The Good...Sergei Bobrovsky: One of the big questions coming out of analysts everywhere was "Is the Philadelphia Flyers goaltending good enough to be competitive this season?" In fairness, many analysts expected them to go with the tandem of Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher with Johan Backlund pressing them for the Number 3 spot. But in the middle of September while training camp was underway, the preseason victories were starting to mount for this Russian kid who put up solid individual numbers on a losing Metallurg Novokuznetsk squad in the Kontinental Hockey League. With Michael Leighton on the shelf due to injury and with neither of the other two aforementioned goaltenders looking worlds better than Bobrovsky, "Bob" was able to secure the starting job at the beginning of the year and catapulted them in front of the standings. While he cooled slightly, he is still the Number 1 of the 1/1A tandem he's formed with Boucher (who, in his own right has been marvelous) and is a lock to win the Calder Trophy for the league's best rookie. And he doesn't even speak English yet...
The Pittsburgh Penguins: As a Red Wings fan and Flyers supporter, I can't help but hate this team. Yet Sidney Crosby was absolutely fantastic until suffering a concussion and the team is managing to lead the league in fighting majors. You can love 'em and you can hate 'em but dammit they're playing some inspired hockey right now. And while I'm certain many people believed Kris Letang would be a great player this season, who the hell woulda thought he'd be going to the All-Star game?
HBO 24/7 and The Winter Classic
Hockey players may not be as colorful on the playing surface as some of the athletes in other sports, but the HBO series really took away the "Be-polite-for-the-cameras-kids" feel that many hockey games have presented themselves as such lately and replaced it with a cold, honest look as to how things were going; no matter how awesome or awful it was. The guys (especially Bruce Boudreau) readjusted after they saw how they looked and it really set the stage for this season's Winter Classic. With the puck-drop moved to nighttime and the pageantry stripped away, the game was exciting and featured something for everyone.
Also, I've seen last seasons' tilt but this one was waaaaaaay better...
Emerging hockey teams in the South: With a major brain-drain heading south of the Mason-Dixon line, many of the southern teams are seeing a renaissance or are still improving from last season. In the Southeast Division, Steve Yzerman's Tampa Bay Lightning is currently sitting atop of the heavily-favored Washington Capitals while new Atlanta Thrahsers GM Rick Dudley was able to acquire Dustin Byfuglien among others to fortify an emerging squad to make them genuinely competitive for the first time ever (and the local fans have started to notice too.) The Carolina Hurricanes are young but definitely nothing to sneeze at with a better-than-.500 record while the Florida Panthers are literally a game shy of the .500 mark (woulda been nice if Steve Reinprecht had worked out for them but...) In the Pacific Division, The Dallas Stars have rebounded from bottom-of-the-division territory and back into being a top-seeded playoff team (with a goaltending tandem of Kari Lehotnen and Andrew Raycroft nonetheless) while the Phoenix Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, L.A. Kings, and San Jose Sharks are fully competitive in what's probably the closest thing to a five-horse race in the league as you'll see in any other division. If you live in any of those hockey markets you've been lucky to not only witness some entertaining hockey, but have likely done so without having to shovel a driveway to get to the game!
The continued dominance of the Vancouver Canucks and the Detroit Red Wings
This was looking like Vancouver's year and it has been exactly that. Despite an ugly incident toward the beginning of the season (which we'll get to later), Vancouver's been so balanced that they could afford to make Keith Ballad their seventh defenseman... and he's played in all 82 games for 4 of the past 5 seasons! The Sedin Brothers are producing over a point per game, Ryan Kesler's just a hair off (.98), and they've got constant production from their secondary scoring forwards as well as their offensive defensemen (and the third-line's pretty productive too.) With a solid blend of technicality and toughness to go with two excellent goaltenders, the Canucks look poised to be at the Western Conference Finals this season.
As for the other team poised to be at the Western Conference Finals this season, the Red Wings have been the model of excellence and continue to prove why they're the benchmark for what all other hockey organizations wish to be. Their defensive production is simply incredible with Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafaskii being close to a point per game (mind you, as defensemen!) while their offensive production's been as good as Vancouvers, possibly even better. Injuries are now a concern and the goaltending is starting to look somewhat average with Ozzy hurt and Howard somewhat slumping, but just when you thing they're down...
