The 2010-11 NHL season is nicely under way, having reached the quarter point with plenty of surprises, disappointments and questions about what will unfold the rest of the way.
The Philadelphia Flyers are proving their trip to the final last season was no fluke while the reconstructed Chicago Blackhawks are having some difficulty shaking off the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.
Here are some of the first quarter winners and losers:
Surprise Team, East: When the New York Rangers lost veterans Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal early, it could have spelled the end of their playoff hopes. Instead, the team’s young defence rallied around goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers have received inspired performances from a handful of energetic forwards such as Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Artem Anisimov. Kudos to coach John Tortorella for holding it all together.
Surprise Team, West: The Phoenix Coyotes caught just about everybody by surprise last season, so you knew teams would not take them lightly this year. Still, for a team with no real scoring stud up front, the Coyotes continue to amaze with solid defensive play and excellent goaltending.
Disappointing Team, East: It is nothing short of mind boggling to watch the New Jersey Devils disintegrate. Not only was the signing of Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year contract a monumental mistake for an organization that has always prided itself as being team-first, it also means it will likely lose its best player, Zach Parise, in the off-season. The Devils will be hard-pressed to be able to afford him.
Disappointing Team, West: This is a big year for the San Jose Sharks whose hopes are always high. Nothing short of a trip to the Stanley Cup final will suffice and yet, if the playoffs were to start today, the Sharks would only be clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Perhaps most surprising is the trouble this team has playing at even strength. A significant number of the forwards expected to lead the group are minus players.
Surprise Player, East: Goaltender Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens has silenced his critics with spirited and consistent efforts. The NHL’s busiest goalie booking in at 1,260:28 playing time, Price has taken the heat off GM Pierre Gauthier who rolled the dice by trading away last season’s playoff hero Jaroslav Halak.
Surprise Player, West: Colorado Avalanche defenceman John-Michael Liles is having a career year with four goals and 22 points in 21 games. He is on pace for 86 points which would easily eclipse his career-high of 49 in 2005-06. Even better for the Avs, the 29-year-old Liles is plus-11; quite a turnaround from the minus-21 he was over the past two seasons.
Disappointing Player, East: The New Jersey Devils tied their long-term future to enigmatic Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and he has been nothing short of awful. He was made a healthy scratch due to tardiness and his four goals in 20 games has him on pace for a career-low 16.
Disappointing Player, West: After winning the Norris Trophy while leading the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup, defenceman Duncan Keith looked like he had finally arrived as a big-time NHL star. That still may be the case, but his play has been uninspired this season and his minus-7 ranking is worst among Blackhawks defenders.
Best Rookie, East: This is actually a tough category given Philadelphia goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s wonderful start. Still, it is impossible to ignore what 18-year-old Jeff Skinner is doing for the Carolina Hurricanes. The youngster leads all freshmen in scoring with 17 points in 21 games.
Best Rookie, West: Logan Couture of the Sharks gets into the Calder Trophy race by the skin of his teeth. He played 25 games with San Jose last season, the maximum a player can participate in and still be eligible for the top rookie award. His eight goals are tied for second best on the team.
Best Goalie, East: Nice guys don’t always finish last. A year after losing his starter’s job with the Bruins, Tim Thomas is back in the driver’s seat and is second in the NHL in goals-against average (1.46), No. 1 in save percentage (.954) and is tied for the lead in shutouts (four). The Bruins will need Thomas to continue working his magic if they are to be playoff bound.
Best Goalie, West: The Los Angeles Kings got younger, and in the process, better this season. Much of their success can be laid at the feet of Jonathan Quick who, at 24, is one of the best young stoppers in the game. The Kings’ fourth pick in 2005 is proving last season’s 39 victories was no fluke.
Best Forward, East: Steven Stamkos has been lights out in terms of goals, but when it comes to the conference’s best all-around forward, the honour still belongs to Sidney Crosby. Imagine if Crosby had a winger like Martin St-Louis feeding him.
Best Forward, West: Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars is picking a fine time to confirm to the hockey world he’s back. An impending free agent this summer, Richards is on pace for career highs in goals (41) and points (107) and, for the first time in years, is on the plus side of plus-minus.
Best Defenceman, East: Many thought it was a mistake for the Atlanta Thrashers to move big Dustin Byfuglien back to defence from forward where he managed 11 goals in 22 playoff games for Chicago last season, but he has been surprisingly solid. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds you’d think he’d be too slow to play defence, but his good hands and ability to read the play have him thriving with eight goals and 20 points in 22 games.
Best Defenceman, West: One year after it looked like he was finally slowing down, Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom is back with a vengeance. The 40-year-old Swede, who is a six-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman, is in the hunt for his seventh award.
Best Coach, East: Peter Laviolette managed to get his players all on the same page late last season for what was an inspired run to the Stanley Cup final. While the Flyers still take too many undisciplined penalties — they have been shorthanded a league-leading 115 times — they get by because their penalty-killing is pretty good (ranked 13th).
Best Coach, West: After nine years away from the bench, Terry Murray has settled in nicely with the Los Angeles Kings. Those who thought he might just be a stop-gap between now and when the team became a contender might want to rethink that theory. Murray is patient, a good teacher and has the ability to get through to veterans and kids alike.
Best off-Season Moves, East: The Flyers solidified their defence and goaltending with the addition of defenders Sean O’Donnell and Andrej Meszaros and young stopper Sergei Bobrovsky.
Best Off-Season Moves, West: Although their play has been spotty through the first 20 games, the feeling is the Vancouver Canucks will ultimately settle into being a power in the West thanks to the addition of defencemen Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis as well as solid two-way centre Manny Malhotra.
MVP, East: At 20-years old, Stamkos has a legitimate shot at scoring 50 goals in 50 games and getting the Lightning back to the playoffs for the first time in four years. In a season when some of the NHL’s best snipers are having trouble finding the net, Stamkos seems to score at will.
MVP, West: It really comes down to a pair of Russians; Detroit forward Pavel Datsyuk and Phoenix stopper Ilya Bryzgalov. Given the fact the Red Wings have more experience and depth, the nod goes to Bryzgalov who, at 30, continues to get better. The Wings can win without Datsyuk. The Coyotes are dead in the water without Bryzgalov.