Isles on upswing; Rangers' bright and dark spots; more plusses, minuses
Some notable positives and negatives to come out of the NHL season's first full week of action:
• Think about the Islanders at the end of last season and you see their best player, John Tavares, on crutches after being hurt at the Sochi Olympics. It was a sort of microcosm of the team, which missed the postseason after a year of promise that ended with a respectable six-game loss to the Penguins in the 2013 playoffs. Now, in a huge year for a franchise that is about to move to Brooklyn, Tavares leads the NHL with seven assists and nine points. His winning goal in the shootout against San Jose on Thursday night, outwaiting Sharks goalie Alex Stalock, lifted the Isles to a 4-0 mark to start the season.
• Here’s a nod to Boston forward Simon Gagne, who on Thursday night scored his first goal since April 23, 2013 -- that one came against his current team, the Bruins -- and the 298th of a career that began when he was a teenager. Since the 2010-11 season, Gagne, now 34, had amassed only 12 in 71 games during several injury-riddled seasons. His tally against Montreal was also a nod to the league’s liberalized rules governing pucks that go off skates (good goals) as opposed to pucks that players deliberately kick into the net (disallowed goals). This is a good change. And it's a good change, too, to see Gagne back and healthy again.
• How tall is Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher? Is it 5-foot-9 or 6-9? On Thursday night, he was seen nudging and shoving Boston's towering Zdeno Chara in order to get in position to deflect Alexei Emelin’s shot from the point behind Bruins’ goalie Tuukka Rask. Gallagher also went to the net to cash in a rebound by outmuscling defenseman Dougie Hamilton to the goalmouth. Everyone should play that big.
• Darcy Kuemper finally let one in on Friday night, but he's been a rock for a Minnesota team that didn’t know how it was going to solve its goaltending puzzle. In his first two games this season, a 5-0 win against the Avalanche on Oct. 9 and a 3-0 shutout against Colorado two nights later, Kuemper stopped all 46 shots he faced. With teammate Josh Harding down indefinitely with a broken foot, the Wild will ride Kuemper as much as possible and likely be pretty well off.
• Welcome back Rick Nash. The Rangers forward seems to have rediscovered the scoring touch he misplaced during last spring's playoffs. New York managed to get to the Stanley Cup Final despite the fact that Nash, a seven-time 30-goal scorer, couldn’t find the net. Nash was getting chances and shooting. He led all players during the postseason with 83 shots, yet only produced three goals in 25 games. In his first five contests this season, he put in six goals to lead the NHL. The Rangers may be struggling, but Nash is not the reason why. However ...
• The Rangers’ official Twitter account recently quoted head coach Alain Vigneault as saying the team is committing “way too many turnovers” and his veteran defensemen “need to play better.” That’s just the homogenized, watered down official team tweet. Imagine the bad stuff. While allowing 20 goals in their first five games, the Rangers have been awful on the back line. Sure, new defenseman Dan Boyle is missing time with a broken hand and his replacement Mike Kostka has been generous with the puck in his own zone, particularly to the rival Islanders. But in fact none of the Ranger regulars -- Dan Girardi, Mark Staal or new captain Ryan McDonagh -- has been up to the task. New York dropped seven of its first 10 games last season, thanks in part to a lengthy early-season road trip and a new coach's defensive scheme and still managed to reach the Cup final, but any hopes of a good start this season seem to have disappeared.
• There were thousands of fans masquerading as empty seats at the Panthers game against Ottawa on Tuesday night, when an announced crowd of 7,311 watched,or maybe averted some eyes, as the team lost to Ottawa 1-0. This could get worse before it gets better in Florida, where there isn't much to cheer for except the bright futures forecasted for defenseman Aaron Ekblad and winger Jonathan Huberdeau. By the time Ekblad, the No. 1 pick in last spring's draft, matures, the team could be based somewhere in Canada. Florida has scored three goals in its first three games, and the offensively thin Panthers aren’t likely to get much better as the season progresses. Goalie Roberto Luongo will long for his days in Vancouver when things were merely difficult.
• The Oilers have scored 11 goals in five games, just over two per contest, and have allowed 12 more than they have produced. That’s 25 in just five games. It’s remarkable to think that a team brass with Kevin Lowe as president of hockey operations can’t do better than the lack of discipline that coach Dallas Eakins’ group has shown early this season, continuing from an abysmal 2013-14 season. The idea for a so-called "swarm defense" is gone, but there doesn’t seem to be much else in place. Edmonton is a team with a world of talented young forwards, but none of them seems to want to help the Oilers' inept group of backliners or beleaguered goalies Viktor Fasth and Ben Scrivens. Edmonton surrendered a league-high 267 goals in 2013-14 and this season may not be much better.
• Stephen Weiss is in the second season of a contract that will pay him $24.5 million over five years, but that won’t guarantee him a place in the Red Wings’ lineup. Detroit originally picked up the four-time 20-goal scorer in the hope that he could give the team enough depth to allow Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to play together on the top line. But Weiss managed to squeeze out only two goals in 26 games after joining the Wings late last season and he was a healthy scratch in the team's first three games of 2014-15, making his contract and future look rather unhealthy.
• The Maple Leafs still have high hopes for Jake Gardiner, Anaheim’s first pick in the 2008 draft. Gardiner played in 80 games last season and played well in many of them, picking up 10 goals and improving his defensive play, minus some hiccups, as the season progressed. But after posting a -3 rating in Toronto’s first two games, losses to Montreal and Pittsburgh, he sat for the next two, victories against the Rangers and Avalanche. Gardiner, 24, is not a very physical defenseman, but he has some skills that he’ll need to put to better use for a team that is screaming for consistency and dependable play.