San Jose Sharks – After years of making analysts look like idiots by failing to win the Stanley Cup year after year, the critics had clearly had enough. Some pundits were picking the Sharks to miss the playoffs altogether – which seems silly, given how much deeper and more talented they are than about 85% of the Western Conference – to make way for up-and-comers/free agent frenzy winners like Edmonton and Minnesota. The Sharks have responded with their best start in franchise history and are the league’s only remaining undefeated team as of February 1. Oh, and San Jose has three of the NHL’s top five scorers on its top line. Not bad.
Anaheim Ducks – An abysmal start cast a pall over the entirety of Anaheim’s 2011-12 campaign, so it was easy to forget how well they finished under Bruce Boudreau. The Ducks roster doesn’t look like much on paper, but they still have high end talent, and are getting major contributions from unlikely sources to start the season. While most picked the Kings to win the Pacific Division, with San Jose and Phoenix nipping at their heels, the Ducks went widely ignored. They’ve jumped out to a very respectable 3-1-1 start through five games, good enough for second in the division.
Minnesota Wild – Minnesota was a popular pick to contend for a playoff spot after signing both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in the off season. But the defensive depth beyond Suter was suspect at best, and it was hard to gauge how players like Parise and Suter, who both came out of very systems-oriented organizations, would respond to a new environment. They’ve responded quite well. Parise is out to a quick start, and Suter has stabilized without Shea Weber to his right. Even those who expected Minnesota to do well would likely not have picked them to lead the Northwest Division after seven games.
Chicago Blackhawks – Chicago is an immensely talented hockey team. Since its cup win in 2010, however, the team has struggled to recapture the dominance that was the hallmark of their run that year. But Corey Crawford, considered a wildcard, has been excellent, while it appears that the team’s lower line depth has rebounded since losing much of its punch to salary cap restrictions post-championship. Though they might not have the defensive depth of the Sharks or a healthy Kings squad, the Blackhawks look like they could easily emerge as the team to beat in the West.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Columbus has not been the worst team in the NHL. They’ve given a few good opponents very tough games. Sure, they’re last in their division, and under .500, but having five points through seven games has to be considered a win for a team that has nobody that could be remotely considered a game breaker, and is relying on two goaltenders with histories that are inconsistent at best.
New Jersey Devils – The Devils lost Zach Parise, dealt with a little bit of will he, won’t he Ilya Kovalchuk drama to start training camp, are relying on a 40-year-old goaltender, been without sophomore sensation Adam Henrique due to injury, and haven’t lost a game in regulation yet. This franchise just doesn’t quit.
Ottawa Senators – The Sens are proving that last year’s success under Paul MacLean was not a fluke, as they’ve leapt out to an impressive 5-1-1 start. Losing Jason Spezza for two months hurts, but they’ve built as nice a cushion as one can hope for through seven games.
Montreal Canadiens – With many predicting a bounce back year for the Sabres, and the Maple Leafs looking like a potential playoff team for the first time in many years, Montreal seemed destined for a fifth place finish in the Northeast Division. Apparently no one told them that. Even without PK Subban in the lineup, the Habs have started 4-2 through six games. A healthy Andrei Markov has been instrumental, averaging a goal every other game. Apparently whoever forgot to tell the Canadiens that they’re supposed to suck also forgot to tell Markov that he’s supposed to be on the shelf by now.
Tampa Bay Lightning – One of the most bi-polar teams in the most bi-polar division in hockey, it was hard to know how the Lightning would fare in an already unpredictable shortened season. Despite losing to the Islanders in their outing of the year, the Lightning have run up a 5-1 record, getting contributions from all the usual suspects in addition to a huge boost from rookie sensation Cory Conacher. They look good, and the teams chasing them have ranged from inconsistent to terrible.
New York Islanders – Their record of 3-2-1 is probably not a playoff pace over the course of 48 games, but it’s good enough for second in the division right now. That means the Penguins, Flyers, and Rangers are all looking up at the New York Islanders. If that doesn’t qualify as a surprise, I don’t know what does.
