capitals have probably been Pittsburgh’s best eastern rival this past decade. But in the last years, the Lightening have been severely hurt by Steve Stamkos’s injuries. For the first quarter, the Lightning have been by far the best team in the entire NHL. The two questions are can they stay healthy, including the entire playoffs, and will the new goaltending which replaced Ben Bishop who always seemed to get injured at the wrong time hold up?
Player With The Most Pressure On Him
Normally Alex Ovechkin has been the automatic winner of this individual honor as he has been for the past several seasons, but now the award has been passed to the recently acquired Matt Duchene of the Ottawa Senators. Ottawa came the closest of any team to dethroning Pittsburgh last year and believed they failed only because they lacked a star forward like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Duchene is clearly expected to fill that role for Ottawa and put them over the top. The pressure is on not only for Duchene to produce, but for the coach and management to find players who have chemistry to be his line-mates. And if they can’t find anyone, there may be more changes coming to Ottawa.
Alexander Ovechkin and the Usual Washington Gang
If it wasn’t for Duchene, Ovechkin would be leading the league for this award again. Billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby when he entered the NHL, Ovechkin has lots of pretty individual statistics and awards but has horrible team records both in the NHL and internationally. The score in this mismatched, now irrelevant “rivalry” is Crosby, 3 Stanley Cups, 2 Conn Smythe Trophies, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, 1 World Cup to Ovechkin’s 0. No coach, either Russian or NHL has made Ovechkin a winner. He has never even made a Conference Final like his hockey dad, Marcel Dionne (whoops!) who had a similar career and is his mentor and ghost in all but name.
Actually the problem with this overrated star player may be the Washington ownership and management which has tried in vain to build a winning team around him for more then a decade and refuses to recognize his limitations and trade him, perhaps because they need a star player to sell tickets in Washington. But they have changed coaches, added star players and nothing has worked. Why Ovechkin doesn’t produce in the clutch when Washington and Russia need him the most, I don’t know. But his record speaks for itself. If all he can do is sell tickets, trade him to Arizona or Florida where they need a star attraction for next year’s top draft choice.
Grouped around Ovechkin is that equally underachieving gang of longtime Capitals, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Orpik, and goaltender Braden Holtby. Holtby, like Carey Price noted above, wins Vezina Trophies but fails in the clutch. (3 goals on 14 shots and 3 goals on 19 shots against Pittsburgh last year.) Sooner or later the Capitals have to get a good shake up. Meanwhile, oh well…
Shattenkirk was acquired by Washington last year in a desperate attempt to finally get the Capitals and Ovechkin over the hump. But the usual result occurred and Shattenkirk moved on to the New York Rangers. It also didn’t help that his old team, the St. Louis Blues who had already lost talent in the off season did just as good as Washington did in the playoffs without him. He’s hoping to rebuild his reputation in New York and the Rangers slow start did nothing to help him. Things have gotten better of late but the Rangers fate is going to be closely watched for the remainder of the season, and Shattenkirk with them.
Price’s injury two years ago was the main reason general manager Marc Bergevin made the Subban trade with Nashville. Bergevin obviously believes that Price is a Stanley Cup winning goaltender but is he? As noted above, he wins international championships when he has a team like Team Canada but the best Price has ever done in the Stanley Cup playoffs for Montreal is win one playoff round. Ironically, Jaroslav Halak, his old Montreal teammate, the goaltender for Team Europe whom Price beat in the final for the World Cup took Montreal deeper in the playoffs than Price has ever done. The decision to keep Price and trade Halak still haunts Montreal.
Rick Tocchet, anxious to be an NHL head coach at last, accepting the position of the Arizona Coyotes, little knowing what he was getting himself into…
Team With The Most Hope
New York Islanders
Not on the ice. They are hoping that they will be told they will get a new arena within six months.
