So we're just about one quarter of the way into the current NHL season, and while there is plenty of time for some teams to turn their fortunes around, there are plenty that are coming up short in the expectations department. From where I sit, these are the five teams in the NHL that have underachieved the most so far this season.
I think this is the most underachieving team of the year by far. When you look at their lineup, all the moves they've made and the money they've spent, for this team to be among the worst in the NHL is pretty crazy. None of their players are playing well, Mike Ribeiro hasn't been a good substitute for Alexander Semin, and despite their win Saturday night, they just aren't good at anything. Their numbers are bad defensively, they're bad offensively, it's sort of a complete breakdown.
Add into that that the goaltending has been inconsistent and it certainly doesn't help. Braden Holtby was very good Saturday night and Michal Neuvirth has been very good at times, but both have also been very average at times. To the goalies' credit, though, we need to keep in mind that they don't have the New Jersey Devils playing in front of them. Holtby and Neuvirth see a lot of two-on-ones and three-on-twos. That's tough for a young goaltender, and it goes right back to the defensive breakdowns the Capitals have been prone to this season.
This summer and this fall it was crazy in Canada. I was up there working for NHL Network, and I saw and read the press regarding the Vancouver Canucks goalie situation. In the end, by the time the season had started, everyone handled it the right way. Roberto Luongo handled it right, Cory Schneider handled it right, they didn't give the media any fuel, and now, as Luongo gets ready to make his fourth straight start, it looks like the situation has been settled on the ice -- the way it should be. Luongo has been the best goaltender, he plays the games.
Now, I think it's pretty clear at this point that Luongo is the No. 1 goaltender. In the last three games he's started, he's 2-0-1 with three goals against, a shutout and a .963 save percentage. Overall, his save percentage and goals-against average are the second-best in the League. I think he's taken over the job and there's just no way they can trade him now because coach Alain Vigneault just isn't playing the other guy. Right now, when wins are so important, he's going to Luongo.
You have to remember that it's not what they say, it's what they do. They can say he's not the No. 1 goaltender, but if he's playing three games in a row, he's the No. 1 goaltender.
Many people are probably surprised that Luongo might have won back his job and won it back this quickly, but he's a professional athlete, and while he kept his mouth shut and handled this whole situation very professionally, he's very proud like every professional athlete is. He's not going to take losing his job quietly. Of course, he didn't cause any problems. He didn't demand to be traded tomorrow, but he did his talking on the ice. That's all you can do when you're a pro. He's outplayed Schneider, he's earned the No. 1 job, and Vancouver, because they didn't pull off a trade, might be the luckiest team in the League right now.
A week isn't always enough time to tell you which of the preseason favorites has a real shot at winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it can be enough time to tell you which preseason favorite might not. This season several top contenders have exploded out of the gate (Boston, Chicago, San Jose), but others that we thought would be there right to the end have struggled early on.
Which of these teams are over their issues? Which of them still have reasons to be worried? Here is my take on which struggling contenders have righted the ship and which have tough sailing ahead.
This is a team that really looked like it was having some problems after it lost to New Jersey last week to give it three straight regulation losses to open the season, but I think they're on the way back now. Yes, Scott Hartnell is out for an extended period, and so is Andrej Meszaros. And yes, I know they lost to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, 5-1. But this team also just got Danny Briere back and if you look at Saturday night when the Flyers beat the Florida Panthers 7-1, you'll see that the guys they were counting on to score started putting the puck in the net. Guys like Matt Read, Sean Couturier -- the young players the Flyers got so much out of last year. They had to start scoring and we saw that on Saturday.
Now, I don't think this is a team that's going to get in a groove and rip off 10 in a row. Just look at Sunday. But I do think they'll go through a stretch where they win two games and then lose one, or win three and then lose two. I don't think they're a team that will take off because of their injuries, but they are clearly a good team and I think they're certainly a playoff team. Another big reason to be positive is that Briere's return gives Claude Giroux someone to play on a line with that can finish. With the work ethic and talent they have on their team I think the Flyers are through the worst part of their slump.
At long last we are back, and we're back in style, too. This season kicked off with a fantastic weekend of great games and great performances, and I think we can all agree that it feels good to be watching hockey again. In all of the games we saw there was plenty to take note of, plenty of players that impressed and plenty of reasons to feel good -- or feel worried -- about your team.
Here's my take on the major things I noticed during the 2012-13 NHL season's opening weekend.
The game isn't the only thing that's back
The first thing that jumped out at me Saturday night was how the fans have come back in droves. Every interview I did before the lockout ended, everyone was saying, "They won't come back, there will be demonstrations and buildings will be empty. People are going to send a message to the NHL." That was entirely the opposite of what we saw Saturday. We had record crowds, buildings that aren't usually packed were packed and the atmosphere was electric. The people have come back bigger and better than ever, so that was the one thing that really grabbed me opening night: the love affair between these fans and the NHL.
