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Sharks, Blackhawks Lead NHL West at Quarter Point of Season

Posted on November 28, 2009 by Scott Weldon
San Jose Sharks v Vancouver Canucks

Evgeny Nabokov and the San Jose Sharks are off to a hot start.

It’s almost impossible to win a football game in the first quarter. There’s too much time to come back, adjust to the other team, get lucky. A team can lose a game in the first quarter though. They can put themselves in such a deep physical and psychological hole that they won’t be able to climb.

The NHL season is a little like that. Everyone has played at least 21 games out of a total of 82. The early favorites have been established, but who is the best team? That title is still up for grabs. Who is likely to make the playoffs? Well in the new NHL where there’s a point given out every time a team completes their pre-game warm-up that’s still undecided yet.

Who has played themselves out of the playoffs and are likely to be lottery pick drafters, well that I can tell you. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes and their five wins respectively are out of the playoffs, in November. It’s a neat trick.

How have the teams in the NHL done this first quarter? Lets’ take a look at teams in the Western Conference in the order they’re in now.

San Jose Sharks
GP: 26   W: 16   L: 6   OT: 4   PTS: 36    WPCT: .692   GF:87    GA: 69

The Sharks are off to a great start. They’re tied with Washington as the best offensive team in the league.

The revamped line-up featuring a first class sniper, Dany Heatley, and the leagues best set-up man, Joe Thornton, is thriving. Patrick Marleau had a great season last year and is looking to do better this year. The injury to Devin Setoguchi hasn’t slowed the team at all. Evgeny Nabokov is shouldering the goaltending load in San Jose and doing it well with a 2.19 goals against average and a .926 save percentage. Throw in Canadian Olympian point man Dan Boyle and all seems rosy in Sharktown.

There are some danger signs though. The sharks dealt away some defensive depth in the offseason and called upon forty year old Rob Blake to play over twenty minutes a game. He’s too old to be playing that many minutes. He’s -4 on a shark team that scores so much the zamboni driver is +3. Youngsters Derek Joslin and Jason Demers are being asked to fill the void.

Last year the Sharks gave up the fewest shots on goal in the league. Right now they’re 18th in the league and giving up almost an extra fours shots on goal per game. So far Nabokov has been up to it. If he cracks or gets hurt there is no experienced back-up to go to.

The Sharks will likely give up more goals per game then the 2.43 they managed last year. Their record should suffer accordingly. Last nights 7-2 drubbing at the hands of western rival Chicago highlights the staggeringly different talent depths the two teams have.

2/Chicago Blackhawks
GP: 23   W: 15   L: 5     OT: 2     PTS: 34     WPCT: .739      GF: 77   GA: 51

The Blackhawks have three games in hand on San Jose and after slaughtering them 7-2 Wednesday night look poised to catch and pass them.

Chicago is giving up by far the fewest goals and the fewest shots in the league. This is probably because their talented line-up never gives up the puck. An embarrassment of young talent allows the Hawks to laugh at injury. They just plug in another great player.

Marian Hossa

Marian Hossa

They’ve been able to wait until late November for perennial 40 goal scorer Marian Hossa to be healthy enough to play. He scored two in his first game back. Their starting goalie Cristobel Huet has a .909 save percentage which is average among starters in the NHL and historically has been erratic at best. He’s terrific and horrific and pressure tends to crack him. Better goaltending would make this team more of a Stanley Cup favorite.

The only thing likely to slow them down this year will be cap related salary dumps. Poor talented young Jack Skille may never get a chance to play in the NHL while in this organization. Kane, Sharp, Toews, Keith, Versteeg, Barker, Brouwer, Seabrook and Byfuglien represent a significant percentage of the good young talent in the game today. Throw in offensive veterans Hossa and Campbell and this group is impossible to deal with.

The trade rumors swirl and Chicago is trying to dump weak-links or big contracts like Ladd, Sopel and Campbell. The rest of the NHL though is looking to steal some of the bright young talent like Sharp, Barker or Versteeg. Chicago will have to make some moves so they can resign their big young RFA’s Kane, Toews and Keith.  How they do these deals will dictate how good this team will be and how long they’ll stay good.