Vancouver Canucks – A team with Vancouver’s depth, talent, and pedigree should be running away with the Northwest, which doesn’t feature another squad in remotely the same stratosphere as the Canucks. Yet, this team has managed to create controversy and negative feelings around itself for no apparent reason other than they were one of 29 teams not to win the Stanley Cup. They’ve won three games, all against teams that failed to make the playoffs last season. Roberto Luongo, who the organization and fan base has been shooing out the door since last summer, has appeared in four of the team’s seven games since Cory Schneider got the hook on opening night. That’s not good.
Pretty much the entire Atlantic Division – Okay, so that’s an exaggeration, but only because the Devils and Islanders have managed inexplicably decent results while the three teams many considered legitimate cup contenders – the Rangers, Penguins, and Flyers – have languished far below expectation. A team with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby is 4-3 through seven games? What the actual fuck? The New York Rangers returned nearly the same core that came within spitting distance of a Stanley Cup Final appearance, added Rick Nash, and are sitting below .500? Philly has looked so dismal and out of sorts that owner Ed Snider publicly ripped their special teams over the weekend. Ouch.
Buffalo Sabres – Owner Terry Pegula’s seemingly infinite pockets gave Sabres fans a reason to celebrate last summer. For the first time in, well, forever, long-suffering, long-time GM Darcy Regier was given the green light to dip deeply into the free agent market – and dip he did. Unfortunately, his hand came out of the talent pool covered in something brown and nasty. Many of his high priced new additions failed to meet expectation, or spent significant time on the injured reserve. After executing a few significant deals over the summer, it seemed that Buffalo fans could safely expect the ship to be righted. But, sitting at 3-3-1 despite a red hot start from Thomas Vanek, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Injuries haven’t helped, either.
Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes made major splashes in both the free agent and trade markets last summer, bringing in Jordan Staal to play with his brother Eric, and taking a chance on the enigmatic but supremely talented Alex Semin. With the Washington Capitals having taken steps back last year, and competing in a division that’s traditionally both weak and wide open, those types of moves looked like money for the Canes. Instead, they’ve stumbled out of the gate, and starting goaltender Cam Ward has looked very average.
Washington Capitals – The Caps went through their ups and downs last season, and are no longer a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference, but it’s unacceptable for a team with so much talent to be 1-4-1 six games into a season that won’t be kind to slow starters. Alex Ovechkin has two goals. This team needs a real shakeup, and fast. Don’t worry, Adam Oates, I’m sure there are a boat load of teams that would love to add a quality assistant coach to their staff.
Florida Panthers – After showing some real improvement and energy under first-year coach Kevin Dineen in 2011-12, the Panthers have come out of the gate looking just terrible. Forget that they’ve won just two games in seven tries – the Panthers are giving up an average of nearly four goals against per game.
Colorado Avalanche – The Avs should be a bubble team, but they’re looking like a cellar dweller at 3-4 right now. A team with great speed and a bevy of young forwards, Colorado has only managed 10 goals through six games. Ryan O’Reilly, arguably the team’s heart and soul, remains an unsigned restricted free agent, and scrappy scorer Steve Downie is lost for the season to injury. Looks like a rough road in a short season ahead for Colorado.
Phoenix Coyotes – Losing Ray Whitney in the offseason hurt, and on paper, this is certainly not the same caliber of team that went to the Western Conference Finals last year. That said, it’s still a Dave Tippet team with largely the same personnel on defense. So it must come as quite an unpleasant shock to the dozens of Coyote fans that their typically watertight team has given up 22 goals through seven games. It should come as no shock whatsoever that after giving up 22 goals through seven games, the Coyotes are floundering near the bottom of the Pacific Division.
