8.7 - Montreal Canadiens
Despite their team not playing anywhere close to their capability, most Habs fans are feeling pretty good about their team, and rightfully so. Montreal can get outplayed or dig a deep hole yet they’ve shown they have the ability to battle back and win, even if they don’t put in their best effort. The Canadiens have remarkable balance and depth throughout the line-up, most notably in net where Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak make up the best goaltending tandem in the league. Bob Gainey has constructed a talented veteran roster that is well insulated with cheap, young fringe players, and Guy Carbonneau, now in his third full season, has grown into a presence behind the bench.
They clearly have another gear, but the Canadiens seem happy to continue along at a ho-hum pace, not creating too many unnecessary waves at this point in the season. With the jersey retirements, 100th Anniversary celebrations, and all the other hoopla that constitutes day-to-day life in hockey-crazy Montreal, it would be extremely taxing for the Habs to play from ahead all year long. They know the true test begins in April, and that's when Gainey and Carbonneau want their team to peak.
6.9 - Calgary Flames
In Jarome Iginla and Dion Phaneuf, the Flames continue to feature the best forward/defence 1-2 combo in hockey, which has made it reasonably simple for Darryl Sutter to sufficiently fill in the rest of the roster. And while neither the Todd Bertuzzi signing (16 points but a minus 10) nor the Mike Cammalleri trade (20 points but afraid of going anywhere near the net) has been an overwhelming success, they haven’t been awful mistakes either. Both guys were brought in to take scoring pressure off Iginla, which they along with dependable veterans Daymond Langkow and Craig Conroy, have done. Throw-in the surprising contributions from Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque, and a defence unit that as a whole is tough, versatile and certainly capable of providing above average play, and Calgary appears to be in very good shape.
But there's a problem…in net. This is the fifth straight season Miikka Kiprusoff has seen his GAA go up (1.70, 2.07, 2.46, 2.69, 3.05) and his save percentage go down (.933, .923, .917, .906, .895). Calgary hasn't won a playoff round since advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. Unless Kipper regains his form, that streak will continue.
6.1 - Vancouver Canucks
With Roberto Luongo this team has a chance to win every game. Without him, they are the Vancouver Blue Jackets. The Sedin twins should remember that when they’re holding the Canucks hostage next summer during contract negotiations.
As for this season, Canucks fans would be wise not to get too comfortable in their current surroundings, because even if Luongo returns from his groin pull relatively soon, Vancouver isn’t likely to continue leading the Northwest division much longer. The team is playing well above it’s head and is relying on unsustainable production from a streaky Kyle Wellwood and foot soldiers like Alex Burrows, Jannick Hansen, and Willie Mitchell. The Sedins are putting up decent but not outstanding numbers, as usual, but if making the playoffs this year means a seven or eight year contract for the brothers, maybe the Canucks would be better off losing?
The $15 million combined that the Sedins want in addition to Luongo’s contract would tie up nearly 40% of Vancouver’s cap room on just three players. That could be enough to push Luongo out the door the following year if he suspects the team won’t be able to surround him with enough talent to realistically compete for the Stanley Cup. I'm not sure two Sedins and a bunch of pluggers fit that bill.
5.5 - Ottawa Senators
For a long time the Sens were a good team that made consistent progress year after year. They were young, talented, full of potential, and were earning their playoff scars that would eventually take them to the next level. After all those good regular seasons and playoff disappointments, Ottawa finally reached the Cup finals two years ago only to be throttled by Anaheim. Then Pittsburgh destroyed them in the first round last year after the Sens backed into the playoffs, and now the window of opportunity for this team is shut. Boom. Locked, boarded up, it's over. The Senators can continue to switch coaches like George Steinbrenner in the 70’s, but there isn’t a band-aid big enough to fix this problem. They're not a bottom-feeder, but the days of being a true contender are over. Time to blow it up.
You have to wonder how different things may have been if Ottawa had decided to pay Zdeno Chara the extra $2 million a year and keep him instead of Wade Redden?
4.9 - Edmonton Oilers
Most of the blame for a disappointing start has been focused on goaltending and the lack of offense from forwards not named Ales Hemsky. But how does Kevin Lowe get let off the hook? He was the one who signed a still unproven Dustin Penner to an outlandish contract. It was Lowe and Steve Tambellini who traded for a clearly on-the-decline Eric Cole (who peaked in 2006 and has never been the same since the Brooks Orpik hit), and have allowed their team to play a quarter of the season with a three-headed goaltending monster that has produced several storylines but few big wins. Scary indeed.
One player who shouldn’t be singled out is second year forward Sam Gagner. The 19 year-old is another Oiler struggling mightily this year after unrealistic expectations were created following his 49-point rookie campaign. All of a sudden this year he was ‘penciled’ in for 60+ points and when you put a young player in a situation like that, if he doesn’t get off to a good start it can be nearly impossible to get on track.
To sum it up: Blame Kevin, not Sam.
2.8 - Toronto Maple Leafs
This spring will mark the fourth straight season that Toronto has missed the playoffs, but with the hiring of Brian Burke as the new GM, Leaf fans finally have a reason to be optimistic about the future. Not the immediate future mind you, because the current roster is a mess and the lack of draft picks (10 total over the next two drafts) make this re-building effort at least a two-year project, maybe three. Still, Burke has the personality and stature to deal with the demanding Toronto media, and gone, supposedly, are the days of the evil MLSE board having to approve any and all hockey transactions, making the path back to credibility decidedly less tumultuous..
If my calculations are correct and Burke continues to clear cap space as expected (good-bye: Antropov, Kaberle, Kubina), the Leafs should have more than enough room to sign both Lebron James and Chris Bosh in 2010.