By Allan Muir
You've seen the early results. The question is can you take them at face value? Here are 17 teams that have given us a pretty good idea of what they're about:
The Real Deals
Boston Bruins: Outside of Shawn Thornton's concussion, the beating that Buffalo laid on them last week was exactly what Boston needed. Their compete level is up. This team is deep and extremely well coached. Tuukka Rask looks like he's up to the challenge of replacing the Colorado Kid. They're going deep.
New Jersey Devils: My first mistake this year: Thinking it was finally safe to consign the Devils to the dustbin. This group is the ideal hockey team, so much more than the sum of its parts. Adam Henrique has been on a tear (4-2-6 in seven games) since returning from surgery, David Clarkson looks exactly like the guy who surprised everyone with 30 goals last season, and the defense is allowing a scant two goals per game. The Devils look more than capable of repeating as Eastern champs.
Chicago Blackhawks: I questioned his No. 1 potential after a couple of familiarly soft goals in Dallas, but Corey Crawford has silenced me and every other doubter with his focused play. With that type of goaltending, the Hawks are the class of the league. (HACKEL: Keys to Chicago's hot start.)
Vancouver Canucks: Don't think you can say enough about what Alain Vigneault's done with a team that has no second-line center, a faltering power play, a failing power play quarterback, and a raging goalie controversy, but still has the fifth-best record in the league.
Pittsburgh Penguins: They have issues, sure, but they're better than they've shown. The Zach Boychuk experiment looks like a flop, so GM Ray Shero may have to find wing help somewhere other than the scrap pile. Sidney Crosby has been better than his numbers, and he's healthy. He'll lead a second-half surge to get the Pens back into contention for the conference title.
Tap the Brakes
San Jose Sharks: A team that drank deeply from a bountiful power play early on is finding it tough to secure points now that the well has gone bone dry. Patrick Marleau is neither the goal-per-game stud of the season's first five matches nor the impotent empty sweater that he's been during the past five. Same with Joe Thornton. Those two guys will contribute as the season progresses, but finding a consistent level would be helpful if the Sharks are going to do more than just hang on for a low seed.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Even though Phil Kessel shot blanks for 10 games and Mike Kostka was asked to impersonate a top-two defenseman, the Leafs have proved to be surprisingly effective. James Reimer looks like a legitimate No. 1, the team is playing with a pack mentality, and they're cutting down on mistakes. It seems like the good times will never end...but Leafs fans have seen this act before. The key from here on will be the team's ability to turn the Air Canada Centre into a house of horrors for visitors (just like on Monday night, although Reimer suffered a lower body injury) and not themselves, and stockpile points at home.
Anaheim Ducks: So much to like about this hot start. Teemu Selanne playing like he's 25. Sheldon Souray playing like he's 25. Viktor Fasth playing like he's someone you've heard of. And they're tearing it up despite getting just one goal from the guy who is now carrying Kessel's old gorilla: Corey Perry. He's likely to break out of this slump, but it's unreasonable to expect the other three to maintain that level of play. The Ducks may stay in the playoff mix, but don't expect them to lead the division.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs might not be the annual Andrei Markov injury away from flirting with irrelevance, but it's still a pretty fine line with this team. On the bright side, they can expect real contributions from Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban in the coming weeks, and Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher have more than a little something to offer, giving hope that this start isn't a mirage.
Climb off the Ledge
New York Rangers: John Tortorella has all the ingredients he needs, but he's still trying to find the right recipe. Injuries to Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi haven't helped, and he's still tinkering with the penalty kill. (Newcomer Darrell Powe will be an asset once he settles in.) Eventually, Torts will put it all together.
Philadelphia Flyers: Who would have thought that goaltending would be the least of Philly's concerns? Ilya Bryzgalov has been sending out distress signals in between episodes of head-standing and wondering what a guy has to do to get a little defense around here. Injuries are an issue, but the bigger problem seems to be a creeping strain of conservative play. Philly is at its best when it plays brash, aggressive hockey. Once Claude Giroux shifts out of first gear, they'll find their way.
Los Angeles Kings: No need to remind me of their frantic push to make the playoffs last spring, followed by one of the most impressive runs to the Stanley Cup ever staged. Clearly you can't count these guys out. At least, not if they still had Wiilie Mitchell and Matt Greene -- the two core defenders are lost for the season -- and Jonathan Quick looked remotely like the player who earned the Conn Smythe last June. The Kings are in trouble, but there's too much talent and too much experience for them to let this slide much longer.
Phoenix Coyotes: A systems-based team like Phoenix was bound to be hurt by the absence of a full camp. Now that they've had a few games to find their rhythm and discipline, look for the Coyotes to regain their dangerous 2012 form.
Washington Capitals: You have to feel for Adam Oates. Given a traditional training camp and a full-size season to work in his new system, he might have made a believer (and a player) out of Alex Ovechkin and gotten the most out of an above-average group. Instead, he's trying to make it work on the fly while his two young goaltenders remind everyone nightly why keeping Tomas Vokoun would have been a prudent move. With a 4.9 percent chance to make the playoffs according to sportsclubstats.com, it's almost time to cash in on some vets and hope for a break with the new draft lottery.
Minnesota Wild: They are proving that you can't spend your way out of mediocrity. Zach Parise has delivered as promised, but secondary scorers Mikael Granlund, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Devin Setoguchi have offered little support. Ryan Suter is starting to round into form and rookie Jonas Brodin appears ready for prime time, but it all feels like so many mismatched parts right now.
Florida Panthers: The defending Southeast champs already have racked up a minus-15 goal differential thanks in part to an offense that's created just 25 goals -- both are conference lows. Injuries, soft goaltending...they have plenty of excuses, but it feels like the team that overachieved in 2011-12 has taken two steps back. Columbus Blue Jackets: "We finished last with Rick Nash, we can finish last without him." Consider that hypothesis proven.