It's been a wild first month of the season and the haves and have nots are starting to show their colors. Here are my best and most noteworthy performances for the month of October.
Best Team: Pittsburgh Penguins
I think what this team's done with the injuries they have -- obviously Sidney Crobsy is out, Evgeni Malkin has missed a number of games, Brooks Orpik wasn't ready to start the season, now Zbynek Michalek's hurt, Kris Letang was suspended for two games -- is just amazing. They're right there for No. 1 in the NHL. The way they're playing: Marc-Andre Fleury's been great in net, they're getting goals from everybody, everybody's contributing, Jordan Staal's off to a great start, you've got James Neal off to probably his best start as an NHL player, Steve Sullivan is rejuvenated there -- it's just a great job. I really think with what they've overcome and what they've accomplished they've been the best team in October.
If everyone continues to play the way they are when Crosby returns, you've got to think they're the best team in the NHL. Sometimes that's not the case. Sometimes when a star player comes back other guys think, 'Well I don't need to play as hard now because obviously Sid is going to play 25 minutes and I won't get the amount of ice time I did or be as important as I was'. That's what Dan Bylsma has to make sure happens. When they add Crosby to that lineup, keep everybody playing as hard as they are. Then you've got something special.
Best Forward: Phil Kessel, Toronto
He's leading the NHL in points and goals, and Toronto's one of the best teams in the NHL. He's scoring a lot of big goals for Toronto, too. It's not like he's scoring goals when the Leafs are already winning 3-0 and he scores goals 4, 5, and 6. He's scoring game-winning goals and tying goals. He's really playing well 5-on-5 -- just an excellent job. There are a lot of other great jobs done by forwards so far at the start of the year, but nobody matches up to Kessel right now.
He hasn't met expectations for his career yet, but he's still a young guy. He's still maturing. He's better 5-on-5 now. He's competing harder defensively. He's accepted the role of go-to guy. I think he's realized that he's scored 30 goals a number of times in the NHL and yet he's never won anything. Brian Burke wanted him, gave up a lot to get him, and now Kessel is rewarding Brian Burke's thinking. I think a lot of it is just that some guys mature later than others and it's taken him a few years to really "get" the NHL. Scoring goals isn't enough for him anymore. You want to be scoring goals on a good team. You want to make the playoffs. You want to have playoff success. That's what the NHL is all about.
Best Defenseman: Kris Letang, Pittsburgh
If you look at Letang's numbers he's up there with the top scoring defensemen of the NHL. He's up there with most assists in the NHL. He's a plus player. He plays against the other team's top line every night. At the start of the year Orpik wasn't playing and now Michalek's not playing and night in night out this kid is playing the power play, playing good 5-on-5, killing penalties and just doing everything for Pittsburgh. Most nights if he's not the best player on the ice he's one of the best two or three players on the ice. He's done it since Day 1, he got a two-game suspension and he's done it since he's come back. This guy is expected to do a lot in Pittsburgh and in October he's done everything they could have hoped for him to do for them.
His suspension is obviously a bit of a concern, however. He plays on the edge. There's no doubt about it. He's not a big kid, but he's very physical and if he stays on the right edge that's a bonus. That makes people keep their head up when they play against you. Another suspension would be at least four games though, because he's a repeat offender, and Pittsburgh can't afford to lose him for an extended period of time so he's got to be careful. Play on the edge but make sure you don't cross that edge.
Best Goalie: Kari Lehtonen, Dallas
This was my toughest pick. It came down to between Jonathan Quick and Kari Lehtonen, but I'm going to pick Lehtonen. I don't think he's on as good a team as Quick, he's won eight games, he's starting just about all the games, and Dallas is a big surprise. They're not supposed to be where they're at, and if you look at his numbers they're just fantastic numbers. The only place that Quick has him beat really is shutouts, and he's got Quick beat on wins.
What's the most important stat in hockey? It's wins. I think Kari Lehtonen in October has been the best goaltender in the NHL.