3/Colorado Avalanche
GP: 25    W: 14     L:  7     OT: 4     PTS:  32     WPCT:  .640    GF: 77    GA: 75

Colorado has bounced back from the worst season in the team’s history in Colorado. A string of 90 point plus seasons was interrupted with a horrible 65-point season and a worst place finish in the west.

The Avalanche addressed their gaping weakness in nets by signing former Florida puck glutton Craig Anderson. They drafted Brampton Battalion center Matt Duchene third overall and Erie Otter center Ryan O’Reilly thirty third. Duchene has ten points so far and O’Reilly has seventeen. 24-year-old Paul Stasny is the veteran center on this team and is leading the way with a point a game.

Colorado also dealt expensive, slowing power forward Ryan Smyth to LA for a couple of defenseman who could skate. Smyth has been explosive in LA and Preissing has been hurt most of the season. Kyle Quincey though is quarterbacking the power play and taking the offensive load off John-Michael Lilles. This young team can be expected to fall back as the season goes on and some of the youngsters wear down or have their weaknesses exposed.

Still it’s a nice testament to how quickly a good hockey organization can turn things around simply by identifying and addressing a team’s obvious weaknesses. They bit the bullet trading one of their few assets, which again takes courage and the willingness to be wrong. That’s a good first quarter for the Avalanche.

4/Calgary Flames
GP: 23    W: 14   L: 6     OT: 3     PTS: 31    WPCT:  .674    GF: 71     GA: 63

Calgary signed one of the prestige free agents in the off-season when they picked up Jay Bouwmeester. At the same time they lost sniper Mike Cammalleri. They’ve had a good quarter. The defense while more mobile then last year is still giving up a lot of shots.

Miikka Kiprusoff

Miikka Kiprusoff

Miikka Kiprusoff

has had a good season to date but he’s again been forced to play over 85% of his team’s minutes. Fear of wearing down has him making the Roy-like declaration that he won’t play for Finland at the Olympics unless they guarantee him the starting goalie slot. Flames fans have to hope he rests over the Olympic weeks but Finnish hockey fans are no doubt very upset.

What has been a great start to their season is offset by a 3-2 to loss to Colorado in a game that could have moved them into first place and a 7-1 destruction suffered at the hands of the aforementioned Chicago Blackhawks.

There’s a two tier system developing in the western conference; everyone else and Chicago. Calgary has two games in hand on Colorado and is likely to take over the Northwest division lead soon.

5/Los Angeles Kings
GP: 25    W: 14   L: 9      OT: 2      PTS: 30       WPCT:  .600      GF: 76    GA: 76

Los Angeles came out of blocks scoring this year. Anze Kopitar is still tied for the league lead in points.

The loss of Ryan Smith seems to be impacting the offense already and he’s out until the middle of December. The defense was strong last year and again is giving up the second fewest shots against in the league.

Jack Johnson is playing 23 minutes a game for LA but his -11 has to be worrisome. Drew Doughty on the other hand has .8 points per game and is +5 for LA. He may have played himself onto the Canadian Olympic team. The goaltending has been subpar again.

If LA could make a move for a goalie or if Jonathon Bernier were ready to bring his 1.73 GAA and .949 save percentage up from the AHL this team could go places.

As it is LA has apparently solved their defensive woes and this year they seem able to score. Now if they can just get the goaltending figured out…

6/Nashville Predators
GP: 23   W: 14    L: 8     OT: 1     PTS:  29      WPCT:  .630      GF: 57    GA: 60

Nashville is still having trouble scoring goals this year. They had nine in their first seven games. They’ve since picked up the scoring and racked up some wins against some impressive competition including Chicago, Detroit, Colorado, San Jose and New Jersey. They’ve currently won seven games in a row. That’s the second best current winning streak behind Chicago’s eight in a row.

