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Analyzing the Surprising Starts around the NHL

The NHL season is well underway and as per usual, the season has started off with several surprises in regards to how teams are performing. Non-playoff teams such as Vancouver and Calgary have come flying out of the gate while Dallas and Colorado, two playoff teams last year have found themselves in the cellar thus far. Let’s take a look now at whether or not these starts truly represent how each team will perform this year.

Nashville:

The Predators have started the season hot recording an 8-3-2 record to get going. It was an offseason of change for Nashville, as they made numerous move to shake up the team after missing the playoffs in back to back years. Longtime coach Barry Trotz was replaced by Peter Laviolette, Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist were shipped to Pittsburgh for James Neal and veterans Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy and Anton Volchenkov were brought in. Ribeiro has contributed 10 points in 13 games  while Neal and Roy have added 9 and 7 points respectively. The big help has come from within though. 20 year old center Filip Forsberg is off to a terrific start with 13 points in 13 games and has shown flashes of pure greatness at times. The other big addition is having goaltender Pekka Rinne fully healthy and playing at the top of his game. Rinne sports an 8-2-2 record with a 1.89 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. It wasn’t long ago that Rinne carried the Preds to three straight playoff appearances.

So the question is does Nashville have enough firepower to remain a contender in the west? The answer is yes. With the top guys producing like they currently are, Rinne fulfilling his full potential and Shea Weber anchoring one of the leagues best defense corps there is no reason to believe that come April the Predators won’t be participating in postseason hockey.

Calgary:

The Flames have surprised pretty much every NHL fan getting off to a solid 8-5-2 start. For a team that has been amongst the leagues worst the past couple seasons, Flames fans have to be impressed with their teams start. The interesting thing is that Calgary didn’t do anything drastic to improve their team. They brought in grinders Devin Setoguchi and Deryk Engelland along with speedster Mason Raymond and goaltender Jonas Hiller but those players alone aren’t enough to turn a team around.  When you miss the playoffs for 5 straight seasons, you generally get young prospects through high draft choices and that’s exactly what has the Flames off to a hot start.

Young guns like Sean Monahan, Markus Granlund, Josh Jooris and Johnny Gaudreau have been a huge part of why Calgary is off to a hot start. That, a great start from Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo in net and a pair of all-star defenseman in Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is a big reason as to why Calgary is playing so well to start the year. Unfortunately for the Flames, this won’t continue. Giordano won’t play at a point-per-game pace all season and Hiller and Ramo will both eventually fall to earth. Calgary won’t be bottom feeders, but they won’t be a playoff team.

The playoffs may not be so far off though. With the crop of grinders and youngsters they currently have paired with more up and coming players such as Emile Poirier, Sam Bennett, Sven Baertschi and Morgan Klimchuk, the Flames have all the foundation to be a force in this league in the near future.

Dallas:

It hasn’t been a swell start in the big D by any means. After ending their playoff drought last year, the Stars are off to a 4-5-4 start and find themselves at the bottom of the Central division. Dallas has a 3.38 goals against average and what should be a potent offense is only mustering a 2.77 goals a game.

photo via hockey.dobbersports.com
photo via hockey.dobbersports.com

The Stars made some changes in the offseason bringing in Jason Spezza from Ottawa who was supposed to fill the 2nd line center void. Spezza has played well, but with an injury to sensational young winger Valeri Nichuskin, Spezza has spent most of his time on the top line with captain Jamie Benn and superstar Tyler Seguin. Those three have produced well, Seguin with 16 points, Spezza has 12 and Benn has 11. Antoine Roussel is next in regards to forward points and he only has 7. The Stars biggest issue right now is they are getting absolutely no secondary scoring. Ales Hemsky was brought in to help provide this, but he has been putrid this season, recording only 1 assist and putting up a -5 rating thus far. The often criticized Stars defense corps has been a major liability so far as Brenden Dillon and Trevor Daley especially have struggled mightily in their own end. Have no fear though Stars fans, as this struggle won’t last for long.

