Predators' legit sniper; NHL's natural disaster; more plusses, minuses
The week's most notable positives and negatives from around the NHL (you get both in the video segment above):
• The acquisition of James Neal from the Penguins during the off-season has given the Predators the kind of sniper they have rarely had on their roster. Nashville is usually known for boasting at least one star defenseman—and the Predators still have Shea Weber as well as the promising Seth Jones—but the luxury of a forward who has some real scoring savvy is new to an organization that has perennially done pretty well without much firepower. On Thursday night Neal picked up at hat trick that gave him five goals in his last four games, as the Predators earned a 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks and a point in their seventh straight game. Neal is sure to keep scoring. He has potted at least 20 goals in his previous six NHL seasons. As long as he produces, the Predators, the league’s last unbeaten team (as of this writing), are sure to keep winning.
• T.J. Brodie is the NHL's T.J. without the shootout moves and rent-a-car commercial. (That would be T.J. Oshie of the Blues.) He's also a good example of what the current crop of Flames is doing right after so many years of the team getting it wrong with regard to building a playoff contender. Brodie was only a fourth-round pick in 2008, but he has moved steadily through the ranks and is now on the team’s top defense pairing with Mark Giordano. He recently inked a five-year extension that will keep him in Calgary through the end of the decade. If you look at some of the young players who may actually build this club into something strong during the next few years—Johnny Gaudreau (21), Sam Bennett (18), Lance Bouma (24), Joe Colborne (24), Mikael Backlund (25) and Paul Byron (25)—there is real optimism for the Flames, a team that could hope to become last season's upstart Avalanche but would surely settle for a humble playoff berth. Hey, remember the Flames’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004? That was the first time in seven years that Calgary had made the playoffs and the only year that the Flames have won a playoff series since capturing the franchise's lone Cup in 1989. Players like Brodie give them hope that they'll be able to do much better.
• Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen has a perfect 6-0-0 record this season, allowing only eight goals on 162 shots, for a .951 save percentage. Anderson was put under quite a microscope this season when Anaheim parted with Jonas Hiller and highly regarded prospect John Gibson seemed like the heir apparent to the starting job after posting a shutout in his playoff debut last spring. Yet Andersen, a 25-year-old Dane, assumed the top spot when Gibson was sent down to the AHL and sharpen his game by getting some regular work. The result has been historic. Andersen is now the first goalie in NHL history to win 26 of his first 31 career decisions, and he put up a 152:46 scoreless streak that ended on Wednesday night against Buffalo. It's unlikely that his play will remain this torrid, but it looks like the Ducks are set in net and that greatly boosts their chances of coming out of the West to battle for the Cup.
• The Stars’ one-two punch of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn has indeed come out punching this season, combining for 18 points in Dallas’ first six games as the team earned at least a point in five of its six contests to date. Seguin has five goals and five assists, Benn has put up four and four, and they have combined for a +7 rating. The addition of Jason Spezza (eight points) has certainly helped. But no other forward on the roster has more than four. This looks like a team that will remain top-heavy as it relies on its big guns. So far they are doing their part.
• Hats off to U.S.-based teams and their anthem singers. The Canadian national anthem is rarely played before games against other U.S. teams, but it was an appropriate and respectful touch for clubs such as Boston and Pittsburgh to recognize the victims of Wednesday's shooting incident in Ottawa by playing it to show solidarity for the people of Canada's capital. O, Canada, we’re thinking of you.
• Yes, the Hurricanes feel like a natural disaster in Carolina, going into Friday night's tilt against the Oilers as the league’s only winless team after allowing 12 more goals (23) than they scored (11). The Oilers have the same differential, but they also have a pair of victories. The main problem is that the Hurricanes aren’t generating much offense. They post fewer shots on goal per game (23.5) than any team in the league, and have only two players, Jiri Tlusty and Chris Terry, who have scored more than once. For sure this team has been hit hard by injuries this season. Forward Jeff Skinner missed the first four games because of a concussion and Eric Stall has dressed just twice after suffering an upper body injury in New York on Oct. 11. In his 10 previous seasons, the otherwise durable Staal missed just 17 games. But even if Skinner regains the form that has made him a two-time 30-goal scorer and Staal returns to full health, the Hurricanes will still likely battle Buffalo for the dubious honor of the league's worst record. At least the rewards in next June's draft will be great, but getting there is going to feel like a dreary slog.
• After the departure of Johnny Boychuk, the Bruins have been struggling to find the defensive dominance that usually makes them the Eastern Conference's top Cup contender. On Thursday night against the Islanders, Boston took a serious hit when captain Zdeno Chara went down for four-to-six weeks with a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. A burden has now been shifted onto the team's young back liners Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Joe Morrow and Zach Trotman but GM Peter Chiarelli sees at least one positive in this misfortune: "I'd rather have (Chara out) 4-6 weeks than 4-6 months," he told The Boston Globe. In recent years there has been some concern about Chara wearing down in the playoffs, so perhaps his lengthy rest on the sidelines will keep him fresher for the long haul, assuming the damage to his knee doesn't seriously impact his game. In the meantime, the Bruins should have enough talent to stay afloat in the East while he recovers. Chiarelli hasn't said if he will look for help outside the organization.
• In four appearances so far, Coyotes’ netminder Mike Smith has posted a 4.54 goals-against average and .849 save percentage. It’s a small sample size, but that’s a far cry from his career regular season numbers (2.61, .913) and, certainly, his performance in the playoffs (1.88, .945 in 19 games). Smith hasn't been pulled in any of his four starts, but at times, such as the game against St. Louis when he allowed four power-play goals, he has been overplaying his angles more than usual and scrambling too much in his crease. He is a big goalie, at 6’-4”, 215 pounds, and with the economy of movement he usually has, Smith shouldn’t be fighting the puck as much. Until he gets back on his game, the Coyotes will be hard-pressed to contend for a playoff spot in the brutally competitive West, but coach Dave Tippett is showing a willingness to let Smith work through his problems.
• Unlike Calgary's T.J., the Blues' T.J. has struggled so far this season. Oshie put up 60 points last season and famously outgunned Ilya Kovalchuk in an Olympic shootout, leading the U.S. to victory against Russia in a preliminary-round game. And his starring role in rent-a-car commercials was a rarity for a hockey player. But after his first six games he still hasn't produced a point and is -3. There is a flu bug going around the Blues’ dressing room and maybe that's why Oshie is one of their players who is off to a listless start, but there are high hopes and great expectations in St. Louis this season. The Blues need Oshie to snap out of his funk if they're going to challenge the Kings, Blackhawks and Ducks.
• Mikko Koivu has been blanked in five games this season. The Wild's captain put up 54 points last season and has two 60-point campaigns and one 70-pointer on his resume. So far he has come up empty on 124 shifts. The team recently moved Charlie Coyle onto a line with Koivu and Thomas Vanek to try to stir the pot a bit. Koivu should break out of his slump soon, and the Wild have won three games without getting much from him, but they won’t be successful for long without a solid contribution from him.
• OK, this one is actually pretty funny. For those who didn’t see it, the Canucks were caught on a bad line change on Thursday night during their game against the Blues. Vancouver’s Zack Kassian smartly tried to head back to the bench before his team got caught for having to many men on ice. There was just one problem: Kassian was closer to the Blues’ bench than his own, so he tried to hop onto it in order to avoid detection. Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to hear what the Blues’ serial chipper Steve Ott said to Kassian as he started climbing the boards.