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20 questions -- and answers -- 20 games in

by Phil Coffey /
Here we are at the end of November. Where does the time go? Already a quarter of the 2009-10 season is in the books -- give or take a game here or there.

But even with the season still relatively in its infancy, there still are plenty of questions, so let's get to the answers now.

1. How come there have been no coaching changes? -- A number of teams made their changes over the summer, and some teams that have gotten off to disappointing starts, like Carolina and St. Louis, are coming off playoff seasons, so there hasn't been as much impetus to make a move. With this being an Olympic year, the guess is any changes will come prior to the Winter Games, so teams can hit the ice hard for the sprint to the playoffs in February.

2. Pick one -- Chris Pronger or Dany Heatley? -- No disrespect to Heatley, but I build from the goal out, so I'll take Pronger, who as legendary Scottish announcer Hamish MacPherson once described Cam Neely, is "a beast of a man." Any time you can add a proven defenseman who is playing over 26 minutes per game, you do it.

3. Is it a mirage in Colorado or a real Avalanche? -- You can't argue with success, and there has been plenty of that in the Rocky Mountains so far this season. For the Avs, the proof will be in the long run. A hot start to the season never hurts, but it can look like ancient history in March.

4. What will wake up the Bruins? -- Probably a run of good health that returns Marc Savard and Milan Lucic to the lineup. Twenty games in Patrice Bergeron's 6 goals top the Bruins, as do his 13 points. And while Derek Morris and Zdeno Chara are terrific defensemen, to have them sitting as the team's second- and third-leading scorers after 20 games isn't positive. David Krejci, Michael Ryder and Marco Sturm need to pick it up.

5. Are the Maple Leafs a complete and unmitigated disaster? -- No Leafs fan wants to hear about "the process." But that's what it is, folks. GM Brian Burke is remaking this team in his image and the job isn't done. Phil Kessel has 5 goals in eight games -- not a bad start -- but Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin have struggled and Luke Schenn looks like a young defenseman still learning the ropes. So are the Leafs a disaster? Short-term -- disappointing. Long-term -- still a waiting game.

6. Is there hope for the Hurricanes? --
Sure, mainly because things can't get much more disappointing that they were for the first quarter of the season. At some point Eric Staal and Cam Ward will return from injuries and that surely will help. But the onus is on GM Jim Rutherford now to make some tough decisions on veteran players in order to open roster space for some of the organization's young players to see how they perform. Certainly Brandon Sutter looks like a keeper.

7. Same old, same old in San Jose? -- Yes and no. Yes in terms of success so far this season to be sure. But as my colleague Larry Wigge pointed out in his weekend column, the Sharks also have made some notable changes aside from trading for Dany Heatley. Manny Malhotra, Scott Nichol and Jed Ortmeyer all are adding their grit to a team often accused of lacking it.

8. Can the Blackhawks remain intact under the salary cap? -- Can't really answer this one now. Plus, my math skills would be stretched beyond the limit to try to figure all this out. Suffice to say, if the Blackhawks do sign Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to contract extensions as has been speculated, then the Hawks may well have a numbers problem.

9. What's up in Detroit? -- This seems to be a topic each week, but I just cannot work up any panic when it comes to the Red Wings. A 10-6-3 mark through 19 games after getting to the Stanley Cup Final two straight years and undergoing a roster transition seems pretty good to me. The Wings have smart management, smart coaches and smart players. While it gets late early for some teams, the Wings know how to handle things.

10. Ditto Anaheim? -- Personally, I have been surprised by the Ducks' struggles this season. Losing a player of Chris Pronger's caliber never is easy, but I thought the return was good and some of the other additions, like Saku Koivu over the summer and James Wisniewski, Ryan Whitney and Erik Christensen would keep Anaheim higher in the standings.

11. Do the Blues have another miracle run in them? -- Based on the first-quarter performance you'd have to say no. But the Blues were in a similar predicament last season and came out of nowhere to make the playoffs. This time around, however, the team's play seems more disappointing based on the Cinderella story that was last season.

