Notes: Best line and other early surprises; a most unusual GM; more
This week's edition of Jamming The Crease takes a look at some of the early surprises and disappointments of the new season.
I'll admit it. After watching Daniel and Henrik Sedin struggle lamely last season, I thought that Vancouver's magnificent twins were well into their journey down the other side of the mountain.
Looks like I was wrong.
Los Angeles has had the best line in the early going, with Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson ranking 3-4-5 on the NHL's points-per-60 minutes scale. And the Dallas Stars might have the most thrilling trio with the makeshift Super Line of Jason Spezza between Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. But the most surprising line of the early season has to be the Sedins and their new linemate Radim Vrbata.
Getting out from under the cruel tutelage of John Tortorella—he of of the excessive ice time, shot blocking demands and emphasis on defensive zone starts—was key to their liberation. New coach Wilie Desjardins understands that you don't ask thoroughbreds to plow the fields. His system plays to the Sedins' strengths, allowing them to enter the zone with speed, work it down low and get that magical cycle going.
And don't overlook the impact of Vrbata's arrival. Adding a right-hand shot—something the Sedins haven't had regularly in nearly a decade—who is equally comfortable in the corners and isn't afraid to pull the trigger has brought out the best in them.
They might have been stymied at times by Alex Ovechkin's line in Sunday's 4-2 win over the Capitals, but on most nights they've dominated the opposition. Last week's 4-1 win over the Blues was a perfect example. Head to head against David Backes, one of the top shutdown centers in the league, Henrik Sedin out-chanced him by 11 at five-on-five. It was an old school beating ... and old school Sedins. I promise I won't count them out again.
Leaky pipes in Dallas
The Stars have a real problem between the pipes. Take away one miserable performance against the Flyers and Kari Lehtonen has been solid, posting a save percentage of at least .923 in five of his six starts. But starts aren't the problem for Lehtonen—it's his finishes. The absence of a reliable backup in the past has forced him to empty his tank early, leaving him on fumes down the home stretch.
That wasn't supposed to be the case this season with Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas brought in as free agents over the summer to compete for the backup gig. But Rynnas flamed out in camp and Lindback, who was handed the gig by default, is 0-2-0 with a 4.58 GAA and .850 save percentage ... and those numbers might be flattering to the quality of his performance so far.
Granted two starts isn't much of an audition, but add in the preseason and his struggles with Tampa Bay last season and it's tough to picture Lindback recovering in any meaningful or lasting way. Everyone raves about his work ethic and his preparation but in the end the only thing that matters is stopping pucks and he isn't getting the job done.
The Stars have options in their system if they decide to put Lindback on waivers, but neither Rynnas or Jack Campbell is making a strong case for a call-up with their play in Austin. Rynnas is 2-0-1 with a 2.63 GAA and .905 save percentage. Campbell is even worse with a 1-1-0 mark to go along with a 3.59 GAA and .892 save percentage.
Those aren't their only options, of course. The Stars have just over $2.5 million in cap space to work with. That's more than enough to sign an out-of-work veteran like Tomas Vokoun to bring some stability to the position. Don't be surprised if they make the call in the next few weeks.
Key to the Wild
Best player no one is talking about? How about Minnesota's Jared Spurgeon? I wrote about the Wild's new approach this season in this morning's Off The Draw. What I didn't get around to in that piece is the importance of this young defenseman, whose speed, puck skills and awareness are making all the difference on their zone entries.
Spurgeon's always had the ability to drive possession—even Ryan Suter was better during the past two seasons when skating with him instead of regular partner Jonas Brodin. So it's not just getting the green light this year that's brought Spurgeon to the forefront. “There's more courage in his game,” said a Western Conference scout. “He goes to harder places, he holds onto the puck a fraction longer. It's more dangerous, especially for a guy his size, but it makes him a more dangerous player. He's really been something.”
A little too quiet
Biggest disappointment? How about Thomas Vanek? His goose egg in the goal column isn't reason to push the panic button just yet, especially with four assists through his first six games with the Wild. But 13 shots on net? That's down about 50 percent from his career average. And as noted hockey guru Michael Scott once said, you don't score on 100 percent of the shots you don't take. Vanek's teammates have his back for now—they're averaging just over three goals per game—but for the Wild to stay in the playoff mix they need a consistent contribution from him.
Nice fit with the Jackets
Hartnell has settled nicely onto the Jackets' top line alongside Ryan Johansen, tallying 10 points in eight games, establishing himself as a physical presence down low, getting pucks to the net (a little more than three per game) and averaging nearly 18 minutes a night. He's been a consistent contributor.
Umberger? Just three points, eight total shots and a depth role that sees him playing less than 15 minutes per night. He's had his moments, but he's not doing much to help the Flyers fight through their struggles.
This one was tough to figure out from Philly's perspective when it happened. Now? It looks even worse.
Most surprising offensive explosion? Take a look at Dennis Wideman in Calgary. Widely regarded as washed up heading into the 2014-15 campaign, he's scored in each of his past four games and has five goals in his past six. Just one of those spells where all the bounces are going his way? Maybe. His 31.3 shooting percentage is five times his career average, but he's only taken 16 shots through nine games, suggesting that once he starts getting more pucks through to the net, he could continue to be a problem for opposing netminders.
Wideman's leading the way for a defense that's been a big part of Calgary's 5-4-1 start. As a group, the Flames' backliners have chipped in nine goals and 26 points through those 10 games, well above the 1.9 points per game the unit averaged last season. Much like the Wild, they're proving that holding onto the puck, rather than blasting it into the attack zone, makes scoring a whole lot easier.
Long shot looks like winner
The best story of the young season? How about Washington's rookie winger Liam O'Brien. Twice passed over in the draft, the 20-year-old turned a courtesy training camp invite into a three-year contract, a spot on the opening night roster and a regular role on the fourth line for the Capitals. He won't dazzle anyone with his skill, but he's high energy, he battles hard and he gets to the right places, as he proved while scoring his first NHL goal on Sunday against the Canucks, tipping a sweet pass from Mike Green past Ryan Miller. If you saw the celebration, you can tell the impact this kid has made on his teammates during the last six weeks. O'Brien's time in the show might be cut short as the Caps get healthy, but he's made an impression. If being waiver exempt makes him the odd man out, you can bet that his stay in Hershey will be short.
Not your average GM
There are many paths to the NHL, but the one being followed by Eric Joyce might be the least traveled of all.
The 36-year-old was named on Monday as the general manager of the AHL's San Antonio Rampage after spending the 2013-2014 season developing Florida's analytics department. That's not so unusual these days, but this is: Prior to joining the Panthers, Joyce was an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy where he taught Counterterrorism and Homeland Security. Joyce also served as an Army captain in Operation Iraqi Freedom III from 2004-2005 where he earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star and the Valorous Unit Citation. And if that wasn't enough to make his resume stand out, he also has a degree in Systems Engineering from West Point and graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School with a focus on international economics and development. He also knows a bit about stick and puck. He played Division I for the United States Military Academy from 1998-2002.
Just in case you're wondering why he got the job and you didn't ...