Last year there were several coaching changes made but it seems to me, after the first quarter of this season, that changes need to be made at the general manager level instead of at coach (with the possible exception of Todd McLellan [see above]). (Actually this issue probably merits a full article. I’ll just list this section briefly)
Marc Bergevin, Montreal
As stated above, Bergevin’s great guesswork at finding scapegoats, his faith in Carey Price, his inability to find competent backup goaltenders, and the enjoyment Montreal fans had at watching one of their favorite players, P. K. Subban in the Stanley Cup Final last year makes him a prime target to being lynched in Montreal.
John Chayka, Arizona
You knew that your Commissioner, Gary Bettman was going to stand before the Arizona State Legislature and plead for a new downtown Phoenix arena, didn’t you John. And you knew that the opponents in the Legislature, amply seconded by those wonderful officials from the suburb of Glendale were going to cite good money being thrown on bad management over the years as a counter-argument. And you also knew that you needed to draw fans and needed popular star players like Shane Doan to do this. So why did you tell Doan to retire and then present Bettman and the Arizona fans with such a sorry mess that the Coyotes have lost all chance at making the playoffs after only ten games and any chance that the Legislature will give you money for a new arena? Alas poor Tocchet…
Dale Tallon, Florida
Tallon, once the number two overall pick of the draft for the Vancouver Canucks back in 1970 when they finally got an expansion team, was part of the decision process that decided to get rid of coach Gerard Gallant, now the coach of Las Vegas who had a winning record at the time. And was Tallon part of the same decision process that got rid of Jaromir Jagr on the basis that he was an old player, even though he was still productive? I don’t know how the Jagr deal will turn out for Calgary, but Tallon at least merits some kind of reward for building an expansion team from nothing… the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Jason Botterill, Buffalo
Perhaps an unfair choice to be put on this list but is he ever on the hot seat. Owner Terry Pegula, envious and impatient of what he was seeing in Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and elsewhere believed the Sabres should have been on par in development with those three teams and fired his coaching staff and management. Whatever Botterill does, Buffalo has to show almost immediate significant improvement to please the owner. So far this season, the Sabres are floundering. How patient will Pegula be?
Chuck Fletcher, Minnesota
Several years ago Minnesota never made the playoffs. Then Fletcher signed free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and Minnesota was able to make the playoffs and beat weak, non-Stanley Cup contending playoff teams. Since then, Fletcher has never added any more significant talent to make Minnesota a true contender who can beat potential Stanley Cup winners. One of the people who suffered from this stagnation was ex-Wild coach Mike Yeo who had been employed during these wheel-spinning years, who eventually was inevitably fired. But wasn’t that Yeo, last year who took over the St. Louis Blues who actually LOST talent during the off season and during the trade deadline, who got the Blues into the playoffs and then easily beat Fletcher’s Wild in the first round, the most humiliating defeat in Wild playoff history? And isn’t it Yeo this year who is currently leading the Western Conference while Minnesota is struggling to make the playoffs? Minnesota had better make the playoffs this year and do something significant, at least as good as Yeo’s Blues do or a rethink needs to be done about the future including management of this team.
As everyone knows, it is Canada’s 150th birthday. And as everybody knows it is the NHL’s Centenary year, being founded in 1917. There will be a special outdoor commemorative game in Ottawa in December between the Senators and Canadiens which even American television will broadcast. But does anyone remember that it is the 88th anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre? To commemorate this wonderful event the NHL will produce a re-enactment starring NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as Al Capone. To play the victims, the NHL has recruited the owners and management of the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes, two franchises Bettman has busted his butt off to try to save over the years.
I recently visited the set and was impressed with the realism to be enacted, especially in this year of mass shootings, with Bettman’s Tommy gun. Loved his Fedora hat too. And the bullets felt pretty real as well. Say, Gary, you’re not taking this thing too seriously are you? And why were two trucks, one with a Quebec Nordiques logo on it and the other with a Seattle Metropolitans logo parked outside the garage? You’re not really sore about what has happened with these two deathwishers – I mean franchises – are you Gary? This is just a fun thing isn’t it? Something like the commemorative game in Ottawa? You’re not bitter after all that hard work to find owners for Florida and to keep the Coyotes out of Hamilton, Ontario? This is just another one of the NHL’s fun, commemorative celebration events this year, Gary? Right Gary? Gary…