The Stars have way too much offensive firepower to stay down for long. With Valeri Nichuskin returning from injury, it means Jason Spezza can move back to the 2nd line and he’s a good enough player to help get guys like Hemsky and Erik Cole scoring. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen has been known to steal games in the past as well, and veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar returned from an injury that had sidelined him since the start of the year. It may take them a while to get going, but the Stars will be playing postseason hockey this spring.

Colorado:

The Avalanche shocked the hockey world last year when they went from the worst team in the league to winning the Central division. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov was magical and #1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon proved he was worth all the hype. But this year they’ve come crashing back down to earth.

The Avs defense has been poor and their offense has sputtered mightily. Semyon Varlamov hasn’t been nearly as good as last season, but he’s also had such little help. Almost everyone on the team has struggled, no one more than captain Gabriel Landeskog and center Ryan O’ Reilly. Landeskog has only 6 points and is a -8 while O’Reilly has 9 points but a league worst -11 rating. So what has changed from last year? A large reason is Colorado’s terrible offseason. They lost center Paul Stastny and replaced him with Jarome Iginla who is 9 years older and only a shell of his former self. They also traded P.A. Parenteau to Montreal in exchange for veteran playoff performer Danny Briere. Briere only has 3 points in 10 games and has been a healthy scratch the last 5 games. It’s also widely agreed that Colorado vastly overachieved last season and that was largely thanks to Varlamov who has only been average this season.

In addition to that, breakout defenseman from last year Tyson Barrie has regressed  badly and is a terrible -8 this season. Unlike Dallas, the Avalanche aren’t going to turn this around. As good as their offense is supposed to be, the defense is too much of a liability and unless Varlamov turns superhuman again which is unlikely, the Avs will find themselves watching the playoffs from home this season.

Vancouver:

After 5 years of around the top of the league which included 5 straight division titles, 2 Presidents Trophy’s and a stanley cup final appearance the Canucks had a season to forget last year missing the playoffs and ending up near the bottom of the league. As a result the Canucks cleaned out the cupboards after the season. Head coach John Tortorella and general manager/president Mike Gillis were fired and replaced by Willie Desjardins, Jim Benning as GM and Trevor Linden as president. The new front office wasted little time shaking up the team. Center Ryan Kesler and a 3rd round pick was shipped off to Anaheim for Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, the 24th overall pick (Jared McCann) and a 3rd round draft pick. Benning then promptly sent the 3rd round pick he acquired to New York in exchange for grinder Derek Dorsett. Benning then cleared cap space by sending a 7th round pick, AHLer Jeff Costello and defenseman Jason Garrison to Tampa Bay for a 2nd round draft choice.

twins-1
http://postmediaprovince.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/twins-1.jpg

 

Benning again flipped the draft pick to Los Angeles in exchange for young center Linden Vey. He then used the cap space opened by the departures of Kesler and Garrison to sign goaltender Ryan Miller and right wing Radim Vrbata. And it has paid off in a big way. Vrbata has fit in perfectly with Henrik and Daniel Sedin while Miller has posted a stellar 10-1 record early on. Bonino meanwhile has actually outscored Kesler while Sbisa has nicely replaced Garrison on defense.

The big reason the team has improved so well is having the team healthy. The team was decimated by injuries last season and it had a major impact especially on the Sedins.  Now healthy though, both twins look to have rediscovered their games this season. Another big help is the vast improvement of Alexander Edler. Edler had a miserable season last year ending up with a league worst -39 rating but has looked much better this year. All of this has Vancouver off to a terrific 10-4-0 start. But can they keep it up? The answer? Absolutely. It can be pretty well debated that last year was a fluke. A coach who didn’t fit the system along with a ton of injuries and goaltending controversy held the Canucks back. But with a healthy team, a much better coach and stability in net, it certainly appears that Vancouver is well on their way back to the postseason.

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