Friday November 16th, 2007

As the season hits the quarter pole, expectations are being revised. Teams like the Canadiens, Flyers and Avalanche have impressed with strong starts and generated talk of what they might need to put them over the top.

Of course, for every club already on the fast track to the playoffs, there's another whose dreams have been staggered, if not derailed, by a brutal start. For those teams, the question is simple: Can this season be saved?

Expectations: Build on last season's remarkable turnaround and challenge for the Stanley Cup

What's gone wrong: To be fair, it's not so much what's wrong with the Pens, but the expectations placed on a team whose core still has to bring ID to an NC-17 movie. While Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are pulling their weight, the rest of the kids have been far from alright. After scoring 29 goals in 2006-07, Jordan Staal has just one so far. The play of defender Ryan Whitney, so promising last season, has regressed. But it is goalie Marc-Andre Fleury whose inconsistency has been drawing the most fire. Coming off a 40-win season, it's easy to forget that he's the league's youngest starter. But rather than bearing the blame, his early struggles should be seen as a microcosm of what really ails this team: a group this young is bound to go through some growing pains. Despite how easy they made it look last season, they still have a lot to learn about winning.

Prognosis: The Pens limped through the early stages of last season before going on a second-half tear (29-8-4). To repeat that trick -- and avoid a last-minute dogfight for a playoff berth -- they'll have to get more out of the veterans in the lineup, particularly Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and Darryl Sydor, who's brought almost nothing to the table thus far. But even if they finally start clicking, there's almost no chance of matching last year's totals, if only because the Atlantic is so much tougher. Pittsburgh should play into April, but expect streaky play between now and then.

Expectations: Maintain their standing as one of the league's elite franchises.

What's gone wrong: More than the loss of free agents Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski has led to this miserable start. It's been death by 1,000 cuts for a team that's been hemorrhaging critical performers for years. Those losses appear to be weighing on Martin Brodeur as much as anyone. So brilliant last season, he looks as overworked as he did while stumbling through New Jersey's aborted playoff run. The defense, led by the stiff-backed Paul Martin, Andy Greene and Johnny Oduya, simply doesn't have the talent or experience to create match-up advantages. The special teams have been brutal, with the power play ranking 26th and the penalty kill a shocking 29th. And while Zach Parise continues his rise to stardom, checkers John Madden and Jay Pandolfo have been the next-most-reliable weapons. That's like having Joey Santiago sing lead for the Pixies.

Prognosis: Things were a lot easier for new coach Brent Sutter when his bench was loaded with the finest junior players in Canada. Unfortunately, his Devils are a hodge-podge of talent, demanding that he wring results out of underachieving vets and a slew of greenhorns. It's tough to win with that kind of group, especially early when you're trying to teach a system that requires them to be more aggressive with the puck than in the past. The return of Colin White should help solidify the sagging blueline, but he won't address what may be the biggest problem -- an inability to generate anything consistently from the transition game. That's certainly been a factor in the slow starts of Brian Gionta and Patrik Elias, who only this week snapped an 11-game goalless streak. Keep an eye on February, when the team plays 11 of 15 at home. That'll be their make-or-break stand.

Expectations: A weakened but still dangerous contender in the East.

What's gone wrong: No one thought the loss of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury would easily be muted. But with just one win in their last seven contests, their start was a little rockier than most expected. Shoot, forget about winning. The Sabres haven't even held a regulation lead in nearly 500 minutes of hockey.

The team that couldn't miss last season can't finish now. The league's most potent offense in 2006-07 (3.63 goals per game) ranks 21st (2.70), and has scored just five goals in its last five games. Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and Maxim Afinogenov, so effective as the second line last season, have buckled under the weight of increased expectations. Facing shutdown units for the first time, they're not just failing to score -- they're a combined minus-22. Tim Connolly, expected to pick up some of Briere's slack, has been solid when he's played, but the brittle forward has already missed four games.

Ryan Miller's numbers aren't significantly worse than last season, but he's been prone to letting in goals at critical moments and turning the close games the Sabres used to win into the close games they're now losing.

Prognosis: Chin up, Buffalo. Your team is primed to turn things around. Although they've struggled to adapt to the more determined defensive efforts they're facing this season, these Sabres know how to win. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a minor shakeup to alter the chemistry a bit -- the freelancing Afinogenov may be running out of rope -- but this group has more than enough depth and experience to contend for fourth place in the East.

Expectations: Build on last season's robust success and challenge for the Northwest title.

