A look at the scary start to this season of several NHL teams.
It’s that time of year again, when ghouls and ghosts and goblins roam the land, and scary tales of bloodcurdling horror are told.
Every year at this time, some NHL teams (and their fans) make the frightening realization that all is not well, when their team is bedeviled by terrors seemingly beyond their control, when avenues of escape appear limited, and the wrong decisions could potentially doom an entire season.
Like “The Simpsons” annual “Treehouse of Horror”, it’s time, once again for (cue thunder and lightning, scary music and demonic laughter) “ Spector’s Tales of NHL Halloween Horror!”
We kick off in Vancouver, where the natives were already restless entering this season, due to the Canucks failure to defeat the Boston Bruins in last spring’s Stanley Cup Final.
This month has not been one the Canucks will look back on with any fondness, as they lurched into this season with a 4-5-1 record in their first ten games.
Starting goalie Roberto Luongo, traditionally a slow starter, had a 2-3-1 record, with a bloated 3.47 GAA and a woeful .870 SP.
“Bobby Lou” became the scapegoat for the Canucks failure to win the Cup last spring, and it’s carried over into this season, where he’s been jeered for making simple saves, booed for giving up perceived “soft goals”, and cheered when pulled early in games, as he was during the Canucks recent 3-2 defeat to the upstart Edmonton Oilers, having given up 3 goals on 14 shots.
To his credit, Luongo is taking the catcalls in stride, while his teammates, head coach and GM have come to his defense, as have several NHL pundits.
Luongo may be struggling early, but he’s not the only one, nor is he the sole reason for the slow start by the defending Western Conference champion.
As a team, the Canucks just haven’t played well. As one Vancouver pundit recently observed, they appear to be sitting back offensively during the first two periods, waiting for power-play opportunities, then pouring it on in the third in hopes of getting the win.
The lack of secondary scoring was enough to force GM Mike Gillis to dump two ageing veterans (Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm) to the Florida Panthers in a deal which brought the Canucks David Booth, a younger, speedier winger whom Gillis hopes will provide a much-needed boost to their second line.
In Booth’s first two games with the Canucks, his results were hardly encouraging, failing to notch any points, with a plus-minus of -2, with only four shots on goal. He did get an assist in his third game, a 7-4 win over the Washington Capitals.
If Booth fails to play up to expectations, Gillis will have saddled himself with a $4.25 million per season cap hit until 2014-15, a frightening thought if you’re the Canucks capologist looking for cap space over the next four seasons.
The Canucks, however, aren’t the only 2011 Cup Finalist off to a struggling start, as the Boston Bruins, coming off a heady summer enjoying the franchise’s first Cup championship in 39 years, won only three of their first ten games of the season, sliding by the final weekend of the month into last place in the Eastern Conference.
Unlike the fans in Vancouver, the Bruins faithful aren’t faulting their goaltenders with the poor start. If anything, playoff hero and two-time Vezina winner Tim Thomas and his able backup, Tuukka Rask, were among the few positives in October for the Bruins.
The same, however, cannot be said for their teammates. Collectively, they’ve been terrible, their performance uninspired, lacking energy. Apart from a convincing 4-1 victory over Tampa Bay, and a 6-2 thrashing of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins have looked anything like a Cup champion.
Blame for their lacklustre performance, and that of the Canucks, has been placed upon the dreaded “Stanley Cup hangover”, which inevitably dogs the Finalists, who struggle to regain their form after a shorter than usual summer.
Like the Canucks, the Bruins have the depth in talent to overcome this malaise and get back on track, and there’s plenty of time remaining in the season to do so, but the poor start has Boston fans and pundits calling on management to shake things up with a trade.
GM Peter Chiarelli has so far resisted these calls, reluctant to shake up a championship team, but if the losses continue to pile up, Chiarelli may have no choice, a scary idea for those currently on the Bruins roster.
Even then, however, that’s no guarantee it’ll right the ship. Chiarelli would have to tread carefully, because moving the wrong player(s) could only worsen the situation, making the players feel embattled, as though management doesn’t trust them, which can have a serious impact upon morale.