Pekka Rinne has won his last six starts including a shutout and has bumped his save percentage up to a respectable .915. Dan Ellis hasn’t done well yet this year. The talented net-minder would be a marketable asset if he’d just play better.

Dan Hamhuis

Dan Hamhuis

The team is led by their core of young great defenseman Dan Hamhuis, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Their aging and injury prone forwards need some young talent to play with. David Legwand and Martin Erat are both half a point a game minus players so far this year. They have to improve. The first line of Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott and JP Dumont is skilled but too prone to break at any moment. Another talented young forward or two could really help this team. The loss of Alexander Radulov to Russia is still felt

7/Dallas Stars
GP: 24    W: 11   L: 6     OT: 7     PTS:  29      WPCT:  .604      GF: 73   GA: 69

Dallas is having a bounce back year from last season’s injury ridden performance.

Marty Turco is generating numbers that are closer to what he’s shown in the rest of his career. Last year’s Osgood-like .898 save percentage has been replaced with a sparkling .919 save percentage this year. Alex Auld was brought in to be a competent veteran NHL backup. He has started a quarter of Dallas’s games so far and while his performances aren’t as good as Turco’s he’s providing relief and support in a cramped NHL schedule strewn with back to back hockey games. He appears to be helping Turco now and this workload should leave Turco much fresher for the playoffs, especially if he isn’t picked for Canada’s Olympic team.

Captain Brenden Morrow is back and contributing though he doesn’t seem quite as fast as he was before last years injury. Brad Richards has rebounded from a season where he missed 26 games and recorded less then a point a game. He’s leading the team with 30 in 22 games. He’s threatening to eclipse his career numbers that he had in 2005-06 with Tampa Bay. Youngsters Neil and Eriksson are contributing. The cost effective Dallas D seems weaker then in past years but if Turco and Auld can handle the work it might not matter.

8/Columbus Blue Jackets
GP: 23   W: 12    L: 8     OT: 3      PTS: 27       WPCT:  .587       GF: 72    GA: 84

The Blue Jackets made it to their first post season last year and they’re playing like they want to get back.

Rick Nash

Rick Nash

Last years success relied on Rick Nash, rookie goaltending phenomenon Steve Mason and Ken Hitchcock’s tight defensive system. Hitchcock has insisted on always having defensively responsible forwards in his line-up. He currently has three centers, Antoine Vermette, RJ Umberger, and Samuel Pahlsson who earned their spots in the NHL as checkers. Yet this team is currently full of minus players. Umberger le

d the team last year with a -10. Star Rick Nash is -11 so far this year.

The team has scored a third of their goals on the power play and only Carolina and Toronto have given up more goals. Vermette has produced, Brassard is healthy, Stralman is helping on the point and Huselius is having a stronger campaign this year. All these factors are helping fuel a good power play.

Columbus could desperately use a real first line offensive center. The defense is looking much more vulnerable this year as Columbus is giving up 31.9 shots per game. Mason has suffered from this four shot a game increase from last year. He’s riding an .885 save percentage and 3.59 GAA. Mathieu Garon is currently outplaying Mason. Probably a top end defensive defenseman is required as well.

9/Phoenix Coyotes

GP:  25   W: 13   L: 11    OT: 1     PTS: 27     WPCT: .540     GF: 60    GA: 61

Phoenix suffered through one of the worst off-seasons I can remember a team having and still existing at the end of. Yet they’ve started well. Can having a legitimate professional NHL coach make this big a difference? Well Dave Tippett is to be congratulated.

The Coyotes started strong and are getting the kind of goaltending they got of Bryzgalof when he first got picked up on waivers from Anaheim. Jason Labarbera is proving to be a competent backup. Scoring seems to be coming slowly but mostly from the aging veterans, Lang, Aucouin, Vrbata, Jovanovski and Doan.

All that great drafted talent seems to be withering. Peter Mueller was one of the better young players I’d seen in the game two years ago. Now he’s got four points in 23 games. I watched him score a hat-trick and singlehandedly demolish Calgary two years ago. What has happened? Martin Hanzal has less then a half point a game. Mikkel Boedker has played six games and has nothing. Tikhonov is in the minors.

