Nearly three years after salary cap constraints forced Chicago Blackhawks management to gut their Stanley Cup championship roster, the ‘Hawks are back in serious Cup contention.
They’ve set a record for the longest season-opening streak of regulation wins in NHL history. Patrick Kane had discovered some maturity and regained his scoring touch. Marian Hossa has recovered from last season’s playoff-ending concussion.
Their goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery has been outstanding, and the rest of their best players (Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook) are playing very well.
It’s not even half-way through this shortened season, but the Blackhawks have recovered the swagger which made them champions in 2010.
OK, I admit it, I didn’t expect the Montreal Canadiens would be perched atop the Eastern Conference twenty games into this season.
I did expect improvement over last season debacle, but felt they would be contending for one of the lower seeds in the East. It’s still early, and they could end up sliding down the standings and battling for one of the final berths by season’s end.
Still, to be playing this well at this point in the season is significant improvement. Credit belongs to new GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien for changing what had become a losing atmosphere in Montreal.
I was against the Habs bringing Therrien back, recalling his first tenure when he was an excitable bench boss who often favored veterans over younger players.
This time, however, he’s been a cool customer behind the Habs bench, unafraid to give his youngsters playing time over veterans if they deserve it.
Hands up, everyone who though the Anaheim Ducks would be second overall in the Western Conference nearing the midway point of this season.
As with the Canadiens, I expected the Ducks to be better this season, but not to be riding so high in the standings.
A big reason for that is coach Bruce Boudreau. It’s no coincidence the Ducks, floundering in the opening two months of last season, were among the better teams in the second half after hiring Boudreau.
Another reason is improved goaltending, thanks largely to 30-year-old NHL rookie Viktor Fasth. He’s forcing starter Jonas Hiller, who recently returned from injury, to step up his play.
With strong coaching and goaltending, the Ducks should be a serious playoff contender this season.
The decline in Alexander Ovechkin’s performance has dampened his once-intense rivalry with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, but there’s another player who can challenge Crosby for the mantle of “NHL’s Best Player”.
I give you Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, winner of two Richard trophies as the NHL’s best goalscorer.
Stamkos is currently jockeying with Crosby in the race for the Art Race as the league’s leading point-getter, as well as battling with John Tavares of the NY Islanders and Crosby’s teammates James Neal for the goalscoring lead.
Sadly, Stamkos doesn’t get nearly as much attention from NHL marketers as he deserves. Maybe it’s because Stamkos isn’t as bubbly a personality as Ovechkin, or plays for a Sun Belt team,
Whatever the reason, it’s time for the league to wake up and start building some hype between Crosby and Stamkos.
Hard to believe it’s been nearly a decade since the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars were perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
Both clubs have been rebuilding for several years, but still have a long way to go to regain the heights of their glory years.
The decline in their attendance mirrors that of their on-ice fortunes. Last season, both teams were in the bottom third in attendance. The Avs are still mired there, while the Stars have shown some improvement by moving into the middle of the pack.
Gone, too, are the days when ownership of those respective clubs could competitively bid for the best available free agent talent to stock their roster. Today’s salary cap, along with a change of ownership for the Stars and a change in spending habits by the Avs, means the era when those two teams regularly spent big bucks on free agent talent is long gone.
If the Buffalo Sabres fail to make the playoffs, I expect GM Darcy Regier will be following recently fired head coach Lindy Ruff out the door.
Like Ruff, Regier’s been in the job for far too long with little to show for it in recent years. He’s the one responsible for building that roster, and deserves more of the blame for the Sabres mediocrity than Ruff.
Speaking of Ruff, I don’t expect him to be unemployed for long, He’s got a lot of respect around the league, and I daresay he’ll likely land another NHL coaching gig before next season.