Babcock's hair and death stare guides them back into winning territory!
The Bad...The New Jersey Devils Wow, who woulda thought these guys would have poo'ed the bed as badly as they have? I figured they would have been one of the best teams going into the season but instead, Ilya Kovalchuk's monster contract created the wrong kind of distraction for the team while injuries, ineffective goaltending and defense, insufficient point production, and inexperienced coaching lead to one of the biggest disasters since the Hindenberg. Players (like Jamie Langenbrunner) are getting moved while coaches are getting axed (Jacques Lemaire came back; can it work again?) but they've essentially made their bed for the season. But hey, for an organization that's somewhat short on prospects, they're definitely going to land a solid draft pick this season!
The Calgary Flames What a mess. Going into this season these guys looked like they'd have something of a return back to respectability. Now they're basically standing atop of the Edmonton Oilers in the basement of the Western Conference. Things aren't looking good when the only prayer of re-signing the guy who's second on your team for point production (Alex Tanguay) hinges on whether or not another player can return from what may be a career-ending spinal injury (Daymond Langkow). The guys on the team who can score can't play defense while the guys who defend can't find ways to produce. Combine that with the amount of immovable contracts given to under-performing players and you've essentially got a recipe for disaster. Too bad because I was kinda hoping they'd do better.
The Rick Rypien Incident Early in the season in a contest between the Vancouver Canucks and the Minnesota Wild, things got a little out of hand after the refs broke up a fight between Rick Rypien and Brad Staubitz...
Since then the fan has threatened legal action and Rypien was suspended for 6 games; eventually returning only to be granted a personal leave of absence since the beginning of December (with no estimated time to return.) He's battled a lot of physical injuries and it wouldn't be surprising if that's finally effected his mental state to some degree as well. In spite of everything I hope he gets well; hockey's a more boring place without him.
The continued poor play of the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers: To a certain degree I can't help but feel both teams deserve this. In the case of the Edmonton Oilers, the team is frightingly young while the cast selected to support them just isn't up to snuff either by assignment or by choice. The Oilers are stuck with Nikolai Khabibulin's contract (which looks worse and worse each day) while they're forced to keep a less expensive and more effective Martin Gerber in the minors. The team does have a solid young cast of emerging talent in the likes of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Devan Dubnyk, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark, and Theo Peckham; but they'll need to get the right cast of characters in place to support them if they're looking to have any hope of contention in the near future.
In the case of the New York Islanders, they don't seem to have their stuff together and are only breaking the salary cap floor thanks to buying out Alexei Yashin's contract and giving Rick DiPietro a 15-year deal that may never be truly realized. Charles Wang hasn't done much to invest in the team and instead of trying to give local government a reason to go forward with the Lighthouse Project he looks like a guy who's simply waiting out the terms of the lease so he can sell off the team to an investor elsewhere. Yeah the team has some solid young prospects and a collection of lunchbox players surrounding them but it's all at a minimum and very incomplete. Injuries have taken out top contributors to the group and anonymous sources have eluded to the fact that their dressing room is a whole lot lighter than it should be for a team that's constantly losing. Boy oh boy, if a team isn't concerned over whether they win or lose, you can't expect immense support from outside the community.
The decline of the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks:
The Chicago Blackhawks were in playoffs-or-bust mode last season and with good reason. After winning the championship, the Blackhawks management had to move many of their component players in favor of keeping their stars around to work with a new group of emerging depth players. The end result? Decreased production throughout and the same type of symptoms affecting the Flames where the scorers can't defend and the defenders can't score along with ineffective goaltending from Marty Turco and unproven goaltending in Corey Crawford. They're in significant danger of becoming the 3rd team in 16 years to have missed the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, the Sharks brass decided that the way of the future was to let go of their star goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov) along with his emerging backup (Thomas Greiss) and to go with a less expensive platoon cast off from other teams (Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki). While Niemi has taken the brunt of the losses, neither goaltender has proven to be spectacular or a gamechanger in the ways that the team needs them to be. Combine that with the fact that the team's scoring lines aren't effectively producing points or defending and you have the reason why they've went from perennial division winner to sitting in the basement of the Pacific Division. They may have a chance to catch up to Anaheim, but Phoenix and L.A. are a winning streak away from being untouchable while an unmitigated disaster will bring Dallas' season down.