We're almost two weeks into the 2014-15 NHL season, and after a few early surprises the wheat is starting to get separated from the chaff. That doesn't mean there aren't some unusual teams in the mix. Here are three teams we may not be accustomed to seeing where they are that caught my eye.
Two years ago, the New York Islanders pushed the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and looked to be on the rise. Last season though, an injury to forward John Tavares left them out of the postseason. Well, the Islanders look like a playoff team again and after this fast start I don't see them falling apart or drifting away.
Simply put, they look great. Tavares is all the way back from his injury and recent trades for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have already paid dividends offensively and defensively. Brock Nelson has been great, Kyle Okposo is playing well and Jaroslav Halak has been excellent in net. Halak has always been a good goaltender, at times unbelievably good, and I think bringing him in along with Boychuk and Leddy has solved a lot of their problems on the back end.
The real difference for this team though is probably having Tavares back in the lineup and having him be a year older and wiser. He plays with poise and confidence and that spreads to the rest of the guys in the lineup. Add that to two new defenseman that have won the Stanley Cup and there is a lot of experience in that dressing room that wasn't there before. I don't think the Islanders are suddenly the team to beat in the East, but in a conference that is wide open, they can certainly make a run in the postseason next spring. They've got all of the pieces to make noise and they've got a goalie who's done it before. Halak made a brilliant run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2010 with the Montreal Canadiens. Putting him and the experience the Islanders have added on defense on that roster has suddenly made this a very scary team to match up with come April.
PREDATORS ON THE PROWL
The Nashville Predators are also off to an impressive start, leading the loaded Central Division. I think this is a team very much like the Islanders. The goaltending has been very good, the guys the Predators are counting on to score, like James Neal, are putting the puck in the net and the defense has been strong. Obviously Shea Weber is there, but Seth Jones is a year older and has been playing very well. Having Pekka Rinne back has also been a huge boost.
The biggest difference for this team, though, is that they've opened up the system a bit. Offensively there's a little more freedom and a little bit more creativity with new coach Peter Laviolette in charge, and I think it's working for them. Are they going to be leading this division in April? No, probably not. But every point you get now pays off come April. Nashville only missed the playoffs by three points last season, and with the Colorado Avalanche struggling out of the gate and the Dallas Stars being somewhat inconsistent, this is a good opportunity for Nashville to build up ground.
Obviously, a lot of this early success will be credited to Laviolette, and he's definitely deserving, but I think just having a new voice has been a huge difference. Former coach Barry Trotz had been there a long, long time. Most of the players on Nashville's roster hadn't had another coach in the NHL, and sometimes you just run out of ways of saying what you want to say and they get tired of the message or even the cadence of your voice. Sometimes change is just needed. Trotz is a great coach who I think will be successful in Washington, but Laviolette has won a Stanley Cup and will do a good job too. The team is paying fast with more puck control and less dump and chase, and it's working for them. This early-season run could be enough to pull them back into the postseason discussion.
The Boston Bruins for the past few years have been the best team in the East, and this season wasn't supposed to be any different. There are definitely some cracks in the armor, however. Boston's defense isn't as good as it was prior to trading Boychuk, who I think has meant more than the Bruins thought he would. When you play young kids more minutes than they're used to, mistakes will happen on the ice. That's what's happening in Boston right now. At the same time, they're not particularly dangerous offensively right now. Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand aren't putting the puck in the net like they can. Tuukka Rask has been good in net, but not great. Zdeno Chara hasn't been unbelievable on the blue line and Dennis Seidenberg hasn't looked as good as usual.
The Bruins look normal right now and the power balance in the Atlantic Division may be shifting. The biggest difference in the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry this season is Montreal has grit now. The Canadiens don't get out-gritted by Boston the way they used to be. Guys like Max Pacioretty and Brandon Prust have given Montreal more of an edge, and Boston just can't push the Canadiens around like it used to.
If I'm a Boston fan, I definitely see a tougher road ahead, and I'm not so sure this division is the Bruins' to lose anymore. They're certainly going to be a playoff team and probably near the top of the conference, but I don't know that they can win the Atlantic with their slow start. Montreal isn't scared anymore and the Tampa Bay Lightning can play with them too. I still think the Bruins are the team you have to beat to come out of the East because of their experience come playoff time, but they may not be playing with as strong a hand this spring as they have in the past.