The all-star break is the traditional time (other than the quarter pole, pre-season, end of the regular season, conclusion of the playoffs and after unrestricted free agency winds down) where hockey observers like to take stock of team showings.
Many – including your exceedingly pale correspondent – often gauge franchise progress by assigning grades to each team. Not this time for me, though. I’d rather slot all 30 groups into a few categories that reflect where a team is in relation to what I anticipated from them at the beginning of the year. So that’s what I’m doing.
Better Than I Expected:
Boston: I liked the Bruins to make the playoffs, but first place in the Eastern Conference? If Claude Julien isn’t the coach of the year, you’ll know owner Jeremy Jacobs rigged the voting to ensure he doesn’t have to give his bench boss a raise.
Colorado: Still don’t think they’re going to make the playoffs, but considering the numerous injuries to key players such as “Say It Ain’t Snow” Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny, the Avs have availed themselves well this year.
New Jersey: Once again, the Devils and master GM Lou Lamoriello prove harder to pin down than a Salvador Dali painting. But aside from Scott Clemmensen’s stunning play, the most impressive feat of all is the fact Zach Parise could be the first player in franchise history to score 50 goals in a season. That’s like one of Gene Simmons’ kids entering the priesthood.
Phoenix: They’re likely to be stuck in a battle for one of the Western Conference’s lower playoff seedings for the rest of the season, but the Coyotes very quietly are establishing themselves as a force at home. If they can improve their 8-13-3 road record, home ice advantage in the first round of the post-season might not be out of reach.
San Jose: I know, I know – how are the Sharks exceeding expectations that have been slightly higher than those of the incoming U.S. president? Well, when you only lose once in regulation at home, allow the third-fewest goals in the entire league, and find a few moments to re-animate the dusty bones of Claude Lemieux, I’d say you’ve cleared the bar quite easily.
Vancouver: It was certainly easy for the Canucks to exceed my expectations, what with me expecting them to fail like a sixth-grader at Harvard. We’ll see what they’re made of now that Mats Sundin hasn’t stepped in as their savior, but for now, GM Mike Gillis and his organization deserve at least one kudo for their modest achievements.
About What I Expected:
Anaheim: The Ducks survived their pre-Christmas de-Burke-ing with few exit wounds, yet they were on the playoff bubble after close to 50 games. Father Time appears to have used his belt on the veteran blueline duo of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger (a combined minus-7 this year for a pair of players who are a career plus-330), and shrinking goalie equipment has taken a toll on Jean-Sebastien Giguere (a 3.08 goals-against average and .904 save percentage).
Buffalo: Sabres fans have been talking proud since the lockout ended, but this year doesn’t seem the same. Which is not to say Lindy Ruff’s team might eventually find some degree of consistently above-average play; it just means it’s unlikely to be found with this group of oft-injured and maddeningly middle-of-the-road players.
Calgary: The Flames may be surprising some people, but not me. I didn’t imagine they’d be quite so offensively potent – they’re tied with the Capitals for the league’s fifth-best goal production – but I did peg them to win the increasingly less tough Northwest Division. Which makes up for my Canucks pick. Outside of the greater Vancouver area.
Carolina: Between their streaky offense and pitiful special teams play, it’s something of a minor miracle the Canes sit as high in the East (eighth after 48 games) as they do. But after their fade job toward the end of last season, I’m suspecting the miracle will end prior to the playoffs they won’t be playing in. At least Ron Francis will have a head start when he becomes their head coach next year.
Chicago: Like the Flames, the Hawks were high on my list of teams to watch this year. And like the Flames, they’ve also not disappointed me. Dale Tallon needs to capitalize on his winning window as soon as possible, because as the Senators and Penguins are proving, you might only get one shot with a good group of players before the salary cap system becomes the Angelina Jolie to your Jennifer Aniston.
Columbus: Is this the best Blue Jackets team in franchise history? Right now, I would say yes. Is that going to be good enough for the first playoff appearance in franchise history? Right now, I would say no. And yes, that abominable power play (still dead-last in the league at an almost criminal 11.4 percent) still has much to do with my answer.
Detroit: Most potent power play in the game? Yup. Top management team in the league? Uh-huh. Par for the course for the game’s most consistently amazing organization? You really need me to confirm this for you?
