By Stu Hackel
It's the All-Star break and the stretch run is nearly upon us. Each NHL team has played in the neighborhood of 50 games, a fairly strong sample to gauge what kind of club it has this season. The trade deadline is about a month away, so things could change, but let's pose a simple question today: How happy are the fans of each NHL team at this point in the season?
Here's how the fans of the Eastern Conference teams might be feeling. (Click here for my take on the West.)
Atlanta Thrashers: A couple of weeks ago, you would have said that their fans were happy. Now, they're just nervous. The Thrashers certainly were (and remain) in the playoff hunt and have even challenged for the division lead at times. But they've only won two of their last nine, they've lost All-Star defenseman Tobias Enstrom for up to a month with a broken finger, and his partner Dustin Byfuglien hasn't registered a point in 10 games after a terrific first half. The team has a new identity in the post-Kovalchuk era and their games have been entertaining, but they'll need a strong push to secure a playoff spot.
Boston Bruins: Marc Savard is concussed again, although he was not producing offensively. Yet, the Bruins have gotten offense from elsewhere -- Mark Recchi, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and, unexpectedly, Brad Marchand to go along with strong bounce-backs from Tim Thomas, who's been superb in goal, and rugged Milan Lucic...
...who has rediscovered his game up front. The Bruins have a solid defense led by Zdeno Chara and make up for any lack of team speed with characteristic hard work and physical play. So B's fans should be happy with their first place standing in the Northeast and would be even happier if their team can redeem itself after that seven-game playoff collapse to Philadelphia last year.
Buffalo Sabres: Their fans are happier now than they were around Christmas, but while their team has been winning lately (9-3-1 in its last 13) and closed the gap between it and the eighth spot from 12 to six points, it staggering for much of the first half. The Sabres are trying to get by without Derek Roy, who is out for the season with a knee injury, and Tomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford have all stepped up their play. How long they can continue remains the open question. Goaltender Ryan Miller hasn't been as dominant and, in some part, that's because team's defense is shaky.
Carolina Hurricanes: Their fans should be pleased that the 'Canes have enjoyed a hot January, even though they are still just south of the playoff cutoff. Not only is Eric Staal entering superstar status (he's scored more goals than Alex Ovechkin!), he doesn't have to carry the offense now that rookie Jeff Skinner, not yet 19, has emerged as a serious scoring threat. Apart from those two and Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen, Carolina doesn't get lots of offensive consistency elsewhere and coach Paul Maurice constantly fiddles with his lines to get them going. But Cam Ward continues to give them good enough goaltending to win on most nights. Still, being hot and staying hot are different and Caniacs would be happier if their team had a more balanced attack.
Florida Panthers: Their fans are perennially an unhappy lot now on the verge of their 10th straight year out of the playoffs. But this season has to be especially difficult since the Southeast Division as a whole has improved and their team hasn't kept pace. Seven points below the cutoff, the postseason isn't impossible, but a decision to be a trade deadline buyer or seller is looming. Unlike the Oilers who are well-stocked with promising young players, this is a veteran team that probably needs a youthful infusion. One can try to find the positives in Pantherland, but those who point to the good penalty kill must be confronted with the league-worst power play. Those who take consolation in Florida being better than many expected are outnumbered by those who point out how often the Panthers blow leads, not to mention their league-worst 10 one-goal losses. The biggest positive may be that Florida has seven veterans with expiring contracts and a few on reasonable deals who might fetch some assets to fuel a rebuild.
Montreal Canadiens: They may be 10 points ahead of last season's pace, but happiness in Montreal is a game-by-game proposition. It changes like the weather. The Canadiens' 5-2 loss to the Flyers before the break turned things stormy because the long-standing bugaboos of lack of size and team toughness has left fans thinking that the Habs still can't get past Philly in a playoff series. Everyone's happy with Carey Price's goaltending...
...but injuries on defense and inconsistency among the forwards are causing fans to wonder how their team can reproduce last spring's playoff thrills. And the thought of missing the postseason altogether has crossed their minds, as well. Of course, it could all change with a big win in their next game on Tuesday.
New Jersey Devils: Their fans were the most unhappy in the league until Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean behind the bench and started working on the team's confidence and conditioning. It didn't take too long for the W's to start piling up, but the Devils had so few in the first half that a recent run of six and a regulation tie in seven games couldn't lift them from last place overall. Marty Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk and the other veterans have awoken under Lemaire, who has them playing a more aggressive style than his teams normally do. Their play in their own zone has tightened, much to Brodeur's relief, and suddenly, New Jersey is no longer a pushover. So Devils fans should be happier, except for those who believe that GM Lou Lamoriello should have acted sooner. Oh, and those who hoped for an awful season and a chance at a high draft choice. They would be glad to be unhappy.
New York Islanders - The most alienated fan base in the league hasn't enjoyed a rebuilding season of the kind Oilers fans are witnessing even though the Islanders' roster is filled with young talent. The combination of injuries, a coaching change and trades that removed their best offensive defenseman and top goaltender have made this another miserable winter. A seven-game win streak (and eight of nine) that started before the holidays couldn't be sustained and the Isles grabbed only seven of 24 points afterward. The franchise's future on Long Island is very uncertain, the losing keeps the seats vacant and that, combined with the lack of revenue a modern arena generates, has forced ownership to keep payroll at rock bottom. None of this will last forever, but in the here and now, Isles fans can only wonder where their team will be (geographically speaking) if and when the young talent finally develops.
