- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Most teams will hit the quarter mark of the NHL season in the next week. Here's a breakdown of where teams stand as they make the first turn in what has been a wildly exciting and unpredictable (aren't they all?) start to the 2008-09 regular season.
Boston Bruins: A
Go figure. The Bruins continue to play a tough, defensively sound style of hockey that makes them the surprise team to beat in the Eastern Conference at the quarter mark. Tim Thomas continues to prove he's the real deal in goal, leading the league in both save percentage (.944) and goals-against average (1.78). Milan Lucic has emerged as one of the game's toughest forwards and Marc Savard is on a 100-point pace.
Pittsburgh Penguins: A-minus
There is, quite simply, no more exciting team in the NHL right now than the Penguins. They may not have it all together in terms of team defense, but they look like a team that is determined to remain a true Stanley Cup contender. Led by NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin, who has put aside a disappointing turn in last spring's Stanley Cup finals, the Penguins have overcome injuries to key defensemen (Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney) and new faces up front to surge to the top of the conference standings. Jordan Staal is re-establishing himself as a dominant offensive force after an off season in 2007-08. Philippe Boucher is a nice pickup and the Pens should get healthy in the next month.
Montreal Canadiens: A-minus
The Habs have hit a bit of a wobble of late after getting pasted by Toronto and Boston, but they still boast as deep an offensive squad as any in the conference and have a nice mix of mobility and toughness on the back end. As long as sophomore netminder Carey Price can keep it together, Montreal will be challenging for the conference lead all season. Mike Komisarek is an emerging defensive force.
New York Rangers: B-plus
The bloom is off the rose a bit for the Rangers after a torrid start. In spite of personnel changes that suggested the Rangers should deliver high-octane offense, the team looks much as it did last season, scoring just enough and relying heavily on the heroics of netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Not sure it's a recipe for a Cup victory, but so far it's been a recipe for staying near the top of the conference standings. Nikolai Zherdev has been a nice surprise. Now the question is whether he can keep that warm, fuzzy feeling going all season long.
Washington Capitals: B-plus
Interesting start for the defending Southeast Division-champion Caps, who are dynamite at home (undefeated in regulation through Wednesday), but only ordinary on the road. Defending Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin is starting to catch fire and Alexander Semin is challenging for the NHL scoring lead (when not running down Sidney Crosby in the press). Goaltending, as predicted, has been up and down, but coach Bruce Boudreau hasn't been shy about trusting backup Brent Johnson over high-priced free-agent acquisition Jose Theodore.
Philadelphia Flyers: B-minus
The Flyers have been all over the map through the first quarter of the season, but they're too good to be anything but a playoff team. Simon Gagne has made a nice return from last season's concussion problems and is top five in NHL point production, but Daniel Briere's injury woes are cause for concern. Inconsistent goaltending (is there any other kind in Philly?) is also worrisome, but that should straighten itself out, as well. Rumors abound that Brendan Shanahan may be looking to call Philadelphia his new home, which might mean the end of the road for classy veteran Mike Knuble in Philly.
Buffalo Sabres: B-minus
The Sabres got off to a torrid start (6-0-1) with netminder Ryan Miller looking all-world. Since then, Buffalo has cooled off and Miller has been just ordinary. Luckily for Buffalo, the conference is populated by similarly middle-of-the-road teams, so the Sabres' dream of getting back to the playoffs is still alive. Thomas Vanek remains one of the top goal scorers in the league.
Carolina Hurricanes: C-plus
The Canes have been hampered by injuries to key personnel like Justin Williams, who's missed the entire first quarter, Joni Pitkanen, Matt Cullen and Brandon Sutter. Still, the team that looked to return to the offensive prowess that fueled its 2005-06 championship season has been tepid (the power play ranked 20th and the Canes were 19th in goals per game); the defense has also been ordinary. Sergei Samsonov waited most of the first quarter of the season to score his first goal of the season. Ouch.
Atlanta Thrashers: C
The Thrashers jumped back into the playoff fray with a five-game winning streak, so kudos to rookie coach John Anderson. The Thrashers still give up way too much defensively and are tied with Dallas for most goals allowed per game. The goaltending remains in a state of flux with Kari Lehtonen battling back problems and Ondrej Pavelec waiting for his chance to prove he's the goaltender of the future. Sophomore Bryan Little is the surprise scoring leader for the Thrashers, moving at a point-a-game pace. Slava Kozlov is also having a bounce-back season.
New Jersey Devils: C
Hard to know how to grade the Devils, who have been crippled by injuries to key players like Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik, Paul Martin and, of course, Hall of Fame-bound netminder Martin Brodeur. It's clear in the early going that Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes aren't going to get the job done. Whether GM Lou Lamoriello makes a move to shore up the goaltending may determine whether the Devils miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
New York Islanders: C-minus
The Islanders are another team that has defied prognosticators with a string of solid efforts to hit the quarter mark within hailing distance of the playoffs. Kudos to another rookie coach, Scott Gordon, who has had to make do with backup netminder Joey MacDonald for much of the season with Rick DiPietro sidelined. Veteran Doug Weight has rediscovered his scoring touch after it looked as though his career might be done, and the Isles have been staying close and winning more than their share of one-goal games.
