Darren Eliot
Monday November 29th, 2010

Last week's top stories at the quarter pole column brought in some passionate and informed responses from readers, so let's open the mailbag. (Thanks to all who take the time every week to weigh in. I truly appreciate your opinions and passion. Keep the mail coming.)

I love SI, but I sometimes find its US-centric view of hockey frustrating. For instance, how about some words on the emergence of Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, given his play last season, his having to replace the savior that was Jaroslav Halak, his being booed during a pre-season game, and his emergence as a mature, poised number one goalie?

Also, why no notes on the debacle that has become the Calgary Flames? Here's a team that but a few years ago was in the Stanley Cup Final, but has overturned its roster while trying to recreate the magic to no avail. And now there's talk of captain and face-of-the-franchise Jarome Iginla being traded. It's big news.

-- Darren, Ottawa

The theme of my column was surprises so far, and I fully expected Price to step up and perform well now that the number one job is his and his alone. I even wrote at the time of the Halak trade that it was the right thing for GM Pierre Gauthier to do, even though the market value of what he got in return -- Lars Eller and a prospect -- is debatable.

Last spring was a pleasant surprise for Canadiens fans. I covered the Habs-Penguins Eastern Conference semi-final series and the locals were enjoying the "bonus hockey" as the team exceeded expectations. But I thought the Canadiens would be confident this season. According to assistant coaches Perry Pearn and Kirk Muller, the team is one year further entrenched in their systems -- particularly on the forecheck. When they go, the Canadiens put serious pressure on their opponents.

As for the Flames, I've viewed them as a team on wane for some time. In other words, I'm not surprised in either instance. Until Iginla is actually traded, it is speculation and not news.

I guess the Red Wings are the only story in the West. What a joke. Seven of the eight stories you mentioned are from the Eastern Conference. I guess the defending Stanley Cup Champions' struggle with a new roster isn't worth a story. Or how the Blues haven't lost in regulation at home, or how good the Blue Jackets are doing while still trying to sell the game in a non-traditional market. All I ask is that you'll look outside of the Eastern Conference for a story, and for that matter outside of the Eastern time zone.

-- Nick, Chicago

The Blackhawks' early relative struggles are noteworthy, but hardly surprising. Same thing with the Blues at home, since they turned their troubles on home ice around late last season and have just carried on under coach Davis Payne to begin this campaign. Regarding the Blue Jackets, you -- and many others -- have me there. In total, though, the Western Conference is comprised of well-constructed teams that have started the season generally as predicted. The West is stronger than the East overall and full of stories, but at the quarter pole, devoid of real surprises... the Dallas Stars notwithstanding.

Would love to hear your thoughts on Columbus. They are one of only three teams, since the lockout, to beat all three California teams on a single road trip.

-- Tom, Columbus

That is a unique feat and the Blue Jackets certainly qualify as an early season surprise. New coach Scott Arniel has done a fine job getting them to jump up on the rush and include their defensemen in the attack. I think I even saw Mike Commodore up the ice and finishing off a 2-on-1 opportunity...

There is a certain amount of wait and see when it comes to this edition of the Jackets. Still, you and the other readers who wrote in are correct in asserting that this team deserves praise and recognition. And I don't believe the Jackets will lie down. Even while being swept in a home-and-home set against the Central Division rival Red Wings over the weekend, they proved they are strong enough to contend all season. Columbus is a good market with a lot of good people committed to making NHL hockey work long-term. The on-ice product is absolutely headed in the right direction, which is paramount to the franchise's overall success.

I hope you will eventually write about the Minnesota Wild. Every magazine predicted this team to be last in the Northwest Division, but somehow It is overcoming odds and doing better, unlike last season. Would you consider Minnesota to be the 'Colorado Avalanche' of this season?

-- Gregory, Ann Arbor, MI

The Wild has had some good moments in the early going, but they don't qualify as a surprise to me yet. It's too early to tell if they will find their way and establish an identity during their second season under coach Todd Richards. I'll reserve judgment until I see them improve their 5-on-5 productivity and exhibit a pace of play that consistently puts pressure on opponents. That is what the Avalanche does so well.

We've seen the NFL have all kinds of struggles with the game (and officials) adapting to the new rules on hits to the head. However, in the NHL, the new rules seem to be working: we've seen few brutal headshots/injuries this season. Is this just good fortune or have the NHL players and refs adjusted well?

-- Matt, Warrington, PA

Great topic and question. I think NHL players and referees are continuing to adjust. The added emphasis, due to the rule change regarding hits to the head and blindside shots, certainly has played a role in deterring such plays. It can only help, but the catch is that every reviewed play is unique and still has an element of subjectivity when it comes to supplemental discipline. Perfect? No. Progress? Absolutely.

How about Brian Boyle's start? He has already more than doubled his lifetime output of four goals in a season and we are only quarter of the way through the season!

-- Jeffrey Messinger, Queens, NY

Boyle put in plenty of time to improve his skating this past summer and he received an early chance to play more due to injuries up front in New York. He's a prime example of hard work and opportunity converging, and the Rangers are benefiting.

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