Chicago, IL — We are a quarter of the way through the 2011-12 NHL season so it is time to take the pulse of our Blackhawks and the NHL as a whole. There are some surprisingly good teams and some bad. Then there are the ones right on track where we thought or expected these teams to be. First I will take a look at the Chicago Blackhawks, I mean after all they are currently riding atop the entire NHL so lets take a look from the top shall we.
I guess the Blackhawks did not like having all of that extra time off last summer. They have come out of the gate faster than Secretariat in his 1973 Kentucky Derby record-setting run. Which by the way, still stands to this day as the fastest time ever recorded for a race at Churchill downs. Yes like that great once in a lifetime thorobred, the Blackhawks have come out with a pace that if they can maintain for the entire season will make them odds on favorites to not only have a special season but maybe have a chance again at a very short 2012 summer.
They are currently in first place in their division, conference and league a virtual triple crown. We are only a quarter through a very very long season but they are looking better than I think anyone could have predicted with a record of 12-5-3 and 27 points. That is not to say that there are not areas for concern or improvement. I’d like to see a better penalty kill, better defensive play and keep improving on the power play. Also looking statistically they Hawks give up too many goals in the 2nd period seem like they start and finish strong but have a lapse in the middle. But hey I guess it is better to be good 2 out of 3 periods than 2 out of 3 periods being bad.
Since many of the hockey savants and experts picked the Blackhawks to do well it is not a shock to see them sit where they do. As a fan of the Hawks it has been thrilling to be sure. Some experts picked the Hawks to not only reach the finals but win the Stanley Cup. But I think even the experts would be a little surprised at how fast this team has come together with all the new Hawks. Since we are coming up on the Thanksgiving season I think the team and their fans should be very thankful for how they have played and where they sit. It’s been a fun ride so far.
The teams that have surprised are the Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs. Some of these teams will fall but some of these teams may surprise and be there in the end so lets take a look at these up comers and see what they are all about and sort out who could be a pretenders.
Right off the bat I have to say that in my opinion Dallas, Minnesota, Edmonton and Toronto are the pretenders. In fact some of them are already falling. Dallas is in the very competitive Pacific division and have fallen back to 4th with five straight losses. Couple that with an organization overhaul and new coach this probably is not the year for the Stars. With the recent successes of the Mavericks and Rangers the Stars are irrelevant on the Dallas sports scene. It is not very motivating playing to an empty stadium so the Stars will have to look to themselves for a spark as their fans won’t be giving this to them until the organization gets it’s act together.
If this gets straightened out by the new ownership, I see them raising all kinds of holy hell though for years to come and if the league restructures they could be a rival of the Blackhawks in the future which could turn out to be a good one. The Stars problem is they do everything just ok and in that division you need to be much much better than average to be in the running. For now there is too much fire power in their division with the LA Kings & the San Jose Sharks so I think Dallas will continue to struggle this year and the fight in the Pacific Division will be between LA and San Jose.
Staying in the Western Conference,it is the Edmonton Oilers and the Minnesota Wild that are running this division. Surprised that last years Presidents Trophy winner Vancouver Canucks are not leading here? Well I’m sure everyone is but with a deep run in the Stanley Cup last year it is not surprising the Canucks got off to a poor start. Question is can the Oilers and Wild stave off the Canucks for the rest of the year?
I’ve already stated I think that the Oilers will fade for several reasons. One this teams had too many holes to fill and while you love the brazenness of youth I’m sure it is enough to sustain them for such a long season. Also the success the Oilers have had in 2011 has been with their special teams play both on the PP and the PK. Play them 5 on 5 and that is a whole different story and therein lies the key. A team can not rely on special teams to carry them to and through playoffs which is why I see the Oilers fading this year. They need solid defense-men and a couple more forwards and this team could one day remind you of those great Oiler teams but for now I see them ending up 3rd or 4th in their Northwest division but much improved from last year.
The Minnesota Wild are currently atop the NW division and the league with the Chicago Blackhawks. I’m not sure anyone saw this one coming. The Wild went through a big transition in the offseason in free agency will big name trades in acquiring Heatley and Setoguchi from San Jose Sharks in exchange for D -man Brent Burns. Now with all this added firepower the Wild must be lighting it up in the West right? As equally surprising as the Wild being atop the league is their stingy defense. Their goals against average is a whopping 1.95% which is atop the NHL. What’s the catch with this team. Well they have had a relatively easy schedule and the teams they have beaten have not been very good so I highly doubt they will remain atop the NW division but I do see them as 2nd or 3rd but not making the playoffs this year.
Moving to the East, the Toronto Maples Leafs have gotten off to a very fast start but I doubt that they will be able to stay there. I know all of Canada would love to see the Maple Leafs rise but with Boston on the rise I can’t see Toronto higher than 3rd in this division. Like Minnesota their schedule to this point has been favorable against weak teams. This team also is giving up more goals than they are scoring which is not a formula for sustained success. Sorry Toronto I think you are still a ways away and are the second best Canadian hockey team in this division.
Florida Panthers now talk about a stupefaction. Well maybe not to Blackhawks fans. Everyone in Chicago knows Dale Tallon has an eye for talented hockey players and knows how to assemble a cup winning team after all he did so in Chicago. Now he has assembled a cup contending team in Florida with the Panthers. The Panthers just need to figure out how to win at home once they do they will roll that SE division. The Capitals are having all kinds of issues with a war brewing between coach and star not a good recipe for success.
I’m sure everyone thought that if the Caps were not leading this division it would be that other Florida team the Tampa Bay lightning. The Panthers are for real. Kris Versteeg is playing out of his mind. Brian Campbell may not have wanted to leave Chicago but his talents are no longer shadowed by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and he can shine in his own right. The Panthers are his team and right now they are doing everything pretty well. they just need to stay the course and be consistent. Wouldn’t it be nice if at some point there was a Panthers/Blackhawks Stanley Cup finals. Don’t laugh it could happen sooner than anyone thinks except maybe Dale Tallon, Stan Bowman and the players on each of these two clubs.
The poor performing surprise teams have been the Canucks, Bruins, Capitals, Canadians, Lightning, Red Wings and Ducks. We are only a quarter through the season and we have a long way to go these teams are too talented to discount and some are already beginning to make noise like the Bruins and Wings. This is a marathon not a sprint race. I will take another look at the midway point and it will be interesting to see how all of these teams are at that point. Secretariat was a great horse but he always got off to slow starts and somehow still managed to win races lets see if some of these teams can mirror the that great thorobred.