Of course, that doesn't mean it's insignificant -- which is why trends that take shape in the early going may not dictate the course of the season, but they can't be ignored, either. With that in mind, welcome this edition of I Know It's Early, But...
Red Wings fans, always quick to prematurely push the panic button, may finally have something to worry about. The team that always found a way seems lost. The Wings can't score (only one, Tomas Holmstrom, has more than two goals) and can't defend (Nick Lidstrom is the only blueliner not carrying a minus rating). They can't hold a lead (three times they've blown two-goal advantages) and can't win at home (one victory in five tries). Worst of all, they've lost the ability to close out tight games, twice blowing a late lead in just the last two weeks. It's like someone hung a Kryponite necklace around their necks and now every team they've bullied over the last decade is lining up to get their revenge.
Can the Red Wings get it together? Sure...but this feels like more than just an early hiccup. They're carrying nine bodies that weren't wearing the winged wheel when last season started, so there's no denying this is a different team. And while chemistry is an issue, it's not the biggest one.
This team simply isn't as talented as last season's squad. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are too good not to get their legs under them at some point, but they can't compensate for the loss of Johan Franzen on top of all the summer defections. So now the defensive issues that could be overcome with rapid-fire offense in 2008-09 are too blatant to cover up in 2009-10.
Jonas Gustavsson looks like the sizable piece of the puzzle that's been missing in Toronto. During their early swoon, the Leafs looked like a team that needed someone, anyone, to believe in. Despite allowing seven goals in two starts since returning from the IR, Gustavsson has been that guy. The Monster hasn't yet stood on his head, but he's made the type of saves that show his teammates he can keep them in the game. That's changed them from the hot potato-tossers they were when Vesa Toskala was between the pipes into the more aggressive unit that just took three of four points from Anaheim and Dallas...on the road, no less. The Leafs are still making mistakes, but there's a clear sense that they're not as afraid to make them...and that's all on Gustavsson...
I'm already starting to waffle on my preseason prediction that this would be the year that passed without a single coach being fired. The frustrating inconsistency of the Ducks makes Randy Carlyle the leading candidate to prove me wrong, and that may be even more stupefying than the prognostication.
Coming off a strong finish to 2008-09, Anaheim looked to have everything going for them. They added much-needed secondary scoring (Saku Koivu, Joffrey Lupul) and had blossoming talents in James Wisniewski and Luca Sbisa that should have helped to balance out the loss of Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin on the back end. It hasn't worked out that way, and when Carlyle admitted the blame belongs on his shoulders, it was more than just deflecting the heat from his players. He was right in admitting culpability.
The Ducks have yet to put together a 60-minute effort, the special teams are largely ineffective and his game plan seems ill-suited for the talent at his disposal. Ryan Whitney suggested as much when he said that the team "hasn't bought into the system yet." The reason: they recognize it's not going to work for them.
The next couple weeks could decide Carlyle's fate, and a brutal schedule that features a pair against the Penguins and Coyotes and singles against the Canucks, Wings, Devils and Blue Jackets suggests that he probably shouldn't make any long-term plans in the Orange County area.
Who might step in if Carlyle fails to right the ship? Kevin Dineen's stock may be slipping with the dismal start of the Portland Pirates, but last season's hot name has a long history with the organization. Dallas Eakins, currently coaching the Toronto Marlies and a protege of former Ducks' GM Brian Burke, is another strong possibility.
I think the Devils could be in trouble without Paul Martin. His absence -- he'll be out until December with a broken arm -- might be even tougher to bridge than was Martin Brodeur's last season. How so? New Jersey was able to survive the long-term loss of the superstar netminder because their system minimized the quality of scoring opportunities faced by his replacement. But that system works because they put players in a position to succeed, so it's easy to imagine it straining without the steady, two-way play of Martin holding it together.
Want proof? Take another look at 2007-08. The Devils had a 3-6 record last season without Martin, and two of those wins came against an AHL-caliber Lightning squad. They buckled without their glue. New Jersey managed to win Thursday night against the undermanned Bruins, but they'll be in tight for the next six weeks if they ask for too much more from the likes of Mike Mottau, Bryce Salvador and Cory Murphy.
It's never too soon for Colin Campbell to give his head a shake. The season's less than a month old and already the NHL's chief wrist-slapper has managed to add to his history of confounding disciplinary decisions. Compare the checks that earned Steve Ott a two-game suspension ... and Rob Scuderi just a fine.