At least the Bruins can point to a “Cup hangover” as a legitimate reason for a poor start. Their arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, don’t have the luxury of that excuse, and haven’t for 18 years.
As usual, expectations were high in Montreal for the Canadiens entering this season. Their team had pushed the Bruins to overtime of Game Seven of their Conference QF series last spring, and the feeling in Montreal was that if this team was good enough to push the eventual Cup champions that hard, perhaps they were good enough to take a significant step toward Cup contention.
Instead, the Habs stumbled to a 1-5-2 record in their first eight games. Their defensive play was horrible, and on too many nights, they were leaving starting goaltender Carey Price hung out to dry. Their special teams, which over the past two seasons had been a source of strength for the Canadiens, were terrible. In their first six games, the Habs had the second-worst power-play in the league, going a woeful 4 percent with the man-advantage, while their penalty kill ranked 21st overall.
Part of the reason for their defensive woes was injuries to veterans like Andrei Markov and Chris Campoli, meaning more playing time was given to rookies like Alexei Emelin and Raphael Diaz. Other d-men, like P.K. Subban and Josh Gorges, tried to do too much, resulting in careless play and sometimes costly turnovers.
After going winless in six straight games, GM Pierre Gauthier had seen enough, firing assistant coach Perry Pearn, who was responsible for the team’s defense and special teams, only 90 minutes before their matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The move seemed to work, at least in the short term, as the Habs won their next three games, and bringing their record up to a slightly more respectable 4-5-2, but the general feeling is Pearn was made the scapegoat for the team’s wretched start. It remains to be seen if the move will make the Habs a better team over the long run this season.
Meanwhile, shifting west to Winnipeg, the fans are still joyful about the return of the NHL to their city, but that could become tempered with the knowledge their new Jets might not be as good as was originally hoped they might be.
To be fair, I expected the Thrashers-turned-Jets were capable of being a playoff contender this season, but their performance in October indicates they’ve got a lot of work to do to achieve that goal.
By the end of October, the Jets had a record of 3-6-1 in their first ten games, with the second-worst goals-against per game average in the league, and their penalty kill 22nd overall.
Promising forwards like Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Evander Kane struggled to score, while hulking defenseman Dustin Byfuglien has been singled out for his poor play in his own zone, getting caught up ice on too many occasions.
At least the Jets can look forward to a new, enthusiastic, forgiving fan-base willing to give them a mulligan. The same cannot be said for the Blue Jackets of Columbus.
Desperate to finally overcome ten years of mediocrity, the Blue Jackets have had the worst start of all NHL teams this season, going 1-8-1 in their first ten games.
For the Jackets, the start of this season really has been a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.
Center Jeff Carter, acquired from Philadelphia in a blockbuster deal prior to last year’s entry draft, suffered a broken bone in his foot and has played only five games thus far.
Defenseman James Wisniewski, signed as a free agent and expected to anchor the Blue Jackets defense and power-play, missed the first eight games of the season sitting out a suspension for a preseason head shot to Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck.
Goalie Steve Mason continued to struggle to regain the form which two years ago carried the Jackets to their first, and only, playoff appearance, garnering him rookie of the year honors.
They’ve given up the fourth-most goals, had the third-worst power-play, and the worst penalty kill.
Their secondary scoring has been almost non-existent. Entering the final weekend of October, Derick Brassard managed only 2 goals and R.J. Umberger only one, while Antoine Vermette failed to tally a goal in their first ten games.
The poor start has sent attendance tumbling, averaging only 67 percent capacity in their first five home games.
Trade rumors have dogged the club for weeks, as has speculation GM Scott Howson and/or head coach Scott Arniel could be fired.
An off-season of optimism, buoyed by the acquisitions of Carter and Wisniewski, has turned into a month of horror, leaving the Jackets and their followers a feeling of dread, despite the defiant optimism of management, that this poor start may have doomed their season.
If they don’t turn things around soon, it very well may be doomed.