Commentary

Canadiens making us eat our words; Canucks are not

Updated: November 6, 2007, 11:35 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

This will come as some surprise, but those who write and/or comment on hockey don't always get it right.

Many pundits, including this particular ranter, believed Montreal GM Bob Gainey had missed the boat in the offseason by failing to address what appeared to be a glaring need for scoring oomph. The Canadiens, who missed the playoffs last season in large part because they couldn't score, appeared to have not kept up pace with others in the Eastern Conference.

But Montreal is off to a terrific 7-3-3 start despite a 3-2 home loss Saturday night to Toronto.

[+] EnlargeAlexei Kovalev
Gregg Forwerck/NHLI/Getty ImagesAlexei Kovalev has seven goals and four assists in 13 games for Montreal.
It seems Gainey's faith in his young stars -- Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Komisarek -- has been rewarded. Even enigmatic veteran Alexei Kovalev is off to a good start, with 11 points after a disappointing 2006-07 campaign.

Turns out the Habs didn't need outside help; all the help they needed was right in their own dressing room, at least so far.

We caution that Montreal was vying for first place in the Northeast Division for much of the first half of last season before falling off the map in the second half. As we also recall, that team, like the current version, boasted a top-ranked power play for much of the season.

Still, we acknowledge underestimating the Habs and what they had right in their own backyard.

Which brings us to the Vancouver Canucks, another team we took to task for failing to make any significant offseason moves.

Unlike the Habs, though, the Canucks are in a bad way. Unless GM Dave Nonis can do during the season what he failed to do over the summer, the Canucks can kiss defending their Northwest Division title, and the postseason, goodbye.

The Canucks, despite a 4-3 victory over Colorado on Saturday night, are 13th in the Western Conference at 6-8-0. As of Monday morning, they were tied with Dallas with 12 points, but were just two points ahead of the co-cellar dwellers, Edmonton and Phoenix.

After a surprising second-half burst that saw them seize the Northwest crown last season and advance to the second round of the playoffs, the Canucks' strategy seemed to be: "Wake us when next season starts." But the strategy assumed a replication of netminder Roberto Luongo's other worldly ways of a season ago, when he was nominated for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies.

As it turns out, Luongo is human (5-8-0, 2.93 goals-against average and .899 save percentage). Unfortunately for the Canucks, a just-human Luongo apparently isn't going to cut it.

The team has been hammered by injuries, especially to its blue line, on which Sami Salo and Kevin Bieksa are out. And although there have been some offensive contributions outside of twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, there seems to be little in the way of leadership capable of pulling the Canucks out of their funk.

Curiously, the Canucks boast a solid 5-2 road record, but they cannot win in Vancouver, where they are 1-6-0 and tied with Phoenix for the league's worst home record. Such disparity in success is generally a sign of a team that is without a clue in terms of its identity. Coach Alain Vigneault has already called out his veterans, including rock-solid defenseman Willie Mitchell, always a dangerous thing to do before the season is a month old.

The Canucks could certainly use a player like Peter Forsberg (see below), but even though fellow Swede Markus Naslund is there, the Canucks hardly look like a team that will draw Foppa to town. Indeed, as the season moves along, it's entirely possible Naslund, along with other veterans, will be offered up as trade-deadline bait.

We acknowledge that free-agent signings aren't the panacea the media often makes them out to be. But if there ever was a team that looked like it could use some outside help to prevent a letdown, it was the Vancouver Canucks.

And the proof is in the standings.

Slap Shots


Osgood
Good Week

Chris Osgood. Go figure. The goalie, who looked to be in semi-retirement when he returned to Detroit after the lockout by backing up Manny Legace and then Dominik Hasek, won four games last week to run his season record to 7-0-0. In beating San Jose, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, Osgood allowed five goals on 83 shots. He continues to shoulder the netminding load for the red-hot Red Wings while Hasek recuperates from a hip injury. Often maligned as one of the most ordinary of goaltenders to win a Stanley Cup (he was the man when the Wings won their second of back-to-back Cups in 1998), Osgood has matured into a terrific backup, a great team guy and someone who continues to show he can deliver the goods.

Bad Week
The Dallas Stars not only managed to lose three straight home games last week, they managed to get blown out 5-0 by Phoenix (tied for last in the Western Conference) after dropping a 5-4 decision to upstart Chicago. They began the week with a 4-2 loss to San Jose. The Stars figured to have trouble scoring this season (as of Sunday they were 22nd in the league in goals per game), but they didn't figure to have trouble keeping the puck out of their net (they are 16th in the goals-allowed department). The Dallas Morning News reported the Stars were still upbeat and positive after the loss to Phoenix. But this week will be a test of the team's resolve; the Stars hits the road for four straight Pacific Division contests.

