We’re two-plus weeks into the new NHL season and, not surprisingly, there have been plenty of early surprises. Here are five of the most eye-opening.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
We had Toronto pegged for No. 12 in the East in our pre-season predictions and few others had them anywhere but in the bottom third. However, thanks to scoring from unexpected places (Clarke MacArthur, five goals), solid team defensive play (tops in the NHL in shots against; only three minus players) and, most importantly, reliable goaltending (J-S Giguere, 3-0-1, 1.96 GAA), the Buds lead the Northeast with a 4-1-1 record. Meanwhile, Bruins fans, hoping for another lottery pick, rue the turnaround.
ROOKIE SCORING LEADERS
Letestu? Bickell?? Taormina??? Names like Hall and Seguin were good bets to sit securely in the top 10 of freshman point producers, but Taylor’s still searching for his first goal to go along with his single assist, while Tyler has managed only a goal and two helpers. Meanwhile, the No. 1 spot in both goals (four) and points (seven) belongs to Pittsburgh center Mark Letestu, a 25-year-old undrafted late-bloomer who the Pens inked to a free agent deal in 2007. Hawks left winger Bryan Bickell, who never showed much scoring punch in four American League seasons, and New Jersey D-man Matt Taormina, another undrafted NCAA alum, are similarly head-scratchers.
Skewed by an opening night 18,000-plus crowd, the Blue Jackets are still averaging just 71.5 percent capacity, down from 85 last season, after a franchise record-low Game 2 of just 9,802 and 10,784 Friday night. The numbers will certainly go up if the team starts consistently winning, but the chance of that happening is about as good as Derek Boogaard winning the Rocket Richard Trophy. It’s expected non-traditional markets will struggle to draw, but it’s quite a bit more troubling when arenas in places like Columbus, New Jersey and Long Island are seeing even fewer butts in seats.
Two of the world’s best – Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury – sport a goals-against average above 3.00 and a save percentage below .900 and have only four wins in 15 games combined. Meanwhile, Martin Brodeur’s stat line is very un-Martin Brodeur-like: 2-4-1, 2.70 GAA, .905 SP. Fortunately for the Penguins, journeyman backup extraordinaire Brent Johnson has stepped in and won four straight with a 1.49 GAA and .950 SP. No such luck in New York or New Jersey, where the second stringers have seen little action (Lundqvist has played four of five games while Brodeur has seen all but 20 minutes in seven contests).
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Coming up short in the playoffs has become the team’s calling card, but that only happens after they tear off a fantastic regular season (they’ve finished first in the Pacific three straight years and averaged 109 points per season since the lockout). Even after an off-season that saw significant change to the lineup, the thinking was they wouldn’t lose a step (we picked them to finish second in the West). So what’s gone wrong so far? Well, the numbers don’t lie. San Jose, 14th in the conference heading into Saturday’s tilt against the Oilers, sits 18th in goals-for and 24th in goals-against. Don’t expect team’s swoon to last, however. New faces take time to gel and when they do, the Sharks will again surface as a West contender.
Edward Fraser is the managing editor of The Hockey News. His blog appears regularly.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.