Fan Fuel: Are these NHL teams for real?

November 7, 2011, 2:55 PM

BY ALEX FLETCHER – FAN FUEL BLOGGER

Every team in the NHL has now played more than 10 games, and there has been no shortage of surprise teams.

Exactly one year ago, on November 7th, 2010, 11 of the 16 teams (including seven of eight in the Eastern Conference) that were in playoff positions ultimately made the playoffs. Although a lot of the season is already "determined" early on, there is still time for teams to surge or plummet.

Here’s a look at six clubs who have performed surprisingly well or poorly and what you can expect from them the rest of the way:

BOSTON BRUINS

Who says the "Stanley Cup Hangover" is a myth? The Bruins aren’t the first team to feel the effects of it, but they have struggled more than previous defending Cup champs.

Last year’s Cup defenders, the Chicago Blackhawks, started last season a mediocre 6-5-1. However, the Bruins have a pitiful 5-7-0 record through twelve games this year that puts them dead last in the Eastern Conference.

Things are not totally bleak in Beantown. Tim Thomas is putting up strong numbers in goal yet again, Tyler Seguin seems to be in the midst of a breakout year with 14 points in 12 games, and the Bruins are coming off a commanding 7-0 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

The only key players missing from last year’s edition of the Bruins are Tomas Kaberle (a late-season acquisition who only played 24 games in black and yellow anyway), Mark Recchi, and Michael Ryder; they have been replaced by Jordan Caron, Joe Corvo, and Benoit Pouliot.

Along with Seguin’s emergence, the Bruins are in fine shape – at least on paper. Like a person stuck in bed on a Saturday morning with puffy eyes and a churning stomach after an excessively enjoyable Friday night, Boston will find its footing soon enough.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Columbus made a few high-profile moves this off-season, adding the high-scoring Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski (both of whom would have ranked among the Jackets’ top four point-getters last season) and also luring in free agent forward Vinny Prospal.

These additions had many expecting big things from a team that has only qualified for the playoffs once in its 10-season history.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned.

Wisniewski was suspended for eight regular season games because of a vicious pre-season hit, and a collection of players are on the injured list: Carter played in just five games before being sidelined, and Kristian Huselius, who scored 44 goals in his first two seasons in Columbus, played in only 39 games last season and hasn’t appeared in a game yet this year.

The Jackets were winless in their first eight games and are just 2-4-0 since Wisniewski’s return. Carter and Huselius will have to be big contributors when they get back to help right the ship.

Columbus is better than their record indicates, but shaky goaltending and a rough start means the playoffs are a long shot… again. Maybe next year?

DALLAS STARS

Did anyone think the Stars would have the highest points-percentage in the league in early November?

Goaltender Kari Lehtonen has been stellar and the offence has scored at least three goals in nine of the team’s 13 games. Keep in mind, though, that the Stars and Lehtonen started off strong last season, too; the team sported a 5-1-0 record in its first six games and was leading its division at the end of December before it stumbled and missed the playoffs.

The Stars lost their offensive juggernaut, Brad Richards, over the off-season, and the team only added depth players to help out (although Sheldon Souray, with 12 points in 13 games, is trying to suggest otherwise). Lehtonen will have to be consistently strong, and forwards such as Jamie Benn will have to continue to pick up the slack, in order for the Stars to survive without their offensive catalyst of the last few years.

The bet here is that Lehtonen will eventually fall back to Earth and the Stars will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

EDMONTON OILERS

The Oilers have the fourth-highest points-percentage in the league. Amazingly, they’ve done this despite having scored just 30 goals in 13 games.

Edmonton’s trio of young stars (Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) has provided 40% of the team’s goals so far, and the Oilers’ obscure defence corps has been backed by Nikolai Khabibulin, who is second in the entire NHL in both goals against average and save percentage.

Yes, that’s right: the 38-year-old, who played in just 65 games over the past two seasons (and mustered a measly .896 SV% in that time) and who served a 15-day sentence at an Arizona jail over the summer, has somehow put up the second-best goaltending statistics in the league – despite playing behind a defence whose top three players in average ice time are Tom Gilbert, Jeff Petry, and Corey Potter. The Oilers’ ‘other’ goalie, Devan Dubnyk, has also managed a strong .930 save percentage in five games.

Does trying to comprehend all of this make your head hurt as much as mine does?

Edmonton will surely finish with a better record this season than it did last year, but the goaltending can’t stay this strong for an entire season (can it?).

Once Vancouver, as it seems to eventually do every year, fully awakes from its lengthy off-season hibernation, Edmonton will likely lose its spot atop the Northwest Division and eventually bow out of the playoff race. Once the Oilers’ young stars reach their primes, though, watch out!

OTTAWA SENATORS

The Senators’ record to start the season was about as bad as many expected: 1-5-0. But suddenly, a light flicked on and the team won six in a row to push itself temporarily into a playoff spot.

The Sens have relied on resilience, a potent powerplay, and sheer offence.

Although second-last in goals against per game, Ottawa is tied for tenth in goals per game and is third in powerplay success (25.5%) and first in third-period goals (with a whopping 23 – more than half of the team’s total goals).

Nicknamed "The Cardiac Kids" because of their unpredictable performances and crazy comebacks, the Sens have ensured that their games have been some of the most exciting to watch this season.

Alas, Ottawa’s robust powerplay is probably not going to continue to motor along at 25% for the entire season, and neither the team’s defence nor its goaltending – both of which have been shaky at best – are likely to improve enough to earn the team a spot in the playoffs.

Fans should anticipate more surprises this season, but it should come as no surprise if and when, come April, this young team is on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Much like for the Oilers, though, there are bright days ahead for the Senators.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Is there a team that wants to be back in the playoffs more desperately than the Leafs? One of only two teams to have not qualified for the playoffs since the lockout (the Florida Panthers are the other), the Leafs may finally get to play more than just a few games in April this season.

Through 14 games, Toronto has been scoring a lot, but the team has also been letting in a lot; the Leafs are tied for third in goals per game, but they’re also tied for third-last in goals against per game and have the worst penalty kill in the league.

Phil Kessel, the NHL’s first star of the month of October, is playing like a man possessed with 21 points in 14 games. The off-season additions of Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi give the Leafs more offensive depth than they’ve had in a few years – at least when the two are healthy. Goaltender James Reimer was playing well before suffering an injury; his eventual return will help cut down on the Leafs’ goals against.

Put all of this together, and although Toronto’s 111-point pace probably won’t last the length of the season (remember, the Leafs started off last season strong, too), the team is good enough to challenge for a playoff spot.

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