New York Rangers: After years of retooling with expensive past-their-prime veterans, the Rangers finally went young and, even with significant injuries to important players, this team, while not among the league's elite, is on the rise and making its fans happier than they've been since perhaps the Gretzky-Messier reunion season 14 years ago. Along with familiar names like Lundqvist, Gaborik, Drury and Avery, the new stars on Broadway include All-Star Marc Staal leading a young defense corps; big Brian Boyle, a surprise goal scorer; tenacious Ryan Callahan, the soul of the group; and Brandon Dubinsky (currently injured), a top line center and leader. An excellent road team (17 wins), the Rangers lead the league in hits and hits in opposing teams' arenas. They're far from perfect and aren't always defensively aware, but no team works harder game in, game out. The Rangers are almost never out of a contest, evidenced by their league-best seven wins when trailing after two periods.
Ottawa Senators; No one is happy in Ottawa -- the fans, the players, the coach, the GM, the owner, the media and probably Parliament and the Prime Minister, too. The Senators have the league's worst goal differential (-52) and are on pace for a 69-point season after making the playoffs last year with 94. Yes, there have been injuries -- Jason Spezza most notably -- but there have also been big disappointments, starting with poor goaltending, the play of free agent signee Sergei Gonchar, almost all the forwards from captain Daniel Alfredsson to often invisible Alex Kovalev, to relative youngsters Nick Foligno and Peter Regin. The housecleaning begins as soon as GM Bryan Murray pulls the trigger on his first trade -- and after the season, it may include him and coach Cory Clouston.
Philadelphia Flyers: The Orange Army has to be ecstatic with their first-place team, especially the way the Flyers survived Chris Pronger's injury absence by going 9-4 in the 13 games he missed. With strength down the middle (Mike Richards, Danny Briere and Claude Giroux/Jeff Carter -- each of whom have over 40 points thus far) and a fine blueline corps anchored by Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, Philly leads the league with 120 five-on-five goals. The Flyers keep their poise all game, and have the league's best record when leading after one and two periods. They can dominate with size and toughness and have enough speed and skill to win most of the track meets, too. The only question remains in goal, and while some fans may be happy with Sergei Bobrovski and Brian Boucher, not everyone is as convinced.
Pittsburgh Penguins: It's hard to imagine that with the injuries to the Big Three this season -- Jordan Staal out until Jan. 1; Evgeni Malkin in and out with various aliments; Sidney Crosby's concussion -- this team would still be challenging for the conference lead. Fortunately, all three stars haven't been out simultaneously and, for all the talk about their offensive might, the Pens are a strong defensive club. So while their fans may bemoan the loss of their stars up front, they can't be unhappy with how the depth players and especially the solid blueline corps, led by Kris Letang...
...have stepped up to keep the team from falling behind. Marc-Andre Fleury shook off a bad start to recapture his form, and his backup, Brent Johnson, has come through when needed most. Only Boston has allowed fewer goals than the Pens.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Now here's a happy group of fans. If your team went from fifth-worst in the NHL to third-best, you'd be happy, too. The Lightning lead the Southeast Division, have won five straight and own a franchise-best 67 points after 51 games. Coach Guy Boucher is a Jack Adams Award candidate, NHL scoring leader Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis are both Hart Trophy candidates, GM Steve Yzerman's deal for Dwayne Roloson looks good (7-3 with a 2.25 GAA and a .922 save percentage), the defense is playing better and even Simon Gagne has started scoring again.
Toronto Maple Leafs: There's very little to be pleased about in Leafs Nation. The fans were promised the playoffs, but the Leafs are 26th overall and fading. They were promised proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence, but when Nikolai Kulemin unwisely engaged with Tim Gleason last week...
...no Leaf rushed to his aid and only offered postgame words that criticized Gleason. Toronto has little in the way of top young talent and the Leafs traded top draft picks for 2010 and 2011 for fleet-footed Phil Kessel, who has 19 goals and is minus-19. The rebuilt defense corps does more standing around than standing out. The only things that might give Leaf fans hope is that AHL call-up James Reimer played better in goal recently than either injury-prone J.S. Gigeure or leaky Jonas Gustavsson, and legal charges were dropped against the fan who threw a box of waffles at the Leafs in December.
Washington Capitals: It's hard to be a fan of a team with great expectations, and Caps fans can't be overly happy with the inconsistency this season. The team is on pace to finish 20 points below its President's Trophy campaign of 2009-10. The Caps average a goal less per game -- a substantial drop in one season -- supposedly in the cause of sacrificing for team defense. They have cut their goals-against by slightly more than a third of a tally per game. But prolonged slumps by their top offensive players -- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble -- remain troublesome, and the search for top flight goaltending remains elusive. The Caps have developed some shutdown ability and curbed their racehorse tendencies, but it's not entirely clear if these changes will be fruitful this spring or if their first-round knockout last spring has left some unhealed wounds.