(credit: Bleacher Report)
Sorry for the long layoff - Life outside of blogging was busy during the holidays (and after) but here we are getting out out half-way review as to what's great, what's bad, and what's expected from the 2014-15 season thus far.
How About Them Wings?: Just when it looks like the team's aging stars won't compensate for other areas, Mike Babcock drops the hammer and demands perfect out of his team. The result? Despite nagging injury woes, the team's still managed to find themselves battling for supremacy in the Eastern Conference (with a record that would be respectable even if they competed in the stronger Western Conference.) Tomas Tatar was expected to be a decent two-way center, but did anyone see him find such a dominant scoring touch at the start of the season? Did anyone expect Henrik Zetterberg to be as dominant with or without "The Magic Man?" No, the defense isn't horribly productive (like the Wings fans are accustomed to from the Lidstrom years), but they are incredibly stingy. Further, it's pretty certain that the tandem of Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek is going to be an unstoppable force for seasons to come (maybe they can trade one and keep Tom McCollum, but it would be better for the team if Howie and Petr could find a way to make it work.)
Duck's Dominance Leads The NHL: Granted, the Bruise Bros. were a bit more critical of Anaheim than most, but the team's done rather well to keep competitive despite the perceived shortcomings going into the season. Regardless of whether or not you like the guy, Ryan Getzlaf may as well tattoo a "C" on his chest for the way he's carried the team thus far in the season. Yes, John Gibson fared poorly at the start of the season, but Fredrick Andersen has keep the team in contention despite the lack of support around him. They'll need to keep the pedal to the metal if they don't expect to lose ground in the competitive Western Conference.
Miracle In Music City: No one, outside of the most die-hard Nashville fan, would've expected them to be amongst the top teams in the Western Conference. Yet when you have one of the most impressive defensive tandems in Shea Weber and Roman Josi, a sober Mike Ribiero, a matured Filip Forsberg, and a Pekka Rinne who regains his playing ability, it's going to be a recipie for success (along with the new offensive-minded system implemented by Peter Laviolette.) The second half's going to be a challenge though with Rinne suffering another knee injury, so Carter Hutton will need to play with more consistency if he's going to remain an NHL-level goaltender (much less pull them through this rough patch.)
The Dumpster Fire In Arizona: Everyone expected the Coyotes to struggle as a result of not going into the season with a goal scorer, but no one could've predicted the absolute disaster they'd be out of the gate. Mike Smith's play has been absolutely dreadful, but the team had opted to trade backup Devan Dubnyk instead of having him start while Mike Smith figures out the game in the minors (because no one would want to claim him at even half the original salary.) The team has listed former untouchables Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson as available while they opt to dress AHL and ECHL level goaltenders in an laughable effort to tank for the 1st overall draft pick. We've previously given plenty of props to the Coyotes brass, but it's hard to think they're even remotely close to handling this properly.
Voynov's Actions Have Team Consequences: Normally people brush domestic violence incidents under the rug because they don't "hurt the team", but is it poetic justice - in a way - when it does? Slava Voynov's legal proceedings are on-going after his wife ended up in the hospital following a domestic violence incident. With Assistant Commissioner Daly stating that the events were entirely unlike Semyon Varlamov's case, the team was not initially offered salary relief while Voynov was suspended (and therefore his salary counted against the cap.) Though players like Tyler Toffoli took unprecedented steps forward, it undoubtedly hurt the team to be paying for a top four defender that isn't in their lineup - And now see themselves in dangerous position of being a Stanley Cup winner who completely misses the post-season the year after. Granted, Voynov's hardly been the only problem - Mike Richards is now being played an NHL-level salary to play in the AHL - but it was the start of a long season for the Los Angeles Kings.
The Minnesota Wild Shouldn't Be This Bad: On paper, the Minnesota Wild should be one of the most dominant teams in the league. Yet despite a pretty hot start, the team is sputtering through the mid-season at the bottom of their division. This is the team that went out and spent mega-bucks on Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Thomas Vanek - Which means the team would be expecting more than a 23-20-6 record. It's true that the goaltending situation in Minnesota is dysfunctional (yet is being turned around by Coyotes' cast-off Dubnyk), but the team's big guns aren't generating the type of offense they're being paid to (and the secondary scoring is absolutely average.) One may be inclined to blame Mike Yeo, but did the Wild inadvertently create an environment where players would rather play with friends than win? This meltdown by Yeo is pure gold:
The Islanders Have Arrived: A few seasons ago, it would've been considered abysmal if you were playing for the New York Islanders. Today? They're setting pretty atop of the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference, largely because they finally resemble a real team. Jaroslav Halak's decision to head to Long Island was a great one, as the team finally has a reliable starter while he's enjoying the best season of his career as a bonafide starting goaltender. It's no stretch to say John Tavares has been amazing, but it's great to see Kyle Okposo developing a scoring touch which is beginning to rival Tavares's. Young forwards Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson have taken some pretty serious steps forward in their young careers while the built-in tandem of Nik Kulemin and Mikael Grabovski have been an effective two-way line for the squad. Oh, and the Islanders' defense now has Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy... in addition to Lubomir Visnovsky. Put it all together and it finally looks as if Snow and Capuano finally have their team.
Say Hurray For Tampa Bay: The Red Wings are doing rather well, but it's the Tampa Bay Lightning who poses the greatest risk to their success. Hey, remember when we told you about the best duo you've never heard of? Yeah, Tyler Johnson's now Tampa's top point scorer while Palat may be establishing himself as a high-end two-way forward (oh, they're also both league-leaders in plus/minus as well.) Because of this, Steven Stamkos is free to score goals at will while Nikita Kucherov's playmaking prowess was able to go uncontained by opposing forces. Throw in the solid play of Ben Bishop along with reliable secondary and defensive scoring and you have a team that could make a case as to why the Stanley Cup should return to Tampa Bay.
Every Now And Then, I'll Turn Them On Again, But It's Plain To See that the Oilers Still Suck: The team decided to fire Dallas Eakins. That's nice... They're still the second-worst team in the league with absolutely no sign of becoming a winner. The team needs a re-do at this point instead of a rebuild (because at this point, it looks as if they're ruining the careers of these oft-hyped prospects instead of fortifying them.) Darryl Katz would be merciful to sell the team to an owner who'd be committed to building a winner instead of continuing to employ a group of yes-men who consist of former Stanley Cup winners... when they were players 30 years ago. At least Garth Snow had a vision, it's impossible to tell what Craig MacTavish's image is for the team other than trying to throw things against the wall and see what sticks. At least the Calgary Flames have been better this season while the Coyotes and Kings floundered.
That's it for now - We'll probably be starting the Season Reviews soon (and it looks like the Buffalo Sabres will be up first...)