With the first seven days of the NHL season in the books, I put myself in the mindset of the average fan to ponder what we've learned in the early going ...
If I'm a Maple Leafs fan, there's at least one element of their hot start that I'm excited about far more than that 3-0 record: the growing willingness of Phil Kessel to go to the net. Kessel's always been dangerous off the rush, using a Brett Hull-style release to great effect. But in the early going, he's become a more frequent visitor to the greasy areas, and that makes him a far more effective weapon.
If I'm a Stars fan, I stop bemoaning the loss of Jack Adams-winner Dave Tippett right now. Marc Crawford's up-tempo, aggressive style has been at the core of the team's 3-0 start. I'd also be grateful for the understated greatness of Loui Eriksson. Four goals in his first three contests and a defensive diligence that recalls Jere Lehtinen. Eriksson's campaign for the Selke begins.
If I'm a Bruins fan, I'm screaming at Nathan Horton to shoot more. Not just because the team's new first line winger has three goals on five shots, but because he has a history of not shooting enough. Compare his career high (217 in 2006-07) to the average number of shots taken (296) by the seven players who topped 40 goals last year. If he's going to make a significant impact on Boston's popgun offense, Horton has to realize there's nothing wrong with being a little selfish.
If I'm a Devils fan, I'm going to drown out all the talk about cap circumvention with excitement over the NHL debut of prospect Jacob Josefson. The 19-year-old center is expected to play a significant role in the future after being taken 20th overall in 2009. He doesn't have elite offensive potential, but he'll mature into a player capable of taking some pressure off No. 1 center Travis Zajac. In the meantime, he plays such a smart defensive game that he should make a smooth transition to the big leagues.
If I'm a Kings fan, I'd bristle every time I heard Boston's Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas held up as the best goaltending tandem in the league. No knock on them, but Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier are making their case to be recognized as the true dynamic duo. The rookie Bernier has been anointed as the stopper that will lead LA to the promised land, but don't count out Quick just yet. He's allowed only two goals -- both of which could be laid at the feet of defensive zone blunders -- in his first two starts and looks ready to defend his position as the team's No. 1. Nothing like a little healthy competition to keep the boys motivated...
If I'm an Avalanche fan, I'm less worried about whether Craig Anderson will take a discount to re-sign with the team before he becomes a free agent this summer and more concerned about whether Colorado's porous defense will encourage him to seek safe harbour elsewhere. The Avs are allowing 34.7 shots per game. That's not significantly higher than last season's 32.1, but to this eye, the quality of the chances allowed is much more alarming. A little step-up from Scott Hannan would be a nice place to start.
If I'm a Wild fan, I'm wondering when this team is going to get something going five-on-five. Ranked 24th last year with just 140 even-strength markers, they've scored just one of their eight so far this season when even up. Nothing wrong with a strong power play (give newcomer Matt Cullen credit for what he's brought to the unit with his poise and shot from the point), but this team needs to show it can score even when the calls aren't going their way.
If I'm a Panthers fan, on the other hand, I'm wondering if we should spare ourselves the embarrassment and decline the power play. The Cats are 0-for-11 with the extra man so far. Maybe that's no surprise for a team that finished 29th in the category last season, but you'd think that shortcoming should have been prioritized for this campaign. So far, the unit has shown little urgency, with too much standing in place rather than the fluid movement and crisp, confident passing that often precedes a successful attempt. Maybe it's just a matter of integrating Dennis Wideman into a key role, but a bit more fearlessness in front of the enemy cage wouldn't hurt, either.
If I'm a Hurricanes fan, I'm thrilled that Jeff Skinner is set to remain in Carolina all season. That's not to suggest the kid has got it all figured out. The scoring touch is evident and he's impressed with his puck protection and strength, but he hasn't got his play away from the biscuit mastered just yet. Still, he's the most exciting prospect the team has, and the thought of giving him a chance alongside Eric Staal at some point this season has to give a Caniac the giggles. Bottom line, Skinner betters the team's chances of making the playoffs this season...and makes the 'Canes a lot more fun to watch.
If I'm the father of a young player (which I am -- shout out to the Frisco Squirt Bruins!), I tell him to watch Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk every chance he gets. Watching Datsyuk last night in Dallas, I wasn't so much enthralled by the agility and creativity that few could ever dream of matching, but how consistently he does all the little things that any player could master -- but few do. Example? Watch him every time he dishes the puck. Not only does he immediately move to free himself for a return pass, he always has his stick on the ice, ready to receive it. Seems so simple, but few players think to do it. Just part of what makes him so effective.
And finally, if I'm the involved in any way in the NHL's disciplinary process, I step back and seriously reexamine my concept of appropriate punishment. Niklas Hjalmarsson gets two games for sending Jason Pominville to Dinosaurland. Nick Foligno gets fined $2,500 for a shot to the head of Patrick Dwyer. And James Wisniewski gets a pair of games for making a gesture in the direction of Sean Avery. I have to wonder: In terms of priorities, what sort of behavior are we actively trying to dissuade here, gentlemen?
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