I think it maybe caught everybody by surprise. We knew Toronto would be packed and we knew Boston would be packed, but Tampa was packed, Florida was packed and Philly set a record for its biggest crowd ever. We could see this even before the season openers when we looked at attendance at training camp scrimmages. Minnesota had 13,000 people in the building for theirs. The way the fans have come back and showed their loyalty and their passion for our sport is just amazing.
Don't worry about the Kings … yet
Los Angeles was supposed to come out and celebrate raising its first Stanley Cup banner in style, but that didn't really happen thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks. That said, while the score was lopsided, this is one you just have to write off, and that's exactly what Darryl Sutter will do. Coaches hate that banner raising. It's emotional and a bit of a distraction, which makes winning your home opener after winning the Cup that much harder -- and the numbers bear it out. Of the last 10 Stanley Cup champions including the Kings, only three of them (and just one in the last five) has won the night it raised its championship banner.
Sutter will just write that off, but L.A. had better be good in its second game. Sutter won't be writing that one off.
Here come the Hawks
I think that opener in L.A. said more about Chicago than it did L.A. -- the Blackhawks looked great all night. Marian Hossa was not just back and healthy, but he looked unbelievable. He had the puck all night long, and so did Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who were all over the ice.
That said, Corey Crawford is the big unknown with Chicago, and he looked OK against the Kings. You know Chicago is going to score and move the puck. If Crawford and Ray Emery -- who looked shaky but got the win against Phoenix on Sunday -- can give the Blackhawks adequate goaltending, that team could be at the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Rangers are staking an early claim for the most disappointing start to the season. In their opener they had very little going five-on-five against Boston, which looked like the better team Saturday by a mile. That was a game in which the 3-1 final score almost flattered the Rangers with how they played. Things didn't get much better in New York's home opener on Sunday when the Rangers got beaten by a very strong Pittsburgh team.
In that opener against Boston there were some things that could be chalked up to it being early in the season, like sloppy line changes, but Henrik Lundqvist was the best player on the ice for the Rangers by far, and that isn't supposed to be the case for the Rangers this year. Lundqvist wasn't going to have to win games 1-0 or 2-1, but if you watched the opener, that's exactly what happened. I thought Rick Nash has looked OK so far, but with all of the offense this team is supposed to have, I'm expecting much more than what they showed this weekend.
Trouble in Vancouver
If anyone has been more disappointing than the Rangers through two games, it's probably the Canucks. Cory Schneider is going to take some heat after a poor first performance, particularly since Roberto Luongo came in and looked a heck of a lot better, and was solid in a start against Edmonton the next night as well. Add into that that Vancouver's offense didn't create a lot of chances or a lot of pressure and there is definite cause for concern. People also forget that David Booth and Ryan Kesler aren't playing for Vancouver right now, either. Those guys are big, physical forwards that Vancouver is counting on for a lot of points.
I think a little of the problem with Vancouver was that with the talk of the goaltending situation, they may not have been mentally prepared. If a goaltending controversy really gets sparked that could hinder the Canucks' preparation significantly. Schneider will get a couple of games before he completely loses the job, but it will be interesting. It's very different being the lead dog than being the backup. Usually when you come in as the backup the game is over, there's no pressure on you and you go out and stand on your head and everyone says, "This is great." When you're the No. 1 goaltender and it's your job to go win games, it's an entirely different mindset and an entirely different way of playing.
Schneider flunked his first test. That was his opportunity to put an exclamation point on the situation. All he did was get people thinking the Canucks can't trade Luongo. One game means nothing at this point, but Schneider missed a great opportunity to make it clear he was the No. 1 goalie in Vancouver.
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the big names in Minnesota now, but Dany Heatley was the guy who stole the attention Saturday night with two goals in the Wild's opener. That's a sign that this could be a special season in Minnesota, and the Wild's win Sunday night only adds to it. What happened in the Wild's first two games is exactly what I've been talking about. Parise is going to make those forwards better. He'll make Heatley better, he'll make Devin Setoguchi better and he'll make Mikko Koivu better. People forget that Minnesota was the first team to 20 wins last year and then they ran into an unbelievable amount of injury problems.
They also forget that Koivu is probably the best player in the NHL no one knows about. When I coached Tampa Bay and we played Minnesota he was the most dominant player on the ice. He can do that and he's done that at times when he's healthy. Then you throw in Mikael Granlund to give them a new weapon. Then you look at what Suter is going to do to make that young defensive corps better. Here's a guy that's going to be on the ice basically half the game, and that takes a lot of pressure off the young defensemen they've got there. Also, Backstrom is a heck of a goaltender.
I think Minnesota, with Parise and Suter, when you look at the West, they're as good as any team in the West. When you look at what they've done so far in their first two games I have to say I feel pretty good about my Stanley Cup pick so far.
It's a tribute to him, and everything he's done and deserved is coming to fruition tonight with his jersey in the rafters. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And I said today, if he's not, take my stuff out. If he doesn't deserve to be in there first ballot, no one does. Except for (Wayne) Gretzky, I guess.