You worry because he has had injury problems in the past, but this is as good a stretch as he's had in a long time. He's played in 11 games, and played great. I'm sure Dallas would like to rest him a little bit because he's playing all the time and he's had injury problems. They must be monitoring him very closely. You certainly hope that he'll have an injury free season because he came into the NHL with such high expectations. At times he's looked great, but the majority of his career has been average. Last year when he went to Dallas he played great as well, almost getting them to the playoffs. His injury problems would be a worry to me, however, if I were a Dallas Stars fan.
Biggest Surprise: Dallas Stars
They lost Brad Richards, they didn't get anything back for him, they're a small market team now that can't spend money the way they used to, and here they are at the top of the Western Conference ahead of the Red Wings, the Blackhawks, the Canucks and the Kings. They're just playing great hockey. They're playing very good offense, they're getting great defense, obviously good goaltending, but nobody at the start of the year thought the Dallas Stars at the end of October would be leading the Western Conference.
They're showing that they quietly had a solid offseason. I like the guys they added. Sheldon Souray's been great. He's been running a good power play, he's a big man, he still shoots the puck a ton, he's a plus-player, he's come in and given them good minutes. I've always like Vernon Fiddler. He's a heck of a hockey player. I know he's not getting a ton of points right now, but he will. He's a very solid two-way guy. Radek Dvorak is also a good solid veteran. That is how they're building their team: on cheaper free agents and good two-way guys. Obviously guys like Brenden Morrow, Jamie Benn, Mike Ribeiro -- those guys have to score. They have to put the puck in the net for Dallas and they have been. But if you look at the reason Dallas has been winning you've got to look at timely goals and the guy in net. He's been fantastic and they've been playing great in front of him.
Eastern Conference: Boston Bruins
They're sitting at 3-7-0, they just lost back-to-back games to Montreal, they're not scoring goals, not playing particularly good defense, not particularly playing good anything. This is the team that won the Stanley Cup and their record is 2-5-0 where they've played the majority of their games: at home. That isn't good news for the Boston faithful. This is a team that obviously hasn't jelled yelled, and the crazy thing is Tyler Seguin is off to an unbelievable start. You'd think with that kid playing like this Boston would be sitting high on the hog, but so far not so much. Lucic is starting to go now, but they need to get Horton going, and they need to get Krejci going. They take a lot of bad penalties right now, too. They're very undisciplined and that's got to stop. I didn't think they were as good as Pittsburgh or as good as Philly, but I certainly didn't think they'd be last in the East after one month.
The Stanley Cup hangover could be the culprit. It happened to Chicago last year, too. They had to play great down the stretch just to get into the playoffs. Look at Vancouver, they're off to a slow start also. It's hard with three months off. Obviously, you have other things on your mind and sometimes you forget why you won the Stanley Cup. You think, well we won it last year, we'll win it again. That's not how it works.
Western Conference: Columbus Blue Jackets
I didn't think they'd win the Cup or have a chance of winning the Cup like Boston, but they're the team that went out, made a lot of changes, spent money, got James Wisniewski, made the trade to get Jeff Carter, really sold it to your fans that they were doing what it takes to win and this was going to be the breakout year. But now they've won one game. They won that one game against Detroit and then they lost the next two. They're sitting with three points in that western conference. We never expected them to be great, but we certainly expected them to be fighting for a playoff spot. If you look at Columbus compared to Ottawa, they're a much better team than Ottawa. More mature, bigger, solid, and here's Ottawa with six wins. Columbus is sitting there with one.
They missed Wisniewski, and Carter getting hurt affected them, but look at all the injuries Pittsburgh had? They're still finding ways to win. Injuries aren't an excuse. Other teams are using injuries as a chance for someone else to play more and get off to a good start. It looks like Columbus is using them as an excuse for losing. Beating Detroit should have been a catalyst for a nice little streak, but instead they've lost two in a row again. A month into the season, there aren't a lot of positive signs in Columbus.