Toronto Maple Leafs: D-plus
Say this for the Leafs, they never quit. A new, younger lineup has produced a different style of hockey on the ice under new coach Ron Wilson. Too often, though, the results are the same, and that means not enough victories. The normally reliable Vesa Toskala has been too ordinary too often for the Leafs to think playoffs and it is a rare night they don't fall behind by a couple of goals early on.
Tampa Bay Lightning: D-plus
Firing coach Barry Melrose 16 games into the season illustrates the state of flux in which the Lightning find themselves. Ownership and management can't seem to decide what kind of team they want to be, both on the ice and financially, as the trade of minute-muncher Matt Carle to Philadelphia attests. There is plenty of time to turn this ship around given the talent in the lineup and the surprising play of netminder Mike Smith, but it won't happen if everyone isn't pulling on the same rope, which hasn't been the case so far. The immediate question facing the team is whether new rookie coach Rick Tocchet has the personality to make sure that cohesiveness takes place.
Ottawa Senators: D-plus
There's trouble in the Canadian capital as the Senators, tied for last in the conference at this writing, can't put enough offense together to make up for sometimes ordinary defensive play. Alex Auld has played well as the surprise starting goalie in front of Martin Gerber, but the pressure is on GM Bryan Murray to find a puck-moving defenseman. He'll have to give up offense and he doesn't have enough as it is. Look for the Jason Spezza trade rumors to percolate, especially as it relates to the possible acquisition of Vancouver's Mattias Ohlund.
Florida Panthers: D
New coach, new lineup, new promises same results in South Florida for the bottom-dwelling Panthers. Rookie coach Peter DeBoer was hoping to rely on a rock-solid defense and goaltending to keep the young Panthers in the playoff hunt, but they're 16th in goals against per game and 28th in goals scored per game. The Panthers have yet to win more than two games in a row at any point this season. Jay Bouwmeester had not scored through 17 games and will become the elephant in the corner as GM Jacques Martin will have to decide whether to move the franchise defenseman. Bouwmeester can become an unrestricted free agent in July and has showed little inclination to sign on for the long haul in Florida (and why would he?).
San Jose Sharks: A-plus
The current gold standard for Stanley Cup contenders. But, of course, we've heard that story before when it comes to San Jose, haven't we? The Sharks have jelled surprisingly well under rookie coach Todd McLellan and, as of midweek, have yet to lose in regulation at home. Dan Boyle is doing what GM Doug Wilson thought he would on the back end and forward Devin Setoguchi is another homegrown gem. As always, the question is whether they can bring it come April when the pudding is on the table.
Detroit Red Wings: A
Stanley Cup hangover? What hangover? Coach Mike Babcock recently told us he didn't think the Wings had played all that well, and there have been a few missteps defensively. But Marian Hossa is an early Hart Trophy candidate and this is a team that hasn't missed a beat in its early Cup defense.
Anaheim Ducks: B-plus
The Ducks got off to a grisly start before catching fire, but have wobbled slightly of late. Still, they remain the third member of the West's terrible trio, which makes this conference so compelling. Yes, they'll miss defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who is gone for the season with a knee injury, and GM Brian Burke, who is headed (presumably) to Toronto. But Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are as good a young duo as there is in the league. Watch for veteran blueliner Bret Hedican to move seamlessly into Beauchemin's minutes on the back end.
Minnesota Wild: B-plus
The Wild have quietly piled up points in the absence of star forward Marian Gaborik, who remains out of the lineup with some sort of lower-body malady. The Wild have played fewer games than their conference mates, but have had nice production from Mikko Koivu, who is their current points leader. As befitting a Jacques Lemaire team, the Wild aren't going to blow you out, but they remain the conference's dominant defensive team and rely on a balanced scoring attack to get the job done. The Gaborik story remains a potential distraction, but the Wild look playoff-bound once again.
Vancouver Canucks: B
Who can figure these guys out? The Canucks looked like a team that would be lucky to squeeze out a goal or two every night and simply pray goalie Roberto Luongo played his brains out 77 times to stay in the playoff hunt. But heading into Thursday's action, the Canucks are third in the West, have gotten nice scoring balance from Kyle Wellwood, injury-prone Pavol Demitra, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows to take some of the pressure off the Sedin twins. And, of course, Luongo has been mostly sensational.
