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Two under-the-radar teams worth a look

Trading with the Capitals for forward Tomas Fleischmann has proved to be a savvy move for the surging Avlanche. (Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)


By Stu Hackel

Pop Quiz: Who is the general manager of the Colorado Avalanche? (No peeking below)

A lot of hockey fans wouldn't be able to name Greg Sherman, but he's not going to stay under the radar for long. In a pretty cold trade market, Sherman pulled off three deals in November and they've played a big part in his team winning six games in a row, vaulting to the top of the Northwest Division, and sitting only two points behind the Red Wings at the top of the sardine-packed Western Conference.

Sherman plucked Ryan O'Bryne (who Adrian Dater in The Denver Post says, "has been nothing short of outstanding in his 18 games for Colorado") from the Canadiens' press box, where he'd sat so often this season as a healthy scratch that he could have been issued a credential as a beat writer. Then Sherman preyed on the Bruins, who had to clear cap space when Marc Savard came off the Injured Reserve list, landing the Avs another puck-moving defenseman in Matt Hunwick.

Having added those two young blueliners, and with the emergence of rookie Kevin Shattenkirk, Sherman could then dispatch veteran Scott Hannan to the Capitals for Tomas Fleischmann on Nov 30. "Flash," as his teammates call him, was immediately installed alongside super sophomore Matt Duchene and all that transpired was that Duchene is now tied with Corey Perry, Pavel Datsyuk and Ryan Clowe with 12 points apiece, one behind Sidney Crosby as the league's leading scorers for December.

Oh, and Duchene and Fleischmann were selected as the top two NHL stars of the past week.

Here's a little piece that the Avs did with Duchene on their website...

[vodpod id=Video.5161220&w=425&h=350&]

...but predictable cliches aside, he points out that the Avs now have a good deal of scoring depth at forward, not to mention some good puck-movers like John-Michael Liles, Shattenkirk and Hunwick behind them. The Avs have rebuilt a team that, like their GM, shouldn't be under the radar very long, especially in Denver where plenty of tickets have been available this season.

Another emerging team that must be taken very seriously is the Atlanta Thrashers, who have roared through the NHL the last month on an 11-2-2 run that had them briefly in the Southeast Division's top spot until the Capitals recaptured it on Sunday by snapping their eight-game slide. (The Caps celebrated lustily at the final buzzer; we will no doubt see that close-up on HBO on Wednesday.)

Blogging for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bill Tiller pegs the Thrashers naming Andrew Ladd captain on Nov. 18 as something of a turning point.

A two-time Stanley Cup champion (with Carolina in 2006 and Chicago last season), Ladd isn't exactly buying Tiller's theory, telling him that it's just a coincidence, and the real reason the Thrashers are playing well has more to do with the coaching staff, led by Craig Ramsay.

"Everyone starting here was brand new to the systems, coaches and players, and it took a little time to get everyone on the same page," Ladd explains. "But right about that time [when he was named captain] it started to click and it’s really started to come together since.

“They’ve been good [with the team]. We’ve got a young group of guys and are still learning a lot of little things it takes to be successful in this league. Rammer’s a patient guy. He takes his time and makes sure everyone understands what their job is and what they need to do on the ice.”

The chemistry seems right in Atlanta, at least off the ice, where most of the players are young and they spend a good deal of time together away from the rink, too.

The Avs sold out their game against the Canadiens on Sunday night, their third sellout of the season, as local fans take notice of the team's hot pace and start to return to the Pepsi Center. It hasn't been easy in Atlanta, either, as is well-known, but Ladd says he's started to see signs of fans taking a renewed interest in the Thrashers.

“[The organization] has been talking about getting people into the building and what we can do for them," he told Tiller. "The biggest thing we can do is winning and bringing an exciting brand of hockey. I think we’ve done our part and it’s fun to see the fans respond and get excited about it."

The response can be delayed, but more W's usually get fans back in the mood to love their team.

(And a belated goodbye to the great James Moody.)

Finally, who would have thought that fans throwing waffles at the sorry Maple Leafs would resonate around the league? Well, it's at least reached the West Coast where those green guys who sit near the visitor's penalty box broke out the Eggo's for the Tranna team on Saturday night, among their other taunts...

After their home game tonight against the Thrashers, the Leafs are back on the road in New Jersey on Sunday. They sell frozen waffles at supermarkets in Jersey, don't they?