12. Did Montreal really improve over the summer? -- Again, as was the case with the Ducks, I thought some of their off-season moves would pay off better than they have to date. The Habs just seem to be average at this point and need a spark. Mike Cammalleri has been good. Ditto Brian Gionta before he got hurt, but Scott Gomez's 11 points in 21 games has been a letdown. Same deal with Carey Price in goal.

13. Who is the brightest of the new players? -- Anze Kopitar is 22, so he still qualifies, right? I've liked the look of Kopitar dating back to his rookie season. He has been a consistent point producer for a struggling team and is on pace for a breakout season. Another King also merits mention, Drew Doughty, who plays like a veteran in just his second season. Also, Steven Stamkos is proving what all the hype was about when he was the top pick in 2008 for Tampa Bay.

14. Who is the most underrated player so far? -- I've got two -- Atlanta's Rich Peverley and Calgary's Rene Bourque. Peverley was a waiver pickup from Nashville who has been terrific for the Thrashers. Bourque started his career in Chicago but really has blossomed with the Flames. And one more now that I'm on a role -- Washington's Brooks Laich is a player worth watching.

15. What's the matter with Sidney Crosby? -- Not a darn thing. The Penguins have been beset by injuries to key players like Evgeni Malkin and seemingly the entire defense. But Crosby still averages a point per game, still plays over 21 minutes a game and the Penguins still are among the League's elite. Plus, Crosby just got to carry the Olympic torch. How cool is that?

16. Is the Sabres' Ryan Miller for real? -- Come on, was there every really a doubt? He won 34 games for a team that struggled last season and already has won a dozen games this season.

17. What were the most underrated signings this summer? -- Washington does not live by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin alone. So GM George McPhee made a couple of very savvy moves, bringing in veterans Mike Knuble and Brenden Morrison, two players who still can play and who fit into the dressing room without a hitch.

18. Based on the first quarter, who makes it back into the playoffs this season? -- In the East, I like Buffalo and Atlanta. In the West, Dallas and Los Angeles.

19. Who's Canada's goalie come the Winter Olympics? -- Easy. Martin Brodeur.

20. What is the most important lesson of the first quarter? --
Never take your health -- or the health of your team -- for granted. Injuries can prove to be a killer.

Pens reward Celesnik's devotion -- It is easy to get a jaundiced attitude about professional sports for a lot of reasons. But then you read something like this and are brought back to why you loved the game from the get-go.

Pat Celesnik is a Penguins fan from Derry, Pa. During the playoffs last April, Pat suffered life-threatening complications following a heart catheterization. But like her team, she fought back every step of the way.

On Monday, Max Talbot stopped by her house to deliver an autographed Penguins jersey after the club became aware of her struggles from reading a story in Sports Illustrated.

"We take pride in our fans and trying to be out there in the community for them, especially when you hear a story like that," Talbot told the team's Web site. "I have been hurt for four months. It puts your life in perspective that people are overcoming worse things. When you have a chance to push a puck and win some games to make people happy, you realize how special it is."

Obviously, Celesnik was overjoyed when she answered a knock on the door and saw Talbot standing outside wearing his No. 25 sweater and holding a shopping bag.

"You guys have the best mix of personality and talent," she told Talbot. "You helped me out so much when I was sick. It's scary at night when your company leaves (the hospital) and you just sit there and start to think, 'What am I going to be able to do well?' Your anxiety gets high. Watching you guys took me all away from it."

Pat's illness is very scary. She had just undergone a heart catheterization when two days later she collapsed at her house, suffering internal bleeding. By the time she reached a local hospital she had lost 40 units of blood. Doctors quickly induced a coma to help stabilize her, who prior to her crisis had perfect health and worked a full-time job.

"I went through two weeks of up and down health where I wasn't sure if I was going to make it," Celesnik said. "I pulled through but had a very long recovery of almost three months in the hospital learning how to walk, learning how to eat."