Chicago Blackhawks: B
The Blackhawks rolled the dice early and fired coach Denis Savard after just four games, but the move has paid dividends as Joel Quenneville has had an immediate impact on the team's play. There are still some adventures in their own zone, but the Blackhawks can light it up with anyone in the league. Cam Barker has produced much-needed offense from the back end since being recalled from Rockford of the AHL. GM Dale Tallon still has to figure out what to do with netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who has been the team's best puck stopper but is a drag on its salary cap with his $6.75 million contract. Rumors persist that Michael Nylander will be coming over from Washington, but that's unlikely unless Khabibulin goes.
Nashville Predators: B-minus
Nashville's offense by committee has been doing a nice job of keeping up its end of the bargain, but the normally stingy Preds have sprung more than a few leaks defensively (they rank 26th in goals allowed per game). Dan Ellis, off to a slow start in goal, has turned his game around a bit, but he'll need to be more consistent if Nashville is going to qualify for the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
Calgary Flames: C-plus
The Flames seem unable to shake themselves out of a season-long lethargy that has seen them play well for spurts only to tail off completely with embarrassing losses to Vancouver, Chicago and San Jose. It's a reminder of how far removed this team is from the 2004 squad that advanced to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Miikka Kiprusoff (3.35 GAA, .888 save percentage) is a shadow of his former superlative self. Coach Mike Keenan, brought in to re-establish the Flames' blue-collar work ethic, has had virtually no impact since his arrival at the start of last season, and there are rumors he may be the next coach to go for the high dive.
Columbus Blue Jackets: C-plus
The Blue Jackets are another team that hit the quarter mark looking for that elusive quality called consistency. Pascal Leclaire is back after a couple of stints on the injury shelf and his return to form is crucial to the Blue Jackets' hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in team history. Rookies Derick Brassard, who leads all rookies in scoring, and Jakub Voracek have shouldered a surprising offensive load. Still, there are a lot of questions, including whether there is a natural center to play with star Rick Nash and if the revamped defense can cut down on its first-quarter mistakes.
Edmonton Oilers: C
Not quite sure what to make of the Oilers, who have had a strange schedule that has seen them play just five home games through their first 19. Still, a team many predicted to win the Northwest has been maddeningly inconsistent. The Oilers still have yet to figure out their goaltending situation with Dwayne Roloson, Mathieu Garon and Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers all battling for time; plus, the offense, supposedly three lines deep, has been popgun-like. Coach Craig MacTavish recently benched alleged top-six forward Dustin Penner and savaged him to reporters before reinstating him in a blowout win over Columbus (Penner scored his fourth goal of the season). Stay tuned.
Phoenix Coyotes: C
New season, same problems for the Coyotes. The desert dogs work hard and do a decent job of keeping the puck out of their own net, but cannot generate enough offense to be considered a playoff team. Phoenix was 24th in goals per game and 26th on the power play by midweek, and that's not going to cut it. After Olli Jokinen and Shane Doan, the production drops off pretty dramatically. Rookies Viktor Tikhonov and Kyle Turris had just one goal each heading into Thursday's games.
Colorado Avalanche: C-minus
The Avs are the poster boys for mediocrity. As of this writing, they're as middle-of-the-road as you can get -- 8-9-0 overall, 4-4-0 at home, 4-5-0 on the road. Netminder Peter Budaj has shown flashes of being a No. 1 goalie, but just as many flashes suggest he doesn't have the tools. The team lacks a player who is producing at a point-a-game pace, and with captain Joe Sakic banged up, this may be as good as it gets for the once-powerful franchise.
Los Angeles Kings: C-minus
Hard to be critical of a team that is in many ways overachieving with a close-to-.500 record. Still, no matter how much better this young team is playing defensively (it was fourth overall on the penalty kill compared to 30th last season), the Kings are still not ready to be a playoff team. Not yet, anyway. Still, Drew Doughty has shown early on he's a keeper. Jack Johnson should be back late in the calendar year, and he'll need to stay healthy to keep developing at an acceptable pace.
Dallas Stars: D
As of this writing, the Stars were 14th in the West, almost inconceivable given their spirited march to the Western Conference finals last spring. But their goaltending has been miserable (they were tied with Atlanta for last in goals allowed per game) and there are persistent rumors of discontent in the dressing room (no surprise given the offseason addition of Sean Avery). The Stars won't be here for long. They're too good. But it's been a shocking start to a season that held much promise, and the pressure is starting to grow on co-GM Brett Hull, who insisted on bringing Avery into the fold.
St. Louis Blues: D
Could the Blues have any worse luck in terms of injuries? Erik Johnson doesn't even get on the ice for training camp before he's lost for the season. Manny Legace hurts himself at a Sarah Palin appearance before a game. Paul Kariya is out. Andy McDonald breaks his ankle. Hard to imagine this team won't be in exactly the same spot at the end of the regular season -- dead last.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Most teams hit the quarter mark in the next week. Here's a breakdown of where teams stand as they make the first turn in what has been a wildly exciting and unpredictable start to the 2008-09 regular season.