NHL Surprises and Disappointments
November 29, 2005 by Mike Chen • Print Story •
We're approaching the quarter-point of the NHL season. Thankfully, the lockout now seems like ancient history, and the new game is grabbing fans with its speed and offense — something that should only grow the game as long as the refs continue to stay consistent. Like every season, this year's NHL isn't without its share of surprises. Let's look at some of the surprise booms and busts in the NHL — and just how and why these things occurred.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Everyone knew the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin would give Tampa problems in net, but no one expected a team with as much forward talent as the Lightning to be struggling on the power play. Special teams and poor defensive coverage, along with shaky goaltending from John Grahame and Sean Burke, led to an ugly start for the defending champs. In the past few weeks, the Lightning have been better, but they still lack the championship swagger that they are capable of (perhaps it is hiding along with Martin St. Louis' game). It's way too early to count the defending champs out, as they have too much talent to be hovering around .500.
San Jose Sharks
With an unbeaten preseason record and a full head of steam, the Sharks were rolling into the 2005-2006 season with momentum on their side. GM Doug Wilson was widely chastised by fans and observers for standing pat when the free agent market opened up, but Wilson was confident that the Sharks crop of rookies could handle the minutes from the departures of Mike Ricci, Vincent Damphousse, Alex Korolyuk, and Mike Rathje. Built with speed, the Sharks seemed to be a lock to succeed.
Yet a quarter of the way through the season, the Sharks are struggling mightily. Their once reliable goaltending has become horribly suspect and, not so surprisingly, seven rookies (four forwards and three defensemen) in the lineup have not been able to produce results. Wilson's overconfidence has led the team to a point now where they must deal from a position of weakness to try to bolster their struggling attack before it is too late. If you hear clanging around in the woodshed, it's Wilson trying to build a time machine so he could actually try and sign some free agents.
Two years away from the NHL and one roller hockey assault later, Dominik Hasek returned to the NHL. Everyone scoffed at Senators GM John Muckler for bringing the wily Czech out of retirement — there was no way he could be the Dominator of old, could he? While Hasek is aided by Ottawa's electrifying offense, he certainly is holding his own between the pipes for the Senators. The true test remains when the playoffs arrive. That's the time when the Senators typically implode from a lack of offense and poor goaltending. Both problems appear to be remedied so far, but only time will tell if the Hasek's troublesome groin will keep him healthy and ready to go.
Raise your hand if you thought Wayne Gretzky's Coyotes would be above .500 when December rolled around. The only person with a raised hand is the Great One himself, but the Coyotes have defied expectations and are actually playing well. After a very shaky start, along with the sudden retirement of Brett Hull, the Coyotes have found their sea legs.
Defenseman Paul Mara is finally getting recognition for his all-around play, but it is Curtis Joseph who is surprising everyone. Joseph, considered by many to be too old and too fragile to win many more games, has bailed the Coyotes out on more than one occasion. On Joseph's nights off, rookie David Lenevue has proven to be NHL worthy, and rookie Keith Ballard is quietly having a great season. There's still doubt that the young Coyotes can make the playoffs, but who knows where a little Gretzky magic can take them?
Raise your hand if you thought the Caroline Hurricanes would be one of the top teams in the East come December. No one should have a raised hand — not even Carolina coach Peter Laviolette. How in the world did the Hurricanes get this good this fast?
A key component is the accelerated maturation of Eric Staal, a prime example of what playing in the minors can do for a learning curve. Newcomers Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney have played to expectations while Laviolette's coaching style, with an emphasis on speed and forecheck, seems to have completely won over the Carolina locker room. Rookie Cam Ward impressed enough to make it on to Canada's Olympic long list, and even cagey veteran Rod Brind'amour has a jump in his step. If the Hurricanes continue to play at the furious tempo they bring to each game, Carolina should have another chance to showcase just how loud their arena can be during the playoffs.
New York Rangers
Who would have guessed that the New York Rangers, masters of the free agent mistake, would be one of the best teams in the league after a salary cap was instituted? Not only is the team getting great goaltending from rookie Henrik Lundquist and Kevin Weekes, but somewhere along the line, Jaromir Jagr found his heart and his head and decided to reclaim the title of "Best Player in the World."
The Rangers have fully bought into coach Tom Renney's system — something that hasn't happened in Madison Square Garden since the last season that Gretzky and Mark Messier played together. Barring a complete collapse by the team's defense and goaltending, the Rangers should actually make the playoffs again — this time, without any big guarantees from Messier.