Every year in the National Hockey League, there are at least a handful of teams that surprise, either by plunging in the standings against high expectations or by rising to a place in the rankings that not even the pundits predicted. Here’s a sampling of three from the Western Conference.
The Predators finished out of the playoffs the last two seasons, largely because they were without their large, netminding Finn and goals were awfully hard to come by. A significant retooling was in order, at the forward position specifically.
By adding James Neal, Mike Ribeiro, Olli Jokinen and Derek Roy to the corps, you knew the team was better on paper, but there was no way anyone saw this coming. At the first quarter mark, Nashville led the West and was tied (in points) for the League lead.
Credit General Manager David Poile for acquiring the pieces; credit Head Coach Peter Laviolette for slotting everyone in the proper spot; and credit the players for embracing a new structure and for playing more consistently than any Predators team in recent memory. These guys just might have something here.
Is the Big D for disappointment? The Dallas Stars turned an ankle out of the gate. And I, for one, projected that this team would add 10 or so points to last year’s total. With Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin coming off such strong seasons last year, I was expecting even more results. They essentially added another first line as they acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Spezza has been fine; Hemsky has been nearly invisible and a significant organizational shortcoming has been exposed in a graphic way. The Stars blue line lacks skilled puck-movers and solid defenders. Not sure where it turns for Head Coach Lindy Ruff and the Stars at this point; they’re currently mired in the 11th spot in the West. Not out of it by any means, but they’ve got a tall hill to climb.
What in the Wild West is going on in Calgary? This is a team that was supposed to be in a full-blown rebuild. But this group isn’t paying the experts any mind. As December begins, Calgary sits fifth in the West, trailing Pacific Division rival Vancouver by a single point.
This is not the flashiest forward corps in the West, so you’d speculate the Flames 15-8-2 record is built on a stingy system that gives up few chances. Not exactly. They’ve allowed more goals against than all but two Western playoff teams. The truth is that the Flames are getting terrific production from the blue line. Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are first and third in scoring, respectively; they’ve combined for 46 points over the first 25 games. Their counterparts in Chicago, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who form one of the best tandems in the NHL, trail them by no less than an aggregated 17 points. Please don’t say you saw that coming.
So the stretch for the All-Star Break is on. There’s bound to be more of the unexpected ahead.