The Florida Panthers have been amassing young talent for several years, with a rather random Southeast Division title mixed in among four forgettable seasons.
Their misfortune in 2013-14 led to the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, and it might finally be time to say the Panthers are done picking high in the draft because of Aaron Ekblad. Not only has Ekblad held his own as an 18-year-old defenseman in the NHL, he's thrived and been a key reason why Florida has shrugged aside some early-season offensive woes and looks primed for a run at a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.
Ekblad could be in the midst of a historic season for a defenseman of his age. Very few defensemen stick in the NHL at 18, and even fewer play most of their rookie season before celebrating a 19th birthday.
It would be pretty hard to not look back on 2014 and consider it a momentous one for hockey.
The Stanley Cup went to the same team that won it two years prior, but the Los Angeles Kings took about as different a route to a championship the second time around as they could.
When the Kings lost for the third time in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they were leading the Final 3-0. When they lost for the third time in 2014, they had yet to win once. They proceeded to lose three times to each of their three opponents from the Western Conference, staging three incredible postseason series before besting the New York Rangers in five games.
If recent history is correct, the number of teams that can win the Stanley Cup is quite large. Expand "recent history" to the past 15 years, and it looks more like the pool of potential Cup winners is a little smaller.
Three times in the past five years, the eventual NHL champion was far from the top of the League standings at the holiday break. In 2012, the Los Angeles Kings had just changed coaches when everyone scattered for a few days in late December. In 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins were still two months from hiring Dan Bylsma to replace Michel Therrien.
Kyle Okposo had the best season of his career in 2013-14 for the New York Islanders, finishing with 27 goals and 69 points in 71 games. He moved to the top line next to John Tavares, and then continued to produce after the Islanders superstar was injured at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
On the surface, it looks pretty similar for Okposo this season. He has 27 points in 31 games, but only seven goals. More of a playmaker than a scorer anyway, a regression in goals could have been expected considering he shot nearly four percent better than his career average in 2013-14.
Okposo's point total this season is being propped up in part by 12 on the power play. He's averaging 6.0 points per 60 minutes with the extra man, which is nearly double last season (3.2). Check out his goal and point production at even strength in the accompanying table.
One of the most fascinating stories of the 2014-15 season has been the surprising play of the Calgary Flames.
Thought to be in rebuilding mode, the Flames made a couple of modest additions during the offseason, but nothing that swayed most prognosticators to believe they were ready to compete in the rugged Western Conference. Here they are though, sitting in third place in the Pacific Division and sixth in the West with a 17-10-2 record and maybe most impressively a division-best plus-14 goal differential.
"The preseason predictions that we were going to be in the 'Connor McDavid Derby,' I didn't believe that at all," president Brian Burke said at the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. "In fact, I called a couple people in the media and complained about it. I thought that we would be better than that.
Injuries have been a problem so far this season, but so too has a trio of teams with younger impact talent. This could be a problem for the Bruins not just in 2014-15 but in the years to follow. The Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings and especially the Tampa Bay Lightning look poised to contend for Atlantic Division titles for the next several seasons, in part because of their collections of young talent.
It is fair to say the opening quarter of the 2014-15 NHL season has been relatively sanguine, compared to many campaigns.
All 30 coaches who began the season in charge remained so on American Thanksgiving. There have been a few trades, but beyond two the New York Islanders made just before opening night to shore up their defense there hasn't been a landscape-altering move.
There are not many franchises in the NHL where a 10-7-1 start to the season would elicit varying degrees of panic amongst the fan base, but the Chicago Blackhawks live in that space in 2014.
The Blackhawks have been one of the best teams in the NHL for seven seasons now, winning the Stanley Cup twice and reaching the Western Conference Final twice in the past six campaigns. There is an expectation to be playing in June 2015, or this season will be considered a failure.
So 21 points in 18 games, which as of Thursday morning was only good enough for ninth place in the West, has set off warning alarms in some homes in the greater Chicagoland area. One person who is not concerned? That would be Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman.
The Nashville Predators have lacked dynamism at the forward position for years, but they appear to have bolstered the group significantly in that department this offseason.
One move was obvious, adding James Neal in a trade for Patric Hornqvist. Maybe Neal won't score 40 times without Evgeni Malkin feeding him the puck, but he's still scoring plenty on Nashville's top line.
The other "addition" came from within. Filip Forsberg had a goal and five points in 13 games last season with Nashville, at times looking like a tantalizing prospect and others looking like a guy not ready for the NHL. If it weren't for Vladimir Tarasenko, Forsberg might be the breakout star of the 2014-15 season to date.
While Stastny was the headliner among the offseason additions, with forward Jori Lehtera and a full-time roster spot for goaltender Jake Allen probably next in line, one of the best reasons to think St. Louis could improve in 2014-15 was the maturation of Tarasenko and forward Jaden Schwartz. Tarasenko is off to a great start with eight goals and 14 points in 12 games, including the best goal of the season to date Monday at Madison Square Garden and then the lone goal of the game one day later across the Hudson River at Prudential Center.
Tarasenko is already one of the top Russian players in the NHL (in the NHL is an important distinction, because he was not happy with his role on the national team in February). Where does he stack up among the top Russians in the League? Here's a look at the most productive players from his homeland since Tarasenko joined the Blues at the start of the 2012-13 season:
Life's about opportunity and how you respond to that opportunity, and obviously he must have some swagger about him, some confidence about him, because he was solid. He made some good saves. He was 6-foot-3 on every shot, which is a good thing for a goalie. He played well. We got a win.
— Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock on rookie goaltender Garret Sparks, who made 24 saves in his first NHL start, a 3-0 win vs. Oilers
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