What's gone wrong: Much like the Stars, the team they knocked off in a grueling seven-game first-round series that will be remembered as a benchmark of offensive ineptitude, the Canucks failed to address their most glaring need in the offseason. Only one team (St. Louis) has scored fewer goals than Vancouver's 41, and the Blues have played just 15 games thus far to the Canucks' 17. The tap is especially dry at home, where the Canucks have scored just 15 goals in nine games. While the Sedin twins have been customarily solid, and Ryan Kesler has emerged as perhaps their best forward, the lack of secondary scoring has cost them.

The Canucks were able to work around similar struggles last season thanks to an airtight defense backed by the best goalie in the West: Roberto Luogno. But this season, the blueline has wilted in the face of long-term injuries to Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Lukas Krajicek, and some fair-to-spare play from Bobby Lu.

Prognosis: After a brutal start, things are looking up for the Canucks, who've gone 3-0-1 over the past week against divisional rivals. Luongo in particular seems to be shaking off his early season malaise, stopping 108 of 114 shots over that stretch. And while the losses of Bieksa and Salo can't be fully mitigated, Vancouver's been blessed with some remarkably mature play from call-ups Alexander Edler -- take a bow if you expected that -- and Luc Bourdon.

GM Dave Nonis is rumored to be kicking the tires on a few second-line center types. Forget anything you're hearing about Kesler being involved. He's not going anywhere. But the team does have some interesting assets -- goalie Cory Schneider, for instance -- and could add a useful piece to the puzzle. One way or another, count on the Canucks working their way back into the playoff picture.

Expectations: Defend the Stanley Cup

What went wrong: Expecting the same results from a team that lost three vital components -- Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Dustin Penner -- was unrealistic. It hasn't helped that Brian Burke's stand-ins, Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi, have spent extended periods on the IR. Injuries to J-S Giguere, Sami Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer only compounded the early skid that saw the Ducks lose five of their first seven games. While that's reason enough for the early swoon, the team also struggled to establish the hard-hitting identity that defined their success last season. Evidence of a Cup hangover? Sure smells like it.

Without Niedermayer, coach Randy Carlyle has gone to the whip with Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Even though the Ducks have gone 3-1-1 over their last five, the defense has been a concern, giving up 18 goals over that span. And don't overlook the cavalry factor. Through the first month, the Ducks often looked like a team that was biding its time until Niedermayer and Selanne returned to save the day. Holding on to that hope too long could be fatal.

Prognosis: Despite that laundry list of excuses, the Ducks are just three points out of first. With every team in the Pacific showing vulnerability, it would be a surprise if the Ducks didn't get their act together in time to capture the division title. Look for Burke to acquire a top-six winger to jump-start nominal No. 1 center Andy MacDonald. That move may be on the front burner with today's announcement that backup Ilya Bryzgalov was being placed on waivers, an interesting decision that could provide a lifeline to division rival Phoenix.

Expectations: WIth an infusion of young blood, an improvement on a disastrous 2006-07.

What went wrong: Carolina and Edmonton, the 2006 Cup finalists, struggled for footing last season in the wake of their memorable seven-game tilt. But while the Hurricanes seem to have rediscovered their championship form, the Oilers are sinking further into obsolescence. It's easy to point to the loss of two key performers from the Final, Pronger and Ryan Smyth, but the real issue is that the Oilers are simply not getting enough out of the players still with the club.

The rebuilt blueline, featuring Sheldon Souray and Joni Pitkanen, too often looks like a sextet of matadors waving nobly as opposing forwards breeze by. Souray, who was brought in specifically to revitalize the power play, has just two points in six games and is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury. That's upped the demands on Tom Gilbert, Matt Greene, Denis Grebeshkov and Ladislav Smid, an inexperienced group whose mistakes are proving difficult to overcome. Edmonton simply doesn't have the talent on the blueline to win with average goaltending, and playoff hero Dwayne Roloson (3-9-1) has been average at his best. Backup Mathieu Garon has outplayed him by a wide margin, and might get more work as the team tries to stop the bleeding.

Don't overlook the lack of lineup consistency as a factor. Edmonton already has made 18 player moves with Springfield of the AHL in an effort to spark the team. The results of this shuffling of deck chairs speak for themselves.

Prognosis: Even if the goaltending improves -- and no one's confused Garon with Grant Fuhr lately -- the Oilers still have to start burying the puck if they hope to gain some traction. As the underachieving Jarrett Stoll (three goals) pointed out after last night's 4-2 loss to the Wild, it's quality, not quantity, that counts when taking shots. Edmonton's forwards seem all too satisfied to unload from long distance rather than pay the price for getting into prime position. Until they do, they'll continue to struggle.

On the bright side, the early reviews have been glowing for rookies Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner, but both players have struggled with consistency. Unless players like Stoll, Penner and Ales Hemsky re-assert themselves as reliable weapons, the Oilers are in for four more months of rough sledding.

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