"Watching the Penguins play helped me so much. It got me away from my own problems and gave me something to look forward to -- the next game. As well as the Penguins got better, I got better. It was a correlation thing."
-- Penguins' fan Pat Celesnik on how the team helped her get through her recovery

Before she even thought of re-learning all those aspects of life we take for granted, there was another question that popped into her mind: "Is there a Penguins game tonight?"

"Watching the Penguins play helped me so much," Celesnik said. "It got me away from my own problems and gave me something to look forward to -- the next game. As well as the Penguins got better, I got better. It was a correlation thing."

Onus on Blues to improve -- Dave Checketts aired out the St. Louis Blues for their play this season and with good reason. After 19 games, the Blues are a disappointing 7-8-4 and mired in the Central Division basement. Making matters worse, St. Louis is just 4-7-1 at home and has had trouble finding the net at Scottrade Center.

"We came in with everybody, including ourselves, having higher expectations," coach Andy Murray told Norm Sanders of the Belleville News-Democrat. "But it's a tough League. If you don't score, it's tough to win."

David Backes is a prime example of what ails the Blues. Last season he scored 31 goals; so far this season he has 1 goal in 19 games.

"Hopefully I'll fall down in front of the net and get one off a skate, off my face or anything," Backes told Sanders. "I'll lose a tooth if it takes it to get one in there and open the gates. Then we'll start throwing them all in there."

"There isn't anybody in our organization that's happy about our situation," Murray said. "We're working hard, we just need to find a way to turn that into points. We haven't done that.

"We’re not sitting back. … we're not playing a passive, defensive kind of game. We're forechecking hard, we're going after teams."

Well Said I -- "It hasn't been all bad. I think we have to be realistic as a coaching staff as we go along here, with some of the youth in the back end. We're certainly not looking to make excuses, but right now we have some guys playing in situations they really haven’t been put into before. ... I think we've defended pretty well. Obviously the scoring hasn't been consistent. The forechecking and the secondary scoring has been a problem. We can't keep on going one or two goals and expect to win some hockey games. We went through this last year, at least the short time I was there." -- John Tortorella, on the play of the Rangers.

Winning starts here --
Both J.S. Giguere and Jonas Hiller are taking the cellar-dwelling Anaheim Ducks' plight squarely on their shoulder pads.

"If this team wants to move forward, goaltending is going to have to be better," Giguere told reporters Thursday. "We'll have to try to give the team a better chance to win every night."

Giguere has yet to win a game this season (0-3-2) and he sports an unwieldy 3.38 goals-against average.

"Goaltending can win you games even if you don't play that well," Hiller said. "If we can provide solid goaltending, there's definitely a chance to win."

There are plenty of other factors, too, like scoring goals and playing solid defense, but you have to give Giguere and Hiller credit for not ducking their responsibilities.

Remembering Shanny --
It goes without saying that the clock already is ticking on Brendan Shanahan's three-season wait before induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

No one reading this needs to be convinced of Shanahan's qualifications for the Hall. In thinking about Shanahan's career, one thing stands out to me. I can't recall another player who competed on multiple teams being so popular at each stop.

Now there will be some Hartford Whalers fans who will take me to task on this because Shanahan wanted to be traded from Hartford, but in New Jersey (twice), St. Louis, Detroit and in New York with the Rangers, Shanahan always was a very popular player, even later in his career when he wasn't the prolific scorer of seasons' past.

"You always talk about what puts a team over the top," Red Wings teammate Kris Draper recalled. "We had some disappointments obviously in '95 and '96 and we made the trade for Shanny and ended up obviously winning that year, back-to-back and three Cups in six years. Shanny was a huge part of that."

"Great player and a great pro," former Rangers coach Tom Renney told The Associated Press. "Huge insight on the game and very helpful in the player/coach role. I saw him as a superior leader who cared more about winning than anything else, but took great pride in helping young players grow.

