First quarter -- Reviewing the Eastern Conference
Gee, where did the first quarter of the season go?
It seems like only yesterday we were marveling at the Brits' attempts to deep-fry everything from shoe soles to carrots as we watched the NHL kick off its regular season for the first time on European soil.
Now, Bob Hartley is out as coach in Atlanta and Brett Hull is in as co-interim GM in Dallas. Go figure. Sean Avery is making friends wherever he goes, the Ducks are still waiting to see if Cup cornerstones Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer will return and Sidney Crosby is cooking, but the Penguins are not.
Here's a first-quarter review of the Eastern Conference and what might be in store in the coming weeks. Check out the Western Conference review here.
The "Welcome Aboard" Award
Of the top 25 NHL scorers, only one was not with his current team a season ago, and that is Chicago rookie Patrick Kane. It tells you that swinging the big trade or buying that big free agent doesn't necessarily mean a pot of gold. Sometimes, it's all about the quality of the person, not the quantity of the press clippings.
Take our pick in the Eastern Conference, Matt Cullen, who returned to the Hurricanes after one season with the New York Rangers. Cullen, a member of Carolina's Cup-winning squad from 2005-06, has helped the Canes re-establish themselves as one of the top offensive clubs in the NHL (they are second in goals per game and power-play efficiency). Cullen, who often mans the point on the power play, has 20 points in 21 games through Monday and is en route to a career season.
The "We Actually Thought You'd Be Better" or "Bust-a-Rama" Award
We acknowledge off the hop that Washington's Tom Poti has been beset by injuries early this season and has played in just 14 of the Caps' first 20 games. Still, after turning in a stellar run on Long Island last season (44 points and leading the Isles in ice time), Poti has no goals and just four assists for a Caps team that sits last in the conference. As one of the Caps' big three free-agent acquisitions (Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov are the others), Poti needs to have a big second quarter if Washington is going to fulfill its preseason promise of being a playoff contender.
Honorable mention: Boston netminder Manny Fernandez, who has managed to play in just four games and has been mostly awful in his limited exposure in Beantown.
Rookie "King" Award
Most of the rookie star power is concentrated in the Western Conference, but one interesting first-year player in the East is Atlanta's Tobias Enstrom. An eighth-round pick, Enstrom looks like he could be the puck-moving defenseman and power-play quarterback the Thrashers have long been searching for. Enstrom, 24, doesn't have size (5-foot-10, 175 pounds), but he is averaging 22:58 in ice time (tops among rookies) and is the top-scoring rookie defenseman and fourth among all first-year players with 10 points in 20 games.
Honorable mention: Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who continues to improve by the minute.
"Coach Looking Over His Shoulder" Award
We think he's going to get plenty of time to turn things around, but the ongoing struggles of the talented, youthful Pittsburgh Penguins aren't making life easy for coach Michel Therrien. A coach of the year finalist last season, Therrien is struggling to get consistent goaltending out of Marc-Andre Fleury and has seen Jordan Staal (just two points in 20 games) take a significant step backward in his development after being a rookie of the year candidate last season. Add the fact that veteran leaders Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi have just three goals between them and the problems are exacerbated.
The Penguins hit the quarter pole outside the playoff bubble, and that's not good for job security. GM Ray Shero inherited Therrien, so the Pens' coach isn't "his" guy, which will also be a factor in the ice melting beneath Therrien's skates.
Honorable mention: Glen Hanlon in Washington, where expectations were high for the Caps to be a playoff team.
"I Knew He Was Good, But Not That Good" Award
Everyone knew Vincent Lecavalier was a good player. He won the Rocket Richard Trophy a season ago as the NHL's top goal scorer, so we know he's not chopped vulcanized rubber. But the big center has taken his game to (cliché warning) a completely different level early this season. Lecavalier leads the league in scoring, never a bad thing, with 34 points in 20 games. Those who know him say he's grown exponentially on and off the ice, and it won't be hard to see him wearing the captain's C for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Honorable mention: New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who is on a collision course with a Vezina Trophy, and maybe even the Hart as league MVP.
The "But I'm Not Dead Yet" Award (Presented by John Cleese)
Remember when everyone had Martin Gerber on their list of biggest free-agent busts last season? No? Neither do the Ottawa Senators, who are thanking their lucky stars every day that GM Bryan Murray wasn't able to peddle the soft-spoken Swiss netminder. Gerber has reclaimed the starting job in Ottawa after a 13-2 start and leads the league in most goaltending categories. It creates a juicy dilemma for Murray, who would like to add some scoring depth between now and February's trade deadline and may have to decide whether to try and move Gerber or Ray Emery.
Honorable mention: Carolina's Cory Stillman, who had a miserable, injury-plagued 2006-07 campaign, but has 25 points in 18 games, including four game winners.
Big Things Coming -- Player Award
The Flyers and their fans have been waiting impatiently for youngster Mike Richards to start delivering on his significant promise after he was selected 24th overall in the 2003 draft. Well, Richards has finally hit his groove -- he is tied with Rick Nash for 13th in NHL scoring with 23 points in 19 games. Richards, who is averaging 21:03 in ice time and has three game-winning goals, has turned into a go-to guy for coach John Stevens, especially in the absence of Simon Gagne (concussion). Look for even better things as the season rolls along.
Big Things Coming -- Team Award
We figure the Penguins will get their act together and will still be a playoff team. They're too good not to. But the team we're expecting big things from as the season progresses is the Buffalo Sabres. After winning their first Presidents' Trophy last season, the Sabres have been reeling after the departure of co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. But this is still a team that is well-coached and deep in talent. Maxim Afinogenov and Thomas Vanek can't be as bad as they've been through the first quarter. Can they? Whether it's the aforementioned underachievers or newcomer Clarke MacArthur or the oft-injured Tim Connolly, the Sabres have the potential to move from their current standing of 14th place in the East to back in the middle of the playoff picture by the time they host the Pens in the outdoor game on Jan. 1.
Bottom Falling Out -- Player Award
What's not to love about Boston netminder Tim Thomas? A career minor leaguer who has carved out an NHL career through sheer dint of determination, he has been sensational thus far shouldering the load in the Bruins' net in the absence of supposed No. 1 goalie Manny Fernandez (see above). Thomas has a sparkling 2.05 goals-against average and an eye-popping .941 save percentage in 14 appearances. But can he keep it up? The heart hopes so, but logic and Thomas' own history suggest it's too much to ask.
Honorable mention: Gangly Leafs forward Nik Antropov, who registered an impressive 19 points in the Leafs' first 21 games. His history of brittleness and lack of discipline are bound to catch up with him.
Bottom Falling Out -- Team Award
With all due respect to Ted Nolan and the New York Islanders, it just doesn't seem possible that the plucky Isles can stay in the playoff picture over the long haul. Still, their 11-6 record (they've played five fewer games than many of their conference confreres; how does that happen, by the way?) is impressive, especially given that captain Bill Guerin has been injured of late. Mike Comrie is on pace for a career season and Chris Campoli has been a revelation on the back end with 11 points in 17 games. Still, we have to believe water will reach its own level on the Island soon enough, which will mean a precipitous drop in the standings.
Honorable mention: The Toronto Maple Leafs, who perpetually exist somewhere between precarious and chaotic, and that means finishing out of the playoff picture for the third straight season.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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