Every year there are a few teams that start off the season playing well beyond everyone’s expectations and giving their fanbase hope of a playoff run before fading back out of the picture be season’s end. Last season the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues seemed like a lock to make the playoffs, but both fell short of their goal.
This season, the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers have all bursted out of the gate. The NHL season is nearing its quarter mark which is as long as you could realistically expect a hotstreak to be. So which of these teams are going to be in the top eight come April and which will fall down the standings?
Panthers GM Dale Tallon played the role of Dr. Frankenstein this summer, assembling his creation out of others’ spare parts and loose ends. Many saw the offseason acquisitions as just a way to reach the salary cap floor, but few believed the team actually improved. Talon assembled a team of castoffs eager to prove they can still play in the league and it has worked. Defenseman Brian Campbell is having a career year with 18 points in 19 games, giving them ther first legitimate point producer from the blueline since Jay Bouwmeester’s early days with the team and Kris Versteeg is making Chicago, Toronto and Philadelphia look foolish for not hanging on to him by leading the team in scoring with nine goals and 22 points. He has combined with Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss to form the best line Florida has seen in years. In goal, Jose Theodore and rookie Jacob Markstrom have been spectacular.
Toronto Maple Leafs
While he is not the only big name on this team, the Leafs live and die by a sword called Kessel. When he is energized it brings the whole team to life and he has the same impact when he is in a slump. But whether he decided to train harder or was just motivated by seeing his former teammates lift the Stanley Cup last spring, he has been on a tear and has not gone more than one game without a point, a far cry from last season when he went multiple games without a point seven times, including three streaks of at least four games. James Reimer was playing very well until he went down with post-concussion syndrome and while Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens have been inconsistent in his absence, Gustavsson did make 40 saves against Washington in his last start. Their offense and powerplay have improved, but their defense and penalty killing still need work.
The additions and Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi haven’t done much to help the Wild’s struggling offense. In fact they are scoring at an even slower pace than last season (2.20 goals per game, 28th overall vs 2.48, 26th overall, respectively), but they are the only team sporting a GAA under 2.00. Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have been by far the top tandem in the league this season and it’s not for a lack of shots. The Wild allow 31.6 shots per game, the seventh most in the NHL. The Wild were supposed to take a shift towards offensive hockey, but that didn’t work out as planned. Coach Mike Yeo has the entire team on the same page and that has catapulted the Wild to, get this, the top of the NHL standings.
There are so many good stories in Edmonton this year, it’s hard to figure out where to begin. The kids, especially first-overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, have given the city a glimer of hope for the first time in years with their thrilling and at times dominating play. Ryan Smyth is back where he belongs and is enjoying a career year at 35 and Nikolai Khabibulin is in the midst of his finest campaign since his last in Chicago. Their special team have been among the best in the league this season as they are ranked third on the power play and seventh on the penalty kill.
So which team is it going to be? While the Oilers’ youthful exuberance has certainly gone a long way towards getting out of the basement, their overall inexperience will certainly be exploited by season’s end. They are closer to a playoff spot than many thought, but they still have work to do. The Leafs need to work on team defense to stay in the playoff hunt. Phil Kessel is on pace for 62 goals and 113 points and Joffrey Lupul is headed towards 39 goals and 98 points. Neither player has come anywhere near those numbers in his career, but they are going to have to keep up this pace all season to offset their porous defense. Eventually they are going to go into a slump, not because it’s Phil Kessel, but simply because every player does so at some point in the season. And when that happens, if they can’t keep the puck out of their own net the losses will pile up in a hurry. It doesn’t help that after a strong start Dion Phaneuf is a minus-8 in his past eight games.
For once the Panthers have gotten off to a solid start, deviating from their usual routine of trying to get all their points in the second half of the season. This start is what the franchise has been looking for for a decade and if the rest of their acquisitions, especially Sean Bergenheim and Scottie Upshall, can get going they just may end the longest playoff drought in league history. Meanwhile the Wild have once again embraced team defense and while they won’t have anyone near the league leaders in goals or points, that singular mindset will make up for any offensive shortcomings. The Wild have a solid lineup, an excellent system and top goaltending, all the attributes they need to make the playoff this season.