Stuck In Neutral
Guess the Buffalo Sabres really do miss Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A team that led essentially from wire to wire last season en route to its first Presidents' Trophy has been unable to get out of first gear. Actually, the Sabres can't even get into first gear, which is part of the problem. In eight of 12 games, they have allowed the first goal. Their record in those games is 4-4-0; but for a team that is used to forcing competitors out of their game plan by opening up leads, the Sabres have yet to get on track. Last in the Northeast Division with a 5-6-1 record, Buffalo begins a string of nine straight games against division foes Monday night vs. Montreal.

Our top story lines of the week


Forsberg
1. NHL GMs will be watching closely to see how Forsberg fares in his first competitive hockey of the season, playing for Sweden in the Karjala Cup in Finland later this week. The tournament stands as a significant test for Forsberg, who will not commit to returning to the NHL unless his nagging foot/ankle injury is completely healed. If he plays well, it will start what expects to be a significant bidding war among as many as eight or 10 NHL teams for the talented center's services. If, however, the 34-year-old unrestricted free agent falters, it may signal the end of the daily "Which team will he pick?" rumors for the foreseeable future, perhaps even for the entire season.

2. The New York Islanders -- a team that again refuses to stay at the bottom of the standings where most prognosticators (this one included) believe they belong -- will be waiting on pins and needles for a prognosis on Rick DiPietro. The team's top netminder suffered an eye injury in Saturday's come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh. DiPietro was inadvertently slashed under his mask by Sidney Crosby, who drew a double-minor for high sticking. DiPietro did not return and is expected to be re-evaluated Monday. The incident marred what was otherwise a banner night for Al Arbour, who returned to the Islanders bench for one game, his 1,500th as an NHL coach. Many members of the Islanders 1980s dynasty were on hand and the evening turned out to be a celebration of one of the game's mightiest franchises. The Isles, by the way, woke up Sunday with a 7-4-0 record, sixth in the Eastern Conference.

3. To mutilate a line from The Clash, does Don stay or does he go, now? The Atlanta Thrashers are one of the screwiest teams in the NHL. They drop six straight games to open the season, leading to the dismissal of coach Bob Hartley. GM Don Waddell takes over while he searches for a successor and the Thrashers go 5-3 since. After trailing 4-1 midway through the second period, they blew past Tampa Bay, 6-4, on Saturday night. They nearly posted a similar comeback against Ottawa on Thursday, falling behind 5-0 before nearly tying the game late in the going. They are still prone to wild defensive lapses, but Ilya Kovalchuk (six goals, seven points in the past two games) is on fire. So, what does Waddell do? Part of the problem facing the only GM the team has ever known is the Thrashers pretty much have to make the playoffs if Waddell has any hope of keeping his job. Will ownership allow him to hire a coach long-term if they figure they'll have a new GM by the start of next season? And what coach will come in to this situation without at least a little security? Given all that, don't look for any change behind Atlanta's bench in the short-term, if at all.

4. While all of Silicon Valley waits breathlessly for Jeremy Roenick to hit the magic 500-goal mark (he scored No. 499, the game-winner Saturday night against Los Angeles), another interesting story line centers on the fortunes of Sandis Ozolinsh. The talented, troubled defenseman, who was selected by the Sharks with the 30th overall pick in the 1991 draft, rejoined the club last week. The Sharks (7-6-1 after Saturday) lead the Pacific Division, but haven't really hit their stride. Ozolinsh, who has battled off-ice problems, including a stint in the NHL's substance abuse and behavioral health program, has averaged 20:17 a night in his two games since returning to action last week, and it appears Ron Wilson is going to give the Latvian lots of room to prove himself.

5. We couldn't let this one pass. We always enjoy the rantings of the language fanatics in Quebec, especially when it comes to hockey. Last spring, it was Quebec politicians complaining that all-around good guy Shane Doan was named captain of Canada's World Championship team. This past week, it was Quebec lawyer and political gadfly Guy Bertrand complaining that Montreal captain Saku Koivu had insulted French Canadians by introducing his teammates in a taped address before the Habs' home opener in English only. True, there are language laws that many in the bilingual province hold near and dear. But this is the same Koivu who has battled cancer and a serious eye injury and remains one of the team's most dynamic players. He is a player who gives tirelessly of himself in the community and is one of the most respected Montreal captains of all time. And he has to put up with this? How do you say "Get a life" in French?

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.