If you pay attention to the NHL on a regular basis, you're already well aware of the special season that's brewing in Chicago, but I'm not sure we all realize just how special it is.
After Sunday night's 1-0 win against Columbus, the Blackhawks are now 15-0-3, which is the longest any team has ever gone without a regulation loss to start the season. When you do something that's never been done before in a league that's 96 years old, that's pretty impressive.
Not only has it never happened, but they did it basically without any training camp as a result of the lockout. You also need to remember that, yes, the Blackhawks have been pretty healthy for the most part, but they've also beaten Vancouver a couple of times, they've beaten San Jose a couple of times, they've beaten St. Louis. They've really beaten everybody. This isn't just a case of them beating up on the weakest horses in the field every night.
To play 18 games and not really have a bad game except for, possibly, Sunday night, while using two goaltenders and not have a game where you let up or get tired, it's amazing.
The game has changed a lot in the past century, and some of the men on this list are reasons that the game has changed the way that it has. But there's one thing that will never change in the NHL, and that's that you won't be able to consistently compete -- or win a Stanley Cup -- without a great coach.
Now, some of you might be surprised that you won't see Toe Blake or Punch Imlach on this list, and while they and a few others were tremendous coaches in the Original Six era, they didn't have the same impact. None of them changed the game or revolutionized it the way the guys on my list did.
Here are my top five greatest coaches in NHL history:
5. Roger Neilson -- Many people will say Neilson didn't win much, and it's true he never won a Stanley Cup as a head coach -- he only reached the Final once -- but Neilson changed the way coaching was done. He was incredibly influential and innovative in ways the game had never seen. He was the first guy ever to study film, his practices were well thought out and much more organized than practices had been at the time, and the guys that played for him, Darryl Sittler, Dan Maloney, guys I played with in Toronto that had played for Roger loved him. They all talked about how creative he was.
One of the best things about Roger was how he would always look for ways to exploit the rule book, like when he famously had his goaltender leave his stick on the goal line after being pulled for an extra attacker because there was no explicit rule against it. They had to make rules to combat Roger's thinking. He was influential for workouts, nutrition and a number of other things, but really his use of video might be his greatest legacy. If you go into an NHL dressing room you can't imagine the money and time tied up in video, and that all started with Roger Neilson.
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.
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It's not always going to be pretty, especially against a great goalie [Lundqvist] like that. My goals are never how you draw them up. It's just a matter of grinding it out and trying to create havoc in front and good things happen.