"The game is better for having had Brendan in it and will continue to (be) as long as he stays involved."

Elias still hurting --
New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias was hoping to be feeling better now after missing 13 games with a groin injury that required surgery Sept. 15.

Elias slowly is mending, but still wonders if he will feel "right" this season.

"Everybody goes through surgeries and injuries," Elias told Rich Chere of the (Newark) Star-Ledger. "It just takes time. I know what I'm capable of and I don't doubt myself. I know what I'm capable of doing. I feel like I'm going to be fine in time, but I won't put pressure on myself.


G-A-P: 0-3-3
+/-: 1 | PIM: 2 | PP: 0

"There is no time frame for me. If it doesn't feel 100 percent, I just have to play with it. It doesn't happen immediately. That would be unbelievable."

Quinn: No excuses -- Pat Quinn always has been a no-nonsense coach, so you won't hear him chalk up the Edmonton Oilers' struggles to the rash of injuries the team has experienced. After all, a lot of teams have gone through similar problems with injuries this season.

"There is realism here, it's a fact we've had guys hurt and some of them have been our cornerstone guys," Quinn said. "We've had eight or nine guys out of our roster from time to time, but we still have to play those games.

"And we beat ourselves in a lot of these games in the last two weeks. We've been gift-givers in a sense. They do a lot of good stuff and then give (the other team) something that's inexplicable sometimes."

Flattering the Flyers --
Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi worked as a scout for the Flyers prior to moving to LA and Kings Assistant GM Ron Hextall spent the majority of his NHL career in Philadelphia. So is this a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

You bet.

As Sam Carchidi wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Kings, who play with a hard-nosed edge, are slowly becoming Philadelphia West. In addition to Lombardi and Hextall, there's former Flyers coach Terry Murray behind the Kings' bench. The Kings have former Flyers defenseman Randy Jones, right wing Justin Williams, and center Michal Handzus on the roster.

"We're trying to bring an attitude that the Flyers have shown in the past," Murray said. "We're trying to be a hard team (to play against), a gritty team.

"We want to play with good structure on the defensive side of the game first. I know that's been the philosophy of Philadelphia over the years. In order to be a successful team, that's the foundation that you have to have on a consistent basis."

Remembering Sundin -- Some nice comments from Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson on Mats Sundin, who finally hung up the skates earlier this season after a very distinguished career.
"He had a great career. He was a great role model, especially for a lot of Swedish people." -- Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson on Mats Sundin
"I'm definitely going to try to get through to him some way," Alfredsson told the Ottawa Sun. "He had a great career. He was a great role model, especially for a lot of Swedish people.

"He stepped into the footprint of Borje Salming and Anders Hedberg, He set a standard, and it worked well.

"He fit in. Coming to a different country, he did a good job getting acclimatized. He portrayed Swedes out there in a very positive way. He did a great job for Sweden."

Well Said II -- "It's been a busy day, but it was well worth it. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was an amazing experience." -- Sidney Crosby, on carrying the Olympic torch in Nova Scotia on Wednesday.

Parental support --
Brett Hull obviously picked up some of the hockey-greatness genes from his father, Hall of Famer Bobby Hull. But Brett has made sure his mom, Joanne, got her share of the credit during his induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the star-studded Class of 2009.

"My father's influence was kind of from a distance," Brett said, alluding to his parents' divorce. "His giant footsteps in which to follow and for me to have those aspirations and to have the goals that he put forward for me to follow, I don't know if I can say enough about that, either.

"My mom's role: She was so supportive throughout the years. A guy like my dad and what he knew about the game, if I got two goals it was why didn't I get three? But my mom always told me I played great, just enjoy the game. She gave me my laid-back attitude to where trying to live up to Bobby Hull didn't seem like that great a burden. Having to deal with you guys (the media), she really helped me with my razor-sharp wit. I give her a lot of credit."
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