The 2013-14 NHL season is underway and after the first week we're already starting to see who is playing great, which teams are real contenders and which teams might be in for a long 82 games. Here are some of my thoughts on the first week of the new season.
Toronto takes charge
After finally snapping their postseason drought last season the Toronto Maple Leafs exited the Stanley Cup Playoffs in about as brutal a way as any team can. There's the threat that a loss like that can carry over to the next season, but so far the Leafs look great. One of the things I like about them is in their second game, a 3-1 win at Philadelphia, I thought they were outplayed by the Flyers, but they ended up getting the victory. It's a good sign when you're able to win a game when you're not at your best. I don't know if that could have happened last season and certainly over the past number of years. If Toronto didn't outplay the opposition it had no chance of winning.
On any night the goaltending, whether it's Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer, has been very, very solid, the Leafs aren't giving up very many offensive chances against and they just look rock solid all around. The right names are showing up on the scoreboard, they've got some grit, they hit, they're tough to play against and they're finding ways to win. Toronto is showing last year's return to the playoffs wasn't a fluke. And don't forget, Toronto is 3-0 without David Clarkson. He's a guy who was brought over to change the team and they haven't lost a game with him out of the lineup.
I still think the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators are the three top teams in the Atlantic Division, but Toronto is looking like it will be right up there. I have the Maple Leafs rated a little below those three teams, but they're a player. They're going to be right there all season and they definitely look like they'll be a playoff team again.
The sound and the Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed just one goal in two starts this season, but his ability to perform in the postseason remains a question. (Joe Sargent/NHLI)
The Pittsburgh Penguins are 2-0-0 and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has allowed just one goal in those two games, is a big reason why, but the regular season has never been a problem for Fleury. It's the playoffs that make you wonder, and after he's struggled in the last two postseasons I'm going to withhold judgment until I see him perform in the postseason again. The Penguins have a great chance of finishing first in the conference -- they'll definitely finish first in the Metropolitan Division because of the firepower they have -- but until you get in the playoffs and the pressure changes without Tomas Vokoun behind him, you don't really know.
Pittsburgh scores so many goals in the regular season that you don't have to win games 1-0 too often when you're playing behind that offense. Until Fleury plays like he did when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, he's the big question mark on that team.
Watching the new guys
Two of the new coaches with the biggest tasks ahead of them are Dallas Eakins in Edmonton and Patrick Roy in Colorado. Both of these guys basically have the same job: They've got to change the culture. Both of these young teams have spent the last three seasons learning how to lose, and the new coach in place has to turn that around.
Roy looks like he's doing a good job of that right now. You can say what you want about him and his confrontation with Bruce Boudreau opening night, but it sent a message to his team and every other team. The Avs were hitting, they were scrapping and they showed the League right away that the Colorado Avalanche won't be an easy mark on home ice.
Eakins has to do the same thing in Edmonton. The Oilers obviously have a very talented group, but over the last few years it's also a group that's gotten several coaches fired. This team has wreaked a lot of havoc on the front office, but they're supposed to be reaching a turning point now and it starts with Eakins. He has to turn all that talent into guys that win.
Opening night for the Oilers was a prime example. They had a two-goal lead in the third period. That's a game good teams win, but Edmonton reverted back to the same old Oilers and ended up losing the game at home to the Winnipeg Jets. The next time out the Oilers got roughed up by Vancouver 6-2. The longer this team goes without its first win, the more pressure will build up for Eakins and his coaching staff, so while everyone is optimistic that a roster with guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov is about to turn the corner, this team doesn't look like it's playoff bound right now. When you look at how competitive it is out west, it just looks like it's going to be a rough road in Edmonton. I'll be very surprised if the Oilers make the playoffs.