Season's biggest far

Publish date:

Like the proverbial husband, On the Fly freely admits it often doesn't see things coming.

At the quarter pole of the 2009-10 season, there seems to have been more than the usual number of oddities -- quirks not in our purview a mere two months ago when we were busy playing the Hunchback of Nostradamus and attempting to divine what was going to occur before any games were played. Still, raise your hands if you thought the NHL's leading scorer would hail from the hockey haven of Slovenia? That Rich Peverley would be outscoring Sidney Crosby? That two-time Selke Trophy-winner Rod Brind'Amour would be the leader in the clubhouse for the uncoveted green jacket with a -16 rating?

Right. Thought so.

So, in no particular order, here are our biggest surprises of the first quarter of the NHL season.

In a bit of eye-catching symmetry, the esteemed Crosby ranks 20th in NHL scoring with 20 points in 20 games. The point per game average -- all the following statistics are through Sunday -- is not exactly Armageddon, but consider some of the luminaries Crosby is trailing: Atlanta's Peverley, a center who was so disposable that Nashville, not to be confused with the 1957-58 Canadiens, waived him last January; Tomas Kaberle, the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman who nearly halved his percentage of body fat and is having a swell season in a contract year; the New York Rangers' Vinny Prospal, who benefits from riding shotgun with Marian Gaborik but always seems to produce for coach John Tortorella; and Edmonton's Dustin Penner, the power winger who was six feet under playing for former coach Craig MacTavish but is thriving with Pat Quinn behind the Oilers' bench.

Crosby's production, at least on the power play, was affected by the absence of Evgeni Malkin, who, playing for the first time in eight games because of a shoulder injury, had three assists in the overtime win in Boston on Saturday. Crosby had a goal and two assists in the same game, snapping a string of five matches without a point, the longest of his career.

Another thing about Crosby's "slump." He has 10 goals and is roughly on pace for 40, a plateau he has yet to reach in his career. His improved scoring, so evident in the 2009 playoffs, is the most important nugget to glean from his first quarter of the season.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke expressed, in their ways, openness to the idea of a second NHL team in the greater Toronto area.

The "wow" moment occurred on the morning of the Hall of Fame inductions Nov. 9. At the annual sports management conference that Burke organizes on Hall of Fame weekend, Daly did not rule out a second team in or around Toronto and said the Maple Leafs don't have to give their imprimatur to any intruder. (This probably came to the shock of Jim Balsillie's lawyers, who argued in the Phoenix bankruptcy case that the Leafs did have veto power.) Then Burke dropped the sledgehammer on the surprise-o-meter, saying his franchise would have no objections to Team No. 2 if a study showed that it would be beneficial to the Leafs and the NHL.

First thought: a second team in Toronto makes more sense than three in greater New York. (If a team were in Hamilton, it might adversely affect the Buffalo Sabres, but the Leafs are bulletproof.)

Second thought: how much does the NHL hate Balsillie?

The Kings' Anze Kopitar leads the scoring race. Since entering the NHL as the 11th pick of the 2005 draft, he has been a formidable center. (If he had been, say, Slovakian, instead of Slovenian, there is no way Kopitar, who moved to Sweden as a 17-year-old to build his hockey portfolio, would have slipped past the top six.) But after 32 goals in 2007-08, he dipped a little last season, and it seemed he might have found a comfort level one rung below stardom on the NHL ladder. Forget it. His fitness level has improved a body that was has been NHL-caliber since his rookie season -- 6'3", 220 pounds -- and the results are showing. He has been held without a point in only four games. He was also a solid plus seven after being a combined -44 over his first three seasons, a stat influenced only in part by his even-strength offensive numbers.

On the subject of plus-minus, Brind'Amour's league-worst number looks like the temperature in Edmonton on Christmas Eve. Maybe we should have seen this coming. The tipoff should have been his -23 rating last season, but we were too busy pumping the tires of the resilient Hurricanes to consider that stat as anything more than an anomaly. The 39-year-old, one of the hardest workers of his generation, finally seems past his best-before date, but even that view has to be qualified because he has been sucked into the nearly inexplicable morass that is the Canes. (Yeah, there have ben injuries to franchise players Eric Staal and Cam Ward. Carolina, take a number.)

Brind'Amour might be No. 717 out of 717 in the plus-minus department, but the big picture is far more troubling for a belly-flopping franchise that, unlike the Rangers or the Leafs, has a bottom line directly tied to results. When the Hurricanes are winning, Raleigh is one of the special places in hockey. When they struggle, fans wander away in pursuit of other amusement.

As far as our powers of prognostication, On the Fly saw Colorado and Phoenix, in that order, as the two worst teams in the Western Conference. While we have been laying in an order of salsa verde to help us choke down that much crow, we aren't ready to tuck in quite yet.

Phoenix has won two of seven in November while Colorado, still leading the Northwest, has dropped its last three, including an 8-2 pounding in Denver by Vancouver. The guess is both teams will wind up missing the playoffs, but each has been a delightful surprise, especially the Coyotes, persevering in perhaps the worst circumstances since the 1965 Braves, who played a lame duck season in Milwaukee before scooting off to Atlanta. "The biggest difference there is coaching," says a pro scout for a Western Conference team. "Nobody wants to say it because of Wayne (Gretzky, who resigned before the start of the season), but Dave Tippett's been an upgrade."

To borrow from Monty Python, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. And nobody expects almost every team to lose a top player, but the injuries have been staggering in quality as well as quantity. Among the marquee players who have missed significant time are Staal, Ward, Malkin, Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov, Bruins center Marc Savard, Thrashers captain Ilya Kovalchuk, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo and winger Daniel Sedin, Predators center Jason Arnott, Red Wings winger Johan Franzen, Flyers winger Simon Gagné, and Panthers forward David Booth. (This phenomenon is known as Stars on Ice.)

GMs are tiptoeing towards a rule change involving headshots not out of concern for workplace safety but because of an economic imperative. When their most important assets are being decimated, it's bad for business. A rule change, at least in a few cases, might slow the exodus to Injured Reserve.

The best NHL defenseman named Greene has been New Jersey's Andy Greene, not Washington's Mike Green. Green, a finalist for the 2009 Norris Trophy, has been playing well enough, a font of creativity if not a tower of power in one-on-one shutdown situations. (Green is a plus player averaging almost a point per game, but he has only one power play goal after netting 18 last season.) But like so many defensemen under coach Jacques Lemaire, Greene has surpassed expectations. He has scored two power-play game-winning goals since Nov. 7 and routinely plays more than 25 minutes per match for the surging Devils. Against Green's explosive Capitals last Saturday, Greene had no points but was a +3.

Greene, a Michigander, and Green, a Calgarian, should be on their nation's Olympic teams.