Hopefully the long term development of these players will be improved by this slowing of the rush to get them into the NHL but right now it looks like there’s nobody ready to replace the Jovanovski’s , the Aucoins, the Vrbata’s and the Lang’s who will be gone all too soon.

10/ Detroit Red Wings
GP: 23    W: 11   L: 8    OT: 4     PTS: 26     WPCT: .565      GF: 68      GA: 66

Detroit dominated the toughest division in hockey last year. Then cap problems lost them Hossa, Hudler, Kopecky and Samuelsson. Suddenly the depth that allowed them to laugh at injuries last year has left them susceptible.

An early injury to Johan Franzen, games lost by Pavel Datsyuk and newcomer Jason Williams, and the new injury to Niklas Kronwall has dropped Detroit from leading the league in scoring last year to a much more pedestrian 15th in scoring overall in the NHL.

Their defense last year gave up the second fewest shots on goal in the league. They’re currently fifth which is still pretty darned good. Their goaltending is, again below average. Osgood and Howard have .900 and .901 save percentages in a league where the average among goalies who start at least a third of their teams games is .910.  This doesn’t fly on a team that doesn’t dominate offensively.

Detroit could improve quickly if they could simply slot in a better goaltender. Unfortunately they have no cap room, they know Osgood and are comfortable with him, and he’s cost effective. Detroit as they get healthy can be expected to improve. I don’t know that anyone can catch Chicago but I think Detroit will finish second in the central and thus fourth in the west. The goaltending though is their Achilles heel. Eventually it’ll have to be addressed.

11/Vancouver Canucks
GP: 23   W: 12    L: 11    OT: 0    PTS: 24      WPCT: .522      GF: 67    GA: 60

Vancouver has weathered some devastating injuries with a thin line-up that I felt couldn’t compete with key members missing.

Pavol Demitra, theoretically the center of Canucks second scoring line has yet to play. Daniel Sedin, the good Sedin, the scoring Sedin has missed eighteen games with a broken foot. Roberto Luongo has missed a couple games due to injury and his numbers so far this year have been average. He’ll probably play for Canada at the Olympics and his backup in Vancouver Andrew Raycroft has played well but can’t be counted on the carry the load.

Henrik Sedin

Henrik Sedin

Through all this Henrik Sedin , the passing Sedin, has fourteen goals. He’s on pace to score 47. The checker Ryan Kesler has been solid and will probably play that third line role for the USA at the Olympics.

Christian Ehrhoff picked up from San Jose has provided a nice offensive presence on the point of the power play. Mason Raymond looks good and the Canucks have figured out that Wellwood is useless.

The team isn’t blowing anyone away but they seem solid and the defense is giving up fewer shots then last year. This team might just have the character to challenge Calgary and Colorado for the northwest division crown.

12/Edmonton Oilers

GP: 25   W: 10   L: 12   OT: 3     PTS: 23     WPCT:  .460     GF: 73    GA: 78

Edmonton is another team giving up way too many goals.

Dustin Penner seems to have found his power forward niche despite his geologically slow skating. Hemsky is a great talented kid who’s been good since they signed him. Lubomir Vishnovsky has had another great quarter as the team’s prime offensive defenseman, especially with Souray out with concussion. Still with Souray, Vishnovsky, Gilbert and Grebeshkov Edmonton has four offensively talented defenseman.

Edmonton needs to trade one of those assets to try to get a first line center. Edmonton’s current line-up features Shawn Horcoff, Patrick O’Sullivan, Sam Gagner, Mike Comrie and Gilbert Brule’ perhaps the worlds biggest collection of second line (at best) centers in the league. Vishnovsky is currently the best offensive defenseman they have and he’s also the oldest.

