Every Friday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot-button issues. This week, Sam Page, Michael Blinn and Al Muir talk about early disasters, surprise teams, fourth lines and maybe the most important question they've tackled yet. First up:
• It’s Halloween weekend fellas, and while the season is still young we’ve already seen plenty of horror shows. Which early disaster stands out in your mind?
Michael Blinn: When your first power play unit involves Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby, you’d think the natural talent would add up to more than just three goals in 32 chances through 10 games. A quintuplet that everyone thought would be straight-up lethal hasn’t found its stride just yet. The Penguins better hope it does, because they can’t rely on Marc-André Fleury every night while Mike Johnston searches for an answer.
Sam Page: The Ducks are averaging one goal per game. One. Even with the usual small sample size caveats, that’s hard to believe. Only Mike Santorelli has a shooting percentage in double digits, and he’s taken all of nine shots ... and he leads the team with two goals! I have little doubt they’ll turn it around, and I’m furiously proposing trades for their best players in my fantasy hockey league. But woof.
Al Muir: I know I wasn’t the only one who got suckered in by Columbus’s 15-1-1 finish last season, but come on, my preseason prediction of Todd Richards as the Jack Adams Award winner might be the horror show of the year. Of course, the rest of my calls were right on the money (Anaheim can still win the Cup, right?), so it’ll all come out in the wash.
On the ice, how about Dougie Hamilton? There’s a player I thought would solidify Calgary’s back end, but instead he’s reminded everyone that he’s still just 22 and pretty early in his development. I have no doubt he’ll be fine in the long run, but he’s been a garbage fire of poor positioning and worse decision-making early on.
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• Now that we’re through the first 10-game segment of the season, which of last season’s non-playoff teams has impressed you the most?
MB: Alright, Page, I think it’s finally my week to make the homer pick in this space. In my season preview, I wrote that the Bruins’ offense is built largely on potential, and if not met, Zdeno Chara and Co. will be watching the playoffs with the rest of us at the local bar. Instead, the team is scoring at a league-high pace of 4.13 goals per game, and while Tuukka Rask is finding his game behind a defense that’s struggling on a nightly basis, there is hope in an Atlantic Division that’s saw everyone except the Canadiens hit speed bumps out of the gate. Well, that, and the fact Rask has to return to elite form at some point ... right?
SP: Mike stole my preseason sleeper pick. But I’ll say the Coyotes, whose winning record seems unbelievable given how poorly they played last season. The keys to their past success have all stuck around—coach Dave Tippett, goalie Mike Smith, captain Shane Doan—but they’ve got a new dimension thanks to youngsters Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. Domi in particular looks incredible and could challenge Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel for the Calder Trophy. Also lost in 2014-15’s fiasco in the desert was Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s breakout as a goal-scorer. He’s still shooting like crazy this season and I think the puck will start finding the net.
AM: I’d say the Stars but that’s almost too obvious, so I’ll take the Kings. They were repeating all the same mistakes that doomed them early on last season, but they’ve been a different team the past two weeks. Jonathan Quick is focused. The defense, with Jamie McBain and Brayden McNabb pitching in, has settled down nicely. And the forward group finally seems to be in sync since Milan Lucic was pulled off the Anze Kopitar–Marian Gaborik line and slotted alongside Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli. They’re playing big, nasty, determined hockey again, and that’s bad news for the rest of the West. Shout out to the Devils, too. Playing some pesky hockey and finally giving poor Cory Schneider some support.
• Is there a playoff team from 2014-15 that you’re starting to worry about?
MB: If you're not worried about the Ducks, you’re obviously a fan of another Western Conference team. That’s right, I'm looking at you, Sam. Nothing is going right in Anaheim. Poor Frederik Andersen—he’s been great but even that hasn’t been good enough to prevent a 1-7-2 start. The team can’t generate shots or scoring chances. Unless there’s some kind of turnaround, it seems like Bruce Boudreau and the Ducks will face an earlier-than-expected end to their season.
SP: I kinda liked the Flames coming into this season. They played way over their heads last year, but they aggressively added good players in the off-season and their core seemed young enough to get better with or without more help. But if their goalies can’t stop the puck, they’re going to be a plain bad team this season (duh).
AM: I wouldn’t say worried, exactly, but I haven’t been impressed by the Red Wings. To be fair they’re missing Pavel Datsyuk and coach Jeff Blashill deserves some time to make his adjustments, especially on the back end. But they’ve won just one of their past six games, and for the season they’re generating the fewest shots in the league while allowing the sixth most. That’s not exactly a model for success. I think this weekend’s home-and-home with the Senators, another team that’s trying to find its footing, will be telling.
• Who has the best fourth line in the league?
SP: The Canadiens have probably the most productive fourth line so far—Torrey Mitchell has five goals already. But I like what the Rangers have in Jarret Stoll–Dominic Moore–whoever. That line boasts the two-way ability that all great fourth lines have. They take a lot of defensive zone face-offs (they start over half their shifts there—only Nashville’s Paul Gaustad and Eric Nystrom have a more extreme split). Given that Moore and Stoll are both natural centers with opposite handedness, they can alternate who takes the face-offs depending on the defensive zone dot. Playing the matchups for face-offs is a little extreme, but it works. They’ve won 56% so far, while splitting duties evenly. They’re both also former 40-point guys. Add Viktor Stalberg or Emerson Etem into that mix and other teams will have to treat all of New York’s lines as scoring threats.
AM: For what they’re asked to do, I don’t know if anyone is more effective than the Islanders’ trio of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Martin leads the league in hits, Clutterbuck is top-10 and Cizikas isn't far behind. They're instant energy and they keep the opposition honest. But I’ll take Vern Fiddler, Antoine Roussel and Colton Sceviour in Dallas. They bring the same sort of relentless energy as the Isles trio, but a bit more speed and a bit more offensive potential. Fiddler—man, you watch that guy for a few games and I dare you not to love him.
MB: I’m going to go with my gut and give it to the Lightning, who iced a trio of Alex Killorn–Brian Boyle–JT Brown on Thursday against the Avalanche. It’s a crew of players that have done a little bit of everything in their careers, and they have the ability to contribute on the score sheet and in plenty of other ways. As far as fourth lines go, that’s a pretty talented one.
• Finally, of grave importance, the best Halloween candy is...?
MB: Does beer count as candy? If it does, I vote for beer. If it doesn’t, then I pick Smarties and suggest we all reevaluate our candy priorities.
SP: Smarties, Mike? Those are the sugar pills they use as placebos in clinical drug trials. The best Halloween candy is Kit-Kat. I feel strongly about this answer.
AM: Maybe he means Canadian Smarties, which are a vastly superior version of M&M's. Kit-Kat IS a solid choice. So is 100 Grand, which packs a lot of candy value even in a fun-size version. But the greatest of all Halloween candy is anything full-size. Nothing better than emptying out the bag and discovering one of those. To those of you who are dishing out the real thing on Saturday night, I tip my cap. You are the heroes.