7.8 - Calgary FlamesThe Flames, on paper, are easily the most formidable of Canada's six NHL teams. They have a top five talent in Jarome Iginla, excellent secondary point producers (Jokinen, Bourque, Langkow) and a rock-solid defensive unit that includes three premier players (Bouwmeester, Phaneuf and Regehr). When you combine new coach Brent Sutter and perhaps the best group of foot soldiers in hockey (Boyd, Dawes, Glencross, Nystrom, Giordano), this is a blueprint for post-season success. They'll need to find a way to keep Kiprusoff fresh for playoffs (he's started 19 of 21 games), especially in an Olympic year, but my money is on Calgary being the last Canadian team standing in 2010.
Overall, the Sens have played slightly above their heads through the first quarter of the season and much of that is due to Mike Fisher finally earning some of his $21 million contract. Maybe Carrie Underwood is to Fisher what Kate Hudson is to A-Rod? Some might argue Sens fans should have a higher rating, that they are a confident bunch right now. But the schedule has been soft (multiple wins against Toronto and Tampa) and heavily loaded with home games (15 of 21). And to everyone who anointed Pascal Leclaire the best goalie in Senators history before he ever played a game for Ottawa - care to change your vote? I'm not saying he can't be the answer, goalies heat up and cool off all the time (sort of like the Canadian dollar or Lindsay Lohan) but a .900 save percentage and 2.71 GAA are very close to his career stats (.906 and 2.81). He is what he is: A decent goalie who can potentially steal a few games but cannot be counted on to provide consistently stellar performances. Anyone who thought Jonathan Cheechoo might benefit from a change of scenery (Bryan Murray...Buhler?) was proven wrong. He's on pace for 8 goals and 16 points, which would be his fifth straight season with declining totals in both categories. Thankfully for Ottawa, this is the final year of his contract (but $3.5 million for 8 or so goals can't look very good to owner Eugene Melnyk).
The 'Nucks weathered the storm nicely while Luongo was out and now that they have him and Daniel Sedin back in the line-up, fans are hoping they can snap out of the funk that has seen them alternate 3 game winning and losing streaks and put together a more consistent effort. Speaking of goaltending, it would seem that with Luongo signed through 2022, now might be the time to trade Schneider. No, not Matthew. Top goaltending prospect Corey Schneider (who has been dominant in the AHL with a 58-26-3 career record, a 2.12 GAA and .920 SV% and led his Manitoba Moose to within one win of a championship) is clearly ready to make the next step and is too valuable to be stuck in a back-up role for the next decade. GM Mike Gillis made a couple of underrated moves when he added Mikael Samuelsson (9G, 9A) and picked up Christian Ehrhoff (5G, 10A, +11) from the salary-dumping Sharks. Together with the growth of Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler, Ehrhoff has really solidified the defence. If they can get Pavol Demitra back and finally ice a healthy line-up the Canucks will be knocking on the Calgary door.
5.1 - Montreal Canadiens
From the department of 'How Shocking' - Scott Gomez has 2 goals on the season. I would love to wonder aloud how long it will be until Hab fans and the media partner up to run him out of town, but his contract makes that an impossibility. Gomez has a better chance of being bought out than traded again. So instead, we can wonder: how long until Carey Price is run out of town? Because you know it's going to happen. Price has been on thin ice with the fans since the day Gainey pushed him onto Guy Carbonneau's team and then forced him into the starting position by trading Cristobal Huet at the 2008 trade deadline. If I were a NHL GM I would constantly be in Gainey's ear trying to swindle him out of Price, who will be a terrific goalie when he reaches the magic 'goalie maturation date' of 26 or 27. Price is 22 right now. The standings say Montreal is a .500 team, but in reality they've won four shootouts and four more overtime games. That's three regulation wins in 23 games. They pushed Guillaume Latendresse out of town amid 'character' issues and just re-called Sergei Kostytin who demanded a trade in October and, with his brother, was at the center of 'character' issues last year. In short: The dressing room continues to be a mess. The only current bright spot for Canadiens fans is the colossal disaster that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
4.4 Edmonton Oilers
It's extremely disappointing for Oiler fans that neither Sam Gagner nor Andrew Cogliano has progressed into the bonafide point producer they were projected to become. Gagner is two years younger and still has the potential to be a genuine top-6 forward, but Cogliano looks more and more like a third line center. As for the guy who seemingly has progressed and developed, Dustin Penner, well I'm not quite ready to pencil him in for 30 goals and 80 points. Penner absolutely looks quicker and more confident on the ice, but if you take away his two big games (4 points vs. Detroit on Oct. 29 and 5 against Columbus on Oct. 22) he has 17 points in 22 games. Decent numbers for sure, but anyone suggesting a roster spot on the Olympic team is within reach should go ahead and have their head examined. Twenty games does not a player make. Nikolai Khabibulin is a difference-maker in net, but he hasn't played 60+ games since the 2002-03 season in Tampa and the Oilers need him to play close to 70 if they are going to have a shot at the playoffs.
Vesa Toskala is trying (and succeeding) to play himself out of the league, free-agent signings Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek have somehow made the defence worse (a combined -20) and Luke Schenn looks "Land of the Lost" bad. Which, for anyone who hasn't seen it, is truly awful. Up front Toronto has Phil Kessel and eleven guys who should be in the minors. Or retired. Or doing anything besides being paid to play hockey. The two highest paid forwards besides Kessel, Jason Blake and Lee Stempniak, have 7 total goals and are rumoured to be days (or hours) away from being put on waivers. When Ian White is your team MVP at this stage of the season you better hope you're playing in the AHL. Or the ECHL. If the Leafs would've just held on to Anton Stralman (4G, 11A with Columbus) or not signed Colton Orr (and Jeff Finger) or only traded one of their next two first-round picks...things wouldn't be so bad. I'll let Dwight Shrute take it from here. "If onlys and justs were candies and nuts, then everyday would be un de donkfest". And there you have it.