As long as Souray stays healthy they can probably afford to trade Lubomir and he’s the one most likely to garner a good return. The power play time will benefit the young offensive defensemen as well. Nikolai Khabibulin was brought in to replace the departing Dwayne Roloson. He’s been good but he hasn’t matched Dwayne’s great performance from last year. The team needs to make changes to step forward. If not they’re probably stuck where they are.

13/St Louis Blues
GP: 22     W: 9    L: 9     OT: 4     PTS: 22       WPCT:  .500     GF: 54    GA: 57

Here was a team showing great offensive depth last year. They looked perhaps capable of having eight 20-goal scorers this year. They currently have two players projecting to score as many as twenty.

The health and ice time of Paul Kariya and Andy Macdonald seem to have eaten into the minutes and scoring of younger developing players like David Backes, Patrick Berglund and TJ Oshie. Even Brad Boyes is slipping back from his 72-point, 33-goal season last year. He’s on pace this year to score 15. Kariya has played 22 games and his sixteen plus minutes a night have realized eight points.

Erik Johnson is back from his freak golf cart accident last year and is leading the team with sixteen points and his plus seven.

This team isn’t scoring and yet the defense is giving up significantly more shots on goal. The goaltending tandem of Chris Mason and Ty Conklin is holding them in games and is perhaps the only reason St Louis is only five points out of a playoff spot. The offense needs to ignite and the defense needs to tighten up for this team to go back to the playoffs again this year.

14/Anaheim Ducks
GP: 23    W: 9    L: 11    OT: 3     PTS:  21      WPCT:  .456      GF: 66    GA: 77

The Ducks seemed to have smoothly transitioned from aging declining team to young star laden team on the rise. Their playoff run last year was thought to herald great things to come. Instead it seems to more accurately reflect the old team’s last gasp. Anaheim seems to have officially graded into rebuilding mode and they may need to wait till some of the draft picks they’ve gleaned through deals join the team before they regain their spot at the top of the league.

The loss of Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin is being felt acutely on the Anaheim defense. The Ducks gave up a not inconsiderable 30.5 shots per game last year. This year they’re 27th in the league and giving up 33.3 shots per game.

The goaltending is not bailing them out. Anaheim has the fourth worst goals against average in the league as well. Jonas Hiller and JS Giguere are providing average netminding and Giguere is complaining bitterly while he does it. Bob Murray’s call for him to shut-up and play better is not without it’s virtue. Giguere’s attitude, play and six million dollar salary make him an unfortunately untradeable asset. Getzlaf and Perry are dominant offensive players and Selanne, Ryan and the big three on defense are all contributing offensively.

Unfortunately after them there is a huge drop-off in the offense provided. Lupul and Koivu are providing less then half a point a game and veteran checker Todd Marchant is -10. I can’t believe this team won’t improve their standing. They have a lot of teams to get through to get back in playoff contention. They came on strong at the end of last year and could do the same again.

15/Minnesota Wild
GP: 23   W: 8   L: 12    OT: 3     PTS: 19         WPCT: .413     GF: 55    GA: 70

The Wild continue to be offensively challenged but they don’t seem able to manage a league leading goals against average to balance that out. They gave up a surprisingly high shot count last year. They’ve improved that by two shots per game so far this year and are ninth in the league giving up 28.5 shots per game.

Niklas Backstrom is again carrying the load in Minnesota but he’s been only fair rather then generating the vezina worthy numbers he managed last year (.923 sv pct, 2.33GAA, 37 W, 8 SO, 4088 min). Josh Harding who was once a partner in this teams goaltending has regressed.

This team is still desperate for a sniper. Martin Havlat picked up in the off-season has two goals and is -14. Former fourth over-all pick Pouliot was dealt for Canadien disappointment Guillaume Latendresse. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still dealing with concussion symptoms and he needs a sniper to play with as well. Petr Sykora has not proven to be that much needed sniper.

The defense of Burns, Zidlicky, Schultz and Johnsson is still good.  The Wild has the advantage of playing in one of the weaker divisions in hockey. They need to start beating those division mates consistently to climb out of the basement. It’s not too late yet, but it at the halfway point it just might be.

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