Edmonton: The Oilers continue to build a deep and talented team of youngsters. However, those who presumed they would vie for top spot in the Northwest would have to admit these guys aren’t quite ready for prime time. Fixing the NHL’s third-worst penalty kill (76.3 percent) would go a long ways to changing that.
Florida: Some hockey observers snickered when The Hockey News recently rated the Panthers’ defense corps in the top third of the league. After a stumble-laden start (along with the rest of the team), that’s precisely what they’ve become. Now let’s see if their annual spring winning streak actually leads to a playoff spot.
Los Angeles: On the one hand, most people projected the rebuilding Kings would miss the post-season for the sixth straight year – and that appears to be a safe wager. On the other hand, L.A.’s inability to put the puck past other teams’ goalies (only the Predators and Senators have scored fewer goals) and troubles on the road (only the Sens and Islanders have fewer wins away from home) must be major causes for alarm.
Minnesota: Every year, the Wild and coach Jacques Lemaire claim they’re not a defensive team. And every year, statistics reveal that statement to be a demonstrable and somewhat insulting falsehood. Wake me when there’s a coaching and/or GM change.
Montreal: After their stirring resurgence last year, the Canadiens look to some as if they’ve taken a step sideways (or backward, in the case of their once-formidable power play) this season. Nevertheless, they always were going to be judged by their playoff success this year. And something tells me GM Bob Gainey is going to tweak his roster before the Habs get to that point.
Nashville: Sooner or later – and in spite of a top management pairing of GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz – the Predators’ small-market stature was bound to adversely affect their on-ice performance. That time has arrived. Simply and plainly, the Preds no longer have the horses to run with the best of the West.
New York Rangers: Now, some of you are saying, ‘Wait a second – didn’t you pick the Blueshirts to finish 11th this year? How is that not exceeding expectations?’ And some of me is admitting that is true. But would anyone bet their house the Rangers’ defense corps makes them a threat to play deep into May and June? Anyone other than Jaromir Jagr, I mean.
Philadelphia: The Flyers have had their share of trouble spots this season – health woes, significant blockage of the salary cap artery – but they’ve persevered and likely will have one of the top four playoff berths in the East, whether Daniel Briere is in the lineup or not.
St. Louis: After Erik Johnson blew out knee ligaments in a pre-season golfing accident, most people gave the Blues the last rites. Forty-six regular season games later, it’s safe to call in the coroner.
Toronto: Everybody made fun of Jeff Finger’s contract, but you know what? He hasn’t been bad at all for the Leafs, who will feel more pressure to produce with every additional day of GM Brian Burke’s tenure. Chief among them is Vesa Toskala, who has yet to earn his keep this season.
Washington: My already-substantial standards for Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals rose exponentially this year – and though Bruce Boudreau’s team has had its share of injuries and talent-thinning predicaments to deal with, they’re just as amazing as I’d hoped.
Worse Than I Could Have Imagined:
Atlanta: The Thrashers are as inept on the road as they are at home. No team has allowed more goals than they have. And Ilya Kovalchuk looks like he wants to reverse-defect back to Russia. The only way this situation gets worse is if GM Don Waddell is allowed to remain GM next season.
Dallas: The Stars were my pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup. This is the final time I’ll admit to it, even if Dallas continues its post-Sean-Avery turnaround and squeaks into the playoffs. Avery’s buyout in the summer may be the most applauded in the history of the Stars, the NHL and perhaps even the NHLPA.
New York Islanders: I want the Isles to significantly overachieve one of these years, if only to coax THN editor Sam McCaig down from his now-annual springtime home on an office window ledge. Too bad it’s not going to be this year.
Ottawa: I’d like to reproduce some of the nasty email I received after I said the Senators wouldn’t make the playoffs, but public decency laws prevent me from doing so. At least I don’t hear from overconfident Sens fans any longer.
Pittsburgh: Why has coach Mike Therrien not been dismissed yet? Only Mario Lemieux can answer that question, and we all know how much of a media question-answerer he is of late. This team needs former NHLer Marc Bergevin to inject some laughter in the Pens’ dressing room as soon as possible.
Tampa Bay: Speaking of laughter, the Lightning has been a veritable Comedy Central of chuckles this season. Co-owner Oren Koules has bristled when he’s heard the Bolts’ management style as belonging in a rotisserie league, but 1,845 roster moves later, can he really fault anyone for believing that to be the case?
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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