Goaltender Ben Bishop
has been a godsend for the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning
. (Scott Audette/Getty Images)
By Allan Muir
At 20 games, give or take, into the 2013-14 regular season, it can't hurt to pause for a bit of reflection on what's come to pass so far.
We've already cast a cold, clear, beady eye at the players who have established themselves as the front-runners for the major NHL awards, so now we're moved to assess those who have notably stepped up on the ice and in the front office during the early going...and some who were stepped upon.
Winner: Steve Yzerman
Tampa's GM had the courage late last season to do something that usually happens only in fantasy hockey: He took the risk of dealing a prime young asset at the height of his value to address a glaring need. So far, that's worked out pretty well. Cory Conacher is a forgotten part of Ottawa's offense with two goals through 20 games, while goaltender Ben Bishop--Yzerman's missing piece--leads the league with 13 wins and has the Bolts sitting atop the Eastern Conference.
Loser: Steve Yzerman
When Steven Stamkos went down with a fractured leg last week, Yzerman simultaneously lost his best player on both the Lightning and, arguably, Team Canada. Now that's a tough break.
The Edmonton defenseman shattered his leg in a 2011 exhibition game incident that helped pave the way for the adoption of hybrid icing. He missed one full season while in recovery, then spent last year in the AHL before finally getting his shot in the NHL earlier this month. He toasted his successful journey by scoring goals in each of his first two games with the Oilers.
You really have to feel for the guy who said last summer that "the Olympics mean everything to me." With the NHL unlikely to participate in South Korea in 2018, Stamkos may have missed his last, best chance to star on the big stage.
Buried (and justifiably so) on Boston's third line last season, Seguin wore the look of a player who was comfortable just punching the clock. Now in Dallas and back to playing his natural position, he's been every bit the offensive dynamo as advertised during the run-up to the 2010 draft. Credit his chemistry with Jamie Benn for a good part of his breakthrough, but he also deserves credit for keeping his nose clean and sticking to hockey.
The transition to Boston and, in particular, Patrice Bergeron's wing hasn't gone as seamlessly as expected. Eriksson has struggled with coach Claude Julien's system and, perhaps, the weight of expectations. Both his offense and two-way game have suffered. He's starting to pick up his play of late--he might have been Boston's best player in a loss to Ottawa during the weekend--but he has a ways to go to find his comfort level.
Winner: Patrick Roy
We all thought he would be a good fit behind the bench in Colorado, but there were plenty of lingering doubts...at least until that opening-night tirade that let the young Avs know he wouldn't be pushed around, and he wouldn't allow them to be pushed around either. He's facing his first real hardship now with the team having dropped three straight, but he can point to the lessons learned during that record-setting first quarter to get the Avs back on track.
Loser: Dallas Eakins
You'd run out of fingers before places to point them when looking to assign blame for Edmonton's disastrous start. But there's no doubt that Eakins--the consensus for best coach-in-waiting before he was hired last summer--deserves a considerable share. A year older and wiser, the young Oilers should be making forward progress. Instead, they're playing a confidence-free game and execute with all the discipline of a junior team in their own end. That's on the coach.
Winner: Alex Steen
How unexpected is his first quarter success? A player who has never scored more than 24 goals or 51 points in a season leads the league with 26 points and is tied with Alex Ovechkin at the top of the goal-scoring charts with 17. Coach Ken Hitchcock says his attention to detail and defense is the reason why Steen has blossomed offensively...but of course the coach would say that.
A near-lock for Team Canada coming into the season, he's been downgraded to a bubble player, at best. With just one goal through 19 games, Giroux's struggles have been so profound that there has been talk of stripping him of his captaincy in Philadelphia.
A guy playing professional sports while battling MS has somehow turned that struggle into a non-issue while emerging as the game's top stopper through the first quarter. His numbers (12 wins, 1.25 GAA, .946 save percentage) reflect the calm, controlled game that he's brought consistently this season.
Whatever magic powered the second-half surge he rode all the way to the Vezina Trophy last season has vanished, leaving a goalie who is struggling to distinguish himself from the lower tier of the league's starters.
The 41-year-old legend finished the first quarter strong, going on a 6-1-0 tear with a 1.15 GAA and .952 save percentage to go along with a pair of shutouts. Just don't mention Team Canada to him, whatever you do...
A truly tough guy wouldn't pull a punk move like that.
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Winner: Colorado's offense
Ranked 29th last year (2.38 goals per game), they've bolted to fifth in the early going this season (3.10). The difference? It starts with a more effective transition game and finishes with a deeper, better balanced forward corps. Matt Duchene's breakthrough, Paul Stastny's rebound and the addition of first-overall pick Nathan MacKinnon have helped transform the Avs into one of the league's most dangerous teams.
Loser: Montreal's offense
The Habs ranked fourth overall in goals scored in 2013. This season? They're 21st. With offensive keystones Max Pacioretty, Daniel Briere and David Desharnais mired in deep slumps, they've scored two goals or fewer in nine of their last 11 games.
For a guy who seemed to be in an impossible situation coming into this season, Luongo responded magnificently, putting together his best opening month in years and setting himself up as a possible starter for Canada in Sochi.
Not that he's performed badly. To the contrary, he's been brilliant, but playing behind a team that seemed to invent new ways to self -destruct on a nightly basis has clearly eaten away at him. Even with the change behind the Sabres; bench and upstairs, this team's not going anywhere this season. For the sake of his mental health, Miller deserves to be liberated, and the sooner, the better.
Winner: Jim Nill
Go ahead and start engraving the Executive of the Year award with his name. What he's done with a Dallas franchise that bordered on hopeless for the last several years only serves to prove that everyone who labeled him the next great GM was right on the money.
Loser: Craig MacTavish
Still waiting for those bold moves you promised, Mac T...and no, swapping out Ladislav Smid and bringing in Ilya Bryzgalov won't cut it.
Winner: Player safety
Hybrid icing hasn't exactly earned universal acclaim, but we've yet to see the sort of violent collision in pursuit of a dumped puck to led to Fedun's tragic injury. That makes a few sketchy calls along the way a price well worth paying.
Losers: Fight fans
Mandatory visors, penalties for the removal of helmets, fines for putting roughneck players on the ice in volatile situations, serious discussions about new sanctions to punish combatants...the winds of change are blowing strong this season. Fighting may never be abolished, but its place in the game is slowly being whittled away despite the clear preferences of players and the paying public.
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Winner: Western Conference
Loser: Eastern ConferenceThis
pretty much says it all.