(Editor’s note – article reflects records and stats as of December 5, when article was written)
The Eye missed previewing the NHL this season, so I thought now would be a good time to check on each division’s surprises and expectations going forward, with a more in-depth look at the Pens’ and Flyers’ division.
Keep in mind, for this season the NHL realigned. There are 14 teams in two Western divisions (Pacific and Central) and 16 teams in two Eastern divisions (Atlantic and Metropolitan – the dumbest division name in sports). Three teams from each division will make the playoffs, and two ‘wildcard’ teams – the teams with the best records that aren’t already in. Overall so far, the West has been FAR superior to the East…primarily due to the dominance of the top-six Western teams, and the TERRIBLE state of the Metro division. Let’s start in the West:
Leader: San Jose (19-3-5 record, 43 points, +34 goal differential)
Contenders: Anaheim (41 points, +13; Los Angeles, 40 points, +14)
Biggest Surprise: San Jose was thought to be aging – and it IS still early, the season just passed the 1/3 mark – but 19-3-5 is impressive for ANY team. As usual with the Sharks, however, regular season dominance will mean nothing if they are once again bounced early from the playoffs.
Biggest Disappointment: Edmonton has struggled for years, but has built a young, talented nucleus of skill through the draft. This was supposed to be the season that it all came together for the Oilers – think Pittsburgh in 2007 – but too many of their talented youngsters are underachieving, and their defense is an absolute train wreck. Edmonton has allowed 101 goals, and at 9-18-2 their season is essentially already over. Honorable mention to the Vancouver Canucks; they are in the thick of the playoff race but, at 15-10-5, have underachieved thus far for new coach John Tortorella.
Outlook: Watch out for the Kings. The 2012 Cup Champs are missing their top goalie, Jonathan Quick, yet are still excelling. I believe San Jose will cool off and Los Angeles will make a late push for the division. You have to figure Vancouver will play better and capture a playoff berth as well, but the pesky Coyotes are going to be a factor the whole season as well (Phoenix has 90 goals? Who would have guessed they’d be an offensive powerhouse??). Calgary is in a rebuilding mode and won’t be a factor this season, along with Edmonton. If things break right, this division could have five playoff teams.
Leader: Chicago (20-5-4, 44 points, +25)
Contenders: St. Louis (39 points, +31), Colorado (38 points, +24), Minnesota (37 points, +3)
Biggest Surprise: Colorado. The Avs are the biggest surprise in the entire league – they were terrible last year at 16-25-7, and mediocre at best in 2012 (41-35-6). New coach Patrick Roy has brought a sense of urgency, which is most evident on defense: the Avs have allowed only 52 goals in 25 games! They aren’t a high-powered offense, but tight ‘D’ wins a lot of games in the NHL. I look for the Avs to be a pest for the entire season.
Biggest Disappointment: Not sure if any team truly qualifies, but I’ll go with Winnipeg. The Jets have one of the best home-ice advantages with their raucous crowds, they have plenty of skill; but they just can’t seem to put it together enough to make a playoff run. At 13-12-4 they certainly aren’t out of it by any means, but they already are 8-10 points behind the class of the division and they will have to work HARD just to stay in contention through April. Top to bottom, though, this is by far the best division in hockey – there’s not a truly bad team in the bunch.
Outlook: Chicago is the defending champ and they are reminding everyone why they have won two of the last four Cups – they make it look SO easy at times. The Blues and Avs are good teams, but over the long season I expect Chicago to win this division with relative ease. St. Louis is the second-best team in the division, and I expect Colorado to make the playoffs (albeit after they fade a bit). The battle for the two wild-card slots in the West could very well go down to the final game of the season – there should be a tremendous dogfight for those precious final slots. Minnesota seems SOOO close to becoming a good team – but once again, they are struggling to score goals. Many teams THINK they are one player away – I think Minnesota truly IS one player from being a real threat. Dallas doesn’t seem to know whether they are contending or rebuilding, and as a result they are in the worst position possible – out of the playoffs, but too good for a top-5 draft pick. Nashville has lost too much talent over the past two years to be a real factor, although if healthy they can be a real spoiler down the stretch for the contenders.