Nashville Predators – It was obvious to anyone with eyes that losing Ryan Suter would hurt the Predators. Still, hockey fans have come to expect a quality, competitive development program out of Nashville, so a precipitous drop was not widely expected. But the Preds have registered just two wins through seven games, and are in real danger of missing the playoffs if they can’t pull it together quickly. They won’t pick up any easy points within their division, and they’re losing games to inferior teams outside the Central. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Dallas Stars – The Stars weren’t anyone’s pick to make a run at the Pacific Division title, but adding Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr, and Ray Whitney up front should have made them a better team than they were last year. A definite bubble team, the Stars need to keep their heads above water and hope for a hot streak if they want a shot at the playoffs. Their current 2-4-1 record won’t make that easy, and right now they look bound for the bottom of a competitive Pacific Division.
Right about where we thought they’d be
Boston Bruins – The Bruins are still basically the same exact team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and their core is in its prime. No Tim Thomas? No problem. Tuukka Rask has been a starter in this league before, and is playing quite capably behind an already deep defense that has added Pierre McGuire’s long lost son early Calder Trophy candidate Dougie Hamilton. They also play in a division full of bubble teams. The result is a 5-1-1 squad that looks poised to do some damage in May and June.
St. Louis Blues – This team made the San Jose Sharks, fresh off back-to-back Western Conference Finals appearances, look like a mediocre minor league team in the first round of the 2012 playoffs before bowing out to the eventual champion L.A. Kings. Their core stayed virtually the same, aside from adding potentially the best player outside the NHL last year in Vladimir Tarasenko, who has made the transition from KHL to NHL look about as difficult as closing a car door. Expect them to coast to a top-three seed, as their division also got considerably weaker over the summer.
The Edmonton Oilers – The Oilers have jumped out to a 4-2-1 start in exactly the fashion that you’d expect from a young, exuberant, immensely talented, and fairly inexperienced team – winning tight games, scoring tons of power play goals, and sometimes spotting the opposition a 6-1 lead one period in. They’ll continue to have ups and downs as they grow and mature, but Edmonton should be in contention for a playoff spot, especially considering how shaky the rest of its division has looked.
Los Angeles Kings – It seems that a Stanley Cup championship was enough to make most people forget that the Kings a) couldn’t score last year and b) snuck into the playoffs on the last weekend of the season. They rode an impossibly hot goaltender, a pair of over-performing rookies, and a weird renaissance from Dustin Penner to what looked like a quick (pun intended) and easy Cup win, but it sure didn’t look sustainable. Through the first five games of the season, it seems as though it wasn’t. But a few key players have missed time, and as they filter back into the lineup, we’ll likely see the Kings in the playoffs – again, starting on the road with a 5-8 finish.
Detroit Red Wings – Yes, the Red Wings are struggling this year, and yes, that’s uncharacteristic. But this is a team that lost Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Brad Stuart over the course of two summers – and elected to replace them with Kyle Quincey. Detroit has long relied on its puck possession and puck moving style to beat opponents into submission, but that system stemmed from their ever-impressive back end (haha, butt joke). Now that their blue line is practically unrecognizable, it’s not fair to expect the same results we’ve come to expect from Red Wing teams past. They’re no longer the powerhouse in the Central Division.
Winnipeg Jets – The Jets have started a respectable 3-3-1, a pace that is probably good enough to keep them in the hunt for a playoff spot until late in the year, but won’t quite get them there. Sounds about right.
Toronto Maple Leafs – A records that hovers around .500 and struggling to put together consistent performances night in and night out. Beating the Penguins, then getting drubbed by the Islanders. Such is the life of a bubble team.
Calgary Flames – They’ve been abysmal to start the year, but at this point, how can anyone expect anything different? They’re a perennial 10-12 team with a payroll near the top of the league, and have always had trouble scoring goals. The historically slow-starting Flames captain Jarome Iginla has yet to find the back of the net in four games, which is not a huge surprise, but is a big problem in the face of a 48-game season format. This is a team that badly needs to rebuild and just refuses to do so.