With the NHL’s 2011-12 season now past the quarter-mark, here’s a look at how each team in the Western Conference has fared.
Standings and stats as of November 30, 2011.
Minnesota Wild. Anyone last summer who predicted the Wild would be leading the Conference at this point in the season would’ve been dismissed as a loon. Off-season additions Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi have provided a boost to their offense, but it’s been the goaltending of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding (tied with the second-best overall goals-against) that have made a significant difference. Still, there remains some troubling signs, for despite their off-season additions, the Wild still rank among the lowest-scoring teams in the league, with a power-play ranked 23rd overall.
Chicago Blackhawks. No surprise to see the Blackhawks back near the top of the standings. Powered by stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, the ‘Hawks are among the league leaders in goals scored (second-overall as of November 30) and fourth in shots-against. Unfortunately, their defensive game has been less than stellar, giving up the 11th most goals-against per game, and their penalty-kill is the worst in the league. Obviously, there’s considerable room for improvement in that department.
Phoenix Coyotes. It was thought the Coyotes were screwed after the departure last June of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, but free agent addition Mike Smith has been outstanding between the pipes, with better stats than Bryzgalov so far this season. Kyle Turris’ holdout saga was not a distraction for the Coyotes, who continue to play the disciplined system preached by head coach Dave Tippett. Their future in Arizona remains uncertain, but the Coyotes so far remain a playoff contender.
St. Louis Blues. What a difference a coaching change can make, especially when that coach is the respected Ken Hitchcock. Since he was hired on November 7th, the Blues went 8-1-2 in November, climbing from the basement of the Western Conference into the thick of the playoff chase. While the Blue have improved in all areas under Hitchcock, starting goalie Jaroslav Halak has shown the most improvement, though he’s also being pushed by backup Brian Elliott, who’s having a tremendous season thus far, and ranks among the league’s top goalies.
Detroit Red Wings. After an up-and-down start led head coach Mike Babcock to call out his players in early November in a closed door meeting, the Wings rattled off six straight wins in late-November, and once again are among the top teams in the Conference. There’s been concern over the early performance of top forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but management remains confident they’ll rebound in the coming weeks. They’ve also received solid goaltending from Jimmy Howard, whose stats rank him amongst the league’s best netminders so far.
Vancouver Canucks. Following a shaky start in October, the Canucks regained their form as an elite team, going 9-4 in November, including winning their last five games of the month. Most notable is backup Cory Schneider has taken over the starting goalie role from Roberto Luongo since mid-month, proving his worth as a starter, and heightening speculation over his future with the Canucks. For now, the Canucks will ride the hot hand in goal in the coming months.
Dallas Stars. After a strong start in October, the Stars have fallen to earth in November, winning only three of their last ten games. They lost starting goalie Kari Lehtonen for three weeks to a groin injury, and will be relying on backup Andrew Raycroft to carry the load until Lehtonen’s return. Center Jamie Benn has cooled from his torrid start, going scoreless in six of his last eight games in November. They’ll need him to regain his consistency if they’re to get back on track. At least their ownership situation was finally resolved, when the club was sold to Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi, who promises to loosen the pursestrings in the near future.
Los Angeles Kings. It’s been another disappointing start for the Kings, a club perceived to be a Cup contender in the off-season. They stumbled through November with a 6-5-2 record, their inconsistency remaining a puzzlement for their fans. Two factors were the play of defenseman Drew Doughty and winger Dustin Penner. Doughty is still trying to round into form after missing training camp to a contract holdout, while Penner has been an injury-prone bust. Overall, the Kings rank 25th in goals-for per game, 20th in shots on goal, and 14th on the power-play, so it’s no mystery where their problems lie.
San Jose Sharks. The Sharks overcame a 6-5 October by going 7-3-1 in November, though they only scored three goals in their final three games of the month. Their goaltending tandem of Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss rank among the top ten in the league. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski remain reliable offensively, and defenseman Brent Burns has been a good addition to their defense. If there’s one troubling area, it’s their penalty-kill, which ranked 28th overall.
Edmonton Oilers. After years of rebuilding, the Oilers bolted strong from the gate this season, thanks to the goaltending of Nikolai Khabibulin, the play of young guns Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, and the leadership and gritty offense of recently returned Ryan Smyth. Unfortunately, they struggled through November, finishing the month with a record of 5-8-1. Injuries have taken a toll on their defense corps, plus they’ve lost Hall for a few weeks to a shoulder injury. How they perform over the next quarter could determine if they’re playoff contenders or pretenders.
Nashville Predators. Consistency has been a problem for the Predators so far this season, going 5-4-2 in October and 6-5-2 in November. While possessing strong goaltending and solid coaching, the Predators are still lacking for offense, sitting 19th in goals-for per game, and 18th on the power-play. The Preds have also given up the third-most shots-against per game this season, and while a good number of them weren’t quality shots, that figure should still be an area of concern. One bright spot is the play of rookie center Craig Smith, who currently leads the Predators in points and is tied for the team lead in power-play goals with three.
Calgary Flames. Another slow start to this season has generated considerable speculation over potential moves by management, usually focused on team captain Jarome Iginla. He and GM Jay Feaster continue to claim he won’t be dealt, but it’s clear the Flames playoff hopes are once again flickering as they enter December. Having scored the third fewest goals and with the fourth-worst power-play, the Flames won’t have a chance of making the playoffs unless they can somehow bolster their offense.
Colorado Avalanche. A 7-3-1 effort in October deteriorated into a woeful 4-9-1 November. On too many nights, their best players – Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Erik Johnson and Semyon Varlamov – haven’t played well, leading to speculation head coach Joe Sacco could lose his job very soon. A coaching change may very well be what’s needed to turn this team around.
Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have been slow starters in recent years, but this start is far worse than previously experienced, having won only twice in November. For a team with notable stars like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne and Bobby Ryan, the Ducks have been simply awful, ranking near the bottom of the league in goals-scored and goals-against. They fired Randy Carlyle as head coach, replacing him with former Capitals bench boss Bruce Boudreau, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Ducks respond to the change.
Columbus Blue Jackets. Injuries to key players, an imploding performance by their starting goalie, and a lengthy suspension for their best defenseman put the Blue Jackets into a very deep hole, with only two wins in October, and four in November. They’ve shown some improvement over the last couple of weeks, as they seem to have more confidence in backup goalie Curtis Sanford than in starter Steve Mason. The Jackets playoff hopes aren’t dead yet, but they’re on life support, and they’ll need to win more than they lose over the next couple of months to keep those hopes alive.