Leader: Boston (17-7-2, 38 points, +20)
Contenders: Montreal (35 points, +17), Detroit (35 points, +5)
Biggest Surprise: Tampa Bay has performed at a fairly high level all season, even after losing Steven Stamkos to a broken leg. The Lightning aren’t scoring goals at a prodigious pace, but they have allowed only 67 goals, sixth-fewest in the East. When Stamkos returns in February, the Lightning should have the firepower to remain in the playoff mix.
Biggest Disappointment: Buffalo had visions of contending for a lower-tier playoff spot – instead their season has been an unmitigated disaster. They are 6-20-2 and have already thrown in the towel by trading sniper Tomas Vanek to the Islanders. I never saw the Sabres as a real playoff threat, but I NEVER thought they’d be this bad – a complete rebuild is now necessary for Buffalo.
Outlook: Boston is, as usual, deep and stingy – they have allowed only 55 goals in 27 games, best in the East. They have the depth to withstand injuries, especially at forward, and the division is good but not great – look for the big Bad Bruins to cruise to yet another division title. Beyond them, Montreal is the best bet to stick with Boston for most of the season – the Habs are also displaying excellent defense and goaltending under former Pens coach Michel Therrien. Detroit is a good team, but they are but a shadow of their dominant selves from 4-5 years ago…they are not deep and their blueline is not that imposing with Lidstrom retired. Toronto seems stuck in perpetual mediocrity, and Ottawa has suffered a catastrophic breakdown this season defensively, especially goalie Craig Anderson (3.42 goals against thus far). Florida is still a year or two away from contention.
Leader: Pittsburgh (19-9-1, 39 points, +23)
Contenders: Um, I guess Washington (30 points, +1)? Really, unless Pittsburgh collapses or one of these teams goes on an epic run, the division should belong to the Penguins.
Biggest Surprise: New Jersey (27 points) has stayed near .500 despite the loss of Zach Parise last season and Ilya Kovalchuk this year.
Biggest Disappointment: aside from Pittsburgh, the entire division. This was expected to be one of the most competitive, dynamic divisions in the game with the likes of Pittsburgh, Washington, the Rangers, the Islanders, and even the up-and-coming Blue Jackets and Hurricanes. Instead, it’s BY FAR the worst division in the league. Pittsburgh has held up their end, but while every other division has at last five teams over .500, the ‘Met’ has only TWO, and Washington barely qualifies. Special mention to the Islanders, who made the playoffs a year ago and gave the Penguins a real scare before falling in six games – this season they are 8-15-5, at the bottom of a bad division and in real danger of losing sight of the playoff picture. The only hope they have is that even with that ugly record, they are only seven points out of the eighth playoff slot at the moment.
Outlook: We will cover the Penguins in-depth next week, but suffice it to say, if they don’t win the division comfortably something has gone very wrong. The real question is – who are the other two automatic playoff teams going to be out of this morass? Washington seems a safe bet as long as Ovechkin is healthy – they have the defense and goaltending to compete as long as he’s giving them instant offense. The Rangers have slowly been climbing out of the hole they dug themselves, as have the Flyers – and I see those two teams fighting for third place down the stretch, with New York having the edge. Philly has played surprisingly good defense, but they cannot score – their 57 goals leave them 29th out of 30 teams thus far. New Jersey doesn’t have the horses to stay in this race – they need a legit 30-goal scorer BADLY. Columbus was competitive last season, but their defense/goaltending has taken a step back…and with Vezina trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky now hurt, they are the longest of longshots to go on a long hot streak. Carolina is probably the best ‘dark horse’ candidate, but their goal differential is already -18 and they seem a couple pieces short of true contention…and I think one of those pieces is in goal; Cam Ward has not been a true #1 goaltender in several years. The Islanders have the talent to rebound, especially up front…but I think their porous defense and their terrible start will doom them to also-ran status.
Next week we will take a closer look at the Penguins – what’s worked, what needs improvement, and what to expect going forward.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.