With December closing in, the NHL has completed one-quarter of its regular season. (And as my colleague Ken Campbell points out, do not call this the quarter pole.) These points in the campaign always provide an opportunity to take stock of what we've seen so far and identify the teams that have stood out for the right and wrong reasons. With that in mind, here are the league's three biggest pleasant surprises and bitter letdowns to this point:
Biggest pleasant surprises
NEW YORK ISLANDERS. When the Islanders started the season 6-4-0 in the month of October, fans and media were intrigued, if not bowled over; they'd seen the franchise do well in short bursts before, but it never lasted during the reign of GM Garth Snow. But in November, the Isles have been an orange-and-blue steamroller, losing only twice in 12 games since Oct. 30 and beating quality opponents – including Anaheim, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh (in both games of a home-and-home series last week). They're currently riding a five-game win streak, and although there's a chance they could fall back, as long as their key players can stay healthy, the Islanders should contend for a top-four seed in the playoffs. A big reason for that is Snow's off-season acquisitions of Jaroslav Halak, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, who couldn't have worked out better thus far.
CALGARY FLAMES. Expectations for the Flames were about as low as could be entering the season, but under coach Bob Hartley, this young team has drastically exceeded them thanks to an impressive work ethic and some good fortune in the shooting percentage department. Many continue to expect Calgary will at some point take a step backward, but even if it all falls apart from here, what they've shown so far – thanks in large part to brilliant young talents such as rookie Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and the veteran calm of captain Mark Giordano – has earned them a special spot in the hearts of Flames fans.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS. The Preds underwent one of the bigger off-season makeovers of any NHL team last summer, and it's tough to envision the plan of GM David Poile paying bigger dividends: veteran acquisitions James Neal and Mike Ribeiro have combined for 31 points in 22 games; rookie Filip Forsberg is looking like a burgeoning star; new coach Peter Laviolette has loosened the reins once firmly set in place by his predecessor Barry Trotz and his players have responded with inspired hockey; and, most importantly, superstar goalie Pekka Rinne is fully healthy again and making incredible saves a regular occurrence. Like the Isles and Flames, Nashville may experience a drop in the standings, but if things are going well for them come mid-April, they may very well shock a lot more people in the post-season.
EDMONTON OILERS. Incredibly, the lowly Buffalo Sabres have more wins against Western Conference teams this season (2-8-0) than the Oilers (0-11-2), who happen to play in that very conference. Some would (and do) argue widespread changes to the core of the roster and management structure are long overdue, but GM Craig MacTavish's "boldness" has been limited to making fringe alterations and preaching patience. Patience makes sense for many teams, but not for this one, which can out-disappoint any opponent on any given night.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS. The dismay surrounding the Blue Jackets this year doesn't have anything to do with a lack of effort; rather, the culprit is the injury bug that's feasted on their roster, at various points sidelining important members including Nathan Horton (whose career may be over), Brandon Dubinsky, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ryan Murphy and a slew of others. Columbus' stellar team work ethic did a lot for them last season, but with this volume of injuries, it's next to impossible to work ethic your way into a playoff spot.
COLORADO AVALANCHE.The Hockey News heard from some angry Avs fans when we predicted their team would fall from the top of the Central Division (and second place in the Western Conference) last season to a wild card spot this year, but many believed they benefitted from a particularly strong year from goalie Semyon Varlamov in 2013-14 and predicted if that didn't repeat itself, Colorado would be exposed as a team that may have gotten by on some smoke and mirrors. That's happened – and how – and the Avs are second-last in the West, ahead only of the insipid Oilers. Their defense needs more work than people suspected and the free agent signing of Jarome Iginla hasn't worked out particularly well – and if things don't improve soon, coach Patrick Roy may stick his 2013-14 Jack Adams Award in one of his ears to dull the pain of losing.