Commentary

Will these bad starts come back to haunt these teams?

Updated: October 16, 2007, 6:25 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

So, when does "it's early" become "it's too late"? Well, if history is any indication, many teams will have crossed that all-important line by Halloween.

A quick look at the standings on Nov. 1, 2006 shows that teams that endured a rough start to the season found it very difficult to get back into a playoff spot, especially in the Western Conference. Of the top eight teams in the West, only one team didn't maintain its standing within the top eight -- the Edmonton Oilers, who held down the eighth and final playoff spot last Nov. 1 but tumbled all the way to 12th by the end of the season. The Calgary Flames (3-7-1 a month in) were the only team that managed to shake off a wobbly start and qualify for the postseason.

Thrashers
Bill Wippert/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Thrashers are 0-5-0 through Sunday's games.

That's good news for this edition of the Flames, who have won two in a row after going winless in their first three games.

What does history suggest looking at the standings as of Monday morning?

Well, there's not much difference for the Los Angeles Kings, who are just as cooked as they were last season. The rebuilding Kings have yet to find anything approaching NHL-caliber goaltending and are 1-5 after dropping a 4-1 decision Sunday night to Detroit. They've allowed 27 goals, most in the conference.

The Oilers look lost at 2-4 with three straight road losses.

The wheels have come off in Nashville where, after two wins to open the season, Chris Mason has collapsed and the Preds have lost three straight. Phoenix and Columbus, both of whom have played surprisingly well out of the gate (2-3 and 2-2, respectively), simply don't have the horses. Throw them all together and you've got five of seven teams likely to be sitting in about the same place when the season closes out next spring -- outside the playoff dance hall.

If you're looking for a couple of teams capable of turning around bad starts, there's San Jose and Anaheim, who currently occupy the ninth and 10th spots in the West. Both have too much talent not to be playoff teams. The Sharks (2-2-1) are coming off a strange loss to Boston on Saturday and have scored just 10 goals in five games. Sooner or later both the Ducks, who are about to get healthy, and the Sharks will start to put pressure on surprise teams like Chicago, which has twice come from two goals down to beat Detroit in this young season, and the hard-skating St. Louis Blues, who seem to lose a defenseman to injury every hour on the hour.

Over in the Eastern Conference, forgiveness is the word of the day (or maybe should we say mediocrity).

A season ago, three of the top eight teams (on Nov. 1) couldn't close the deal and spent the spring lamenting what could have been (Toronto, Montreal and Carolina). Meanwhile, Ottawa was 12th, the Rangers 10th and the Tampa Bay Lightning 13th. All three managed to reach the postseason and the Sens marched all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.

Given the parity in the conference (did we mention mediocrity?), look for more of the same this season, which is good news for Buffalo, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, who are 10th, 11th, 12th and 14th, respectively.

At least three teams (perhaps all four if you believe in coach Brent Sutter in New Jersey), should plough their way back into the playoff hunt. Teams ranked eighth through 14th were separated by just one point, a trend you can expect to continue through the rest of the season.

Only the woeful Atlanta Thrashers, 0-5 after blowing a two-goal lead vs. New Jersey in the third and then allowing the winning goal in the final minute Saturday, are on the verge of officially being toast.

Slap Shots

Good week
The Minnesota Wild are not only undefeated, but they finished their week by defeating the defending Stanley Cup champions from Anaheim 2-0 on Sunday night. It was at least a small measure of revenge for last spring's first-round shellacking administered by the Ducks. Perhaps most impressive  if not totally expected  the Wild have gone 5-0 to start this season while allowing just four goals against.

Bad week
Jesse Boulerice, Philadelphia Flyer numbskull, was handed a 25-game suspension for his mindless cross-check to the face of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, hopefully ending a completely forgettable moment and an equally forgettable NHL career. It would have been nice for the Flyers to come out and say unequivocally that Boulerice is done and, following his suspension, he'll never play for the team again.

Stuck in neutral
The Boston Bruins are off to a surprising 3-2 start with all five games coming on the road. The problem is backup netminder Tim Thomas is 2-1 with a 1.34 goals-against average and .957 save percentage, while "starter" Manny Fernandez is 1-1 with a 5.00 GAA and .796 save percentage. What's wrong with this picture?

This week's top five story lines
1. Do the Atlanta Thrashers get their first win or first point of the season before the axe falls somewhere in the south?

2. Which of the multiple-personality Toronto Maple Leafs team shows up to play Buffalo, Florida and Chicago this week? The one that whacked the New York Islanders 8-1, or the one that looked like an AHL team in a loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday night?

3. Jean-Sebastien Giguere made his first start of the season in Sunday's 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild. He stopped 23 of 25 shots and his return to form will be crucial in helping the defending Stanley Cup champs return to form after a miserable 2-4-1 start.

4. The New York Rangers are still waiting for their offseason star additions, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, to jell with their teammates. Jaromir Jagr scored his first goal of the season -- a late, meaningless marker in a loss against Ottawa on Saturday. Brendan Shanahan has yet to score; Gomez has two points and Drury four. The Rangers will take advantage of a few days off and hope to turn a corner with games against Atlanta and Boston later in the week.

5. Are the Buffalo Sabres back? After looking disoriented in back-to-back losses to New York Islanders to start the season, the Sabres have looked like the Sabres of the past two seasons as they've lit up Atlanta and Washington, scoring 13 times over the past two games. The Sabres scored nine times on the power play over the course of those two games. They play the Leafs, Blue Jackets and Canadiens this week.

Random thoughts
• The NHL often takes a kick in the hockey media for not properly marketing itself. We're not sure if the new NHL store that opened a couple of weeks ago at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 47th Street in New York is good marketing, but it sure looks cool. There are 3,750 square feet of retail space, which includes a floating hockey stick sculpture made with 400 sticks, top-end video games and an ice wall made of, well, ice. The store will also be home to XM Satellite Radio's NHL Home Ice talk radio. One of the benefits of being on the ground floor of the NHL's brand new New York offices is that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and/or deputy commissioner Bill Daly are expected to be regular guests on the show.

• The recent death of Bill Wirtz prompted a lot of speculation about what might happen to the moribund franchise. Well, the first signals of a new era in Chicago were sent this week when Wirtz's son, Rocky, took over the hockey club and immediately banished longtime Blackhawks front-office fixture Bob Pulford to the sidelines. Pulford will stay with the family business, but his influence on the day-to-day operations of the club, often described as meddlesome, will be nonexistent now. With the club's strong start on the ice, fans in Chicago may truly be witnessing the dawn of a new era.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.