The first is a textbook hip check on the Blues' Carlo Colaiacovo thrown by a player with a reputation for straddling the rules. The second, Scuderi's, is an undeniably low blow from a defender with a background of tough but clean play. So, essentially, the league is saying that history is more important than action in determining punishment. Funny thing is, it would have been easier to justify nailing Ott for the knee-on-knee hit he threw at B.J. Crombeen later in the game.
Just as confounding: Slava Kozlov evades supplementary discipline for dangerously crosschecking Scott Gomez head-first into the boards while Tuomo Ruutu was nailed three games for hammeringDarcy Tucker from behind. It seems as though the absence of injury mitigated the former while Tucker's concussion exacerbated the latter. I doubt anyone would suggest that the extent of the damage shouldn't be taken into consideration, but the ability of the victim to skate away under his own power shouldn't be a de facto get out of jail free card, either.
The hits-to-the-head issue isn't going away. Mike Richards' quelling ofDavid Booth appeared to be within the rules -- Campbell's decision not to tack on a suspension suggests as much -- but the image of the Panthers forward face down on the ice raised a reasonable question: should it be legal?
I fully believe that hitting is as intrinsic to the game as scoring and don't want to see rules enacted that diminish the physical element. At the same time, it's clear that, for all the talk from players about respect, there's not an awful lot of it in the game. An opponent's head is, for many players, a fair target. In fact, more than a few players and commentators described this play as a "clean hit to the head" in the aftermath, and that may have been more shocking to me than the actual blow.
In my book, the only clean hit to a head comes when gloves are dropped and both players accept the imminent danger. Anything beyond that deserves a second look.
So, what should the league do to minimize the chance of another career-ending concussion...or worse? First, address the hard caps on shoulder and elbow pads. Ask players and they'll tell you that those things are as responsible for the carnage as the impact itself. Campbell has said that the NHL is considering unilateral implementation of restrictions regarding pads because instability within the NHLPA is dragging out the process. If it happens (forgive my skeptical nature), then good on him. As 75 years of the game's history shows, shoulders and elbows don't need to be armored like an assault vehicle to be protected.
But that's a rather passive step, isn't it? It's like strapping a pillow on the baby's bottom instead of taking him off the balcony. The NHL needs to follow the lead of the Ontario Hockey League, which instituted a specific head checking penalty in 2005 and...surprise!...has seen no dip in hard, physical play. Allow the refs to penalize this contact with something other than an intent-to-injure major (which they clearly hate to call, given the game-changing advantage it creates) that will also give them leeway to recognize that size discrepancies and the speed of the game -- and yes, sometimes the actions of the victim -- make some head contact unavoidable.
The presence of such a rule wouldn't eliminate the infraction, but it might give pause to that growing number of players who see a cheap shot to the head as just another way to make a statement.
I'm thinking the Americans are starting to look like a serious contender at the Olympics. Canada always enters these tournaments with two distinct advantages: superior goaltending and a confidence built on a legacy of winning. The U.S. won't be able to match that swagger, especially with a transitional lineup up front. But, in Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson, they have the type of goaltending that's capable of stealing not just a game, but a medal.
"Miller's getting a lot of [defensive] help that he hasn't in the past," one scout said of his hot start in Buffalo, "but he's taken his game up, too. I haven't seen anyone playing better this season. Give him a lead, he locks it down. If [the Americans] give him a couple goals, he's going to be tough to beat."
Marc-Andre Fleury won't start the tournament for Canada, but he will finish it. It's not just a matter of winning more big games than anyone over the last two years -- he's been the country's best stopper this season. And if the Canadian brass learned anything from past defeats, it's the importance of going with Mr. Right Now.
Doesn't Colorado need to start mixing in the occasional win in the face-off circle? Last season, the seven teams with the lowest winning percentage in the circle missed the postseason, and right now the Avs are dead last in the league at 45.9 percent. So many breaks are going the way of the NHL's hottest team right now that this hasn't been an issue...yet. But when their balloon pops, don't be surprised if their inability to control the puck off the draw serves as the needle.
Doesn't Colorado's Greg Sherman look like a solid candidate for executive of the year? Granted, the laurels for hiring Joe Sacco (who's quickly proving his mettle with his adroit handling of Wojtek Wolski) should be heaped on Pierre Lacroix, but he was in charge when the team signed Anderson (who just tied the mark for best record in October at 10-1), drafted two players (Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly) who stepped directly into the lineup, and signed veteran Milan Hejduk to an extension. That's a promising start for the former accountant whose hiring was lampooned in many corners, including this one.