Why the long face? How about some wacky standings to start
If it's not the oldest joke in the book, it's right up there.
A horse walks into a bar and sits down. The bartender says, "Hey buddy, why the long face?"
These days, that long face could apply to, oh, more than two-thirds of NHL general managers. Less than 30 percent of the regular-season games in the very strange 2007-08 season have been played, yet remarkably few teams have enjoyed the entire ride so far.
In fact, consistency, and consistent winning, have eluded all but a handful of franchises. The exception would be four of the five clubs in the Central Division. Detroit is cruising again, St. Louis has lost only eight games, and Columbus and Chicago are suddenly competitive and have been all season.
Also out West, Minnesota's been rock solid from the get-go. In the East, the happiest GMs would have to be Boston's Peter Chiarelli and Paul Holmgren of Philadelphia, two executives who have seen their teams improve dramatically after nonplayoff seasons a year ago.
Chiarelli has to be particularly pleased his team has done well even though his major offseason acquisition, goalie Manny Fernandez, has barely played. Holmgren has had to endure an extraordinary five suspensions to five different players, but something about the way he played the game suggests he's probably not entirely displeased with the Flyers' new/old reputation as a nasty team.
So the Wings, Blues, Jackets, Hawks, Wild, Bruins and Flyers can report relative contentment with their performances so far, and that's about it. That's seven of 30 teams without much to frown about. But, for the rest, it's been an extraordinary combination of periods of exhilarating success and depressing failure.
Some teams have been wholly unsuccessful (Washington, Los Angeles) and disappointing (Pittsburgh, Calgary), but most have been either impressive or ugly at different times. The season for the majority has read like a weather report: sunny intervals interrupted by gale-force winds and heavy rain, and a few locusts tossed in for some to get that plague-like effect.
Teams have looked like juggernauts one day, then like the 1974-75 Washington Capitals (eight victories) the next.
Few have escaped these wild highs and lows, including:
Then, Brian Burke's squad went on a new tear, picking up 13 of a possible 16 points in an eight-game stretch. Of late, the Ducks have stumbled again, going 3-4-1 in their last eight, including a victory over Buffalo on Wednesday that was preceded by the announcement that Niedermayer will rejoin the team in a matter of days.
A roller-coaster season indeed.
• The Ottawa Senators, who lost to the Ducks in last season's Cup finals, roared out of the gate 16-3-0, causing some to wonder if they were going to take a run at Montreal's record performance in 1976-77 in which the Habs lost only eight regular-season games. But things went sour as the Sens had lost seven straight before hanging on to defeat Florida on Wednesday, 5-4.
• Dallas sputtered out of the gate 7-7-2 before losing in L.A. in nightmarish fashion, blowing a 4-0 lead with seven minutes to play. That cost GM Doug Armstrong his job. With Brett Hull and Les Jackson as interim co-GMs, however, the Stars are 8-3-2 since.
• Coach Bob Hartley lost his job in Atlanta after the Thrashers started 0-6-0. In 21 games under interim coach/GM Don Waddell, the club has won 13 and lost eight.
• The Toronto Maple Leafs suffered back-to-back setbacks in Dallas and Phoenix in late November to fall to 28th overall, producing calls for the heads of everyone from team president Richard Peddie to GM John Ferguson to coach Paul Maurice. The club responded by picking up seven of a possible eight points in its last four games, including consecutive wins over Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Nashville.
• The Buffalo Sabres, Eastern Conference finalists the past two seasons, lost co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency in the offseason and struggled out of the gate with six wins in their opening 17 games. Of late, however, the Sabres have picked it up, winning six of seven before losing to the Ducks on Wednesday.
• The New York Rangers suffered through a 4-6-1 slump in October, during which the club scored only 19 goals in 11 games and Henrik Lundqvist pretty much needed to record a shutout to give his team a chance to win. Then, Sean Avery got healthy and the Blueshirts got hot, and they've been loitering near the top of the Eastern Conference standings since late November.
• The Carolina Hurricanes, champions two seasons ago and a nonplayoff team last season, began the 2007-08 campaign in confidence-building style, 11-4-3. Of late, however, the Canes have looked more like last season's team, losing six of nine, including a dreadful 8-1 defeat in Buffalo last week, before bouncing back with a 4-0 triumph in Manhattan.
• Forced to begin the season with nine straight road starts under new coach Brent Sutter, the New Jersey Devils stumbled with only three wins amidst grumbling about Sutter's coaching style and Martin Brodeur's goaltending. All that has disappeared of late as the Devs have surged with eight consecutive victories.
• Vancouver started the season 5-7-0, allowing 36 goals. In their last 17 games, however, the Canucks are 11-4-2, averaging under two goals allowed per game.
• Edmonton was dead last in the NHL in November, with the free-agent acquisitions of Dustin Penner and Sheldon Souray adding little of the anticipated offensive punch, particularly with Souray out with an injured shoulder. But even the Oilers have improved, winning five of their last seven, including a sweep of a home-and-home series with the Ducks last weekend.
It has been a tremendously difficult season for anybody trying to make sense of the league. Trends toward fewer goals per game (down to 5.4) and more fighting (up 25 percent) are clear, suggesting more teams are looking to mimic the formula the Ducks used en route to the championship last season.
Some suggest this is just about salary cap-induced parity, that there's very little difference between the best and worst teams in the league. In the Eastern Conference, through Wednesday's games, only seven points separated the fourth-place New York Rangers from the 14th place Florida Panthers; while, in the West, six points separated third-place Vancouver from 13th-place Calgary.
The shootout, meanwhile, has had a peculiar effect on the standings. The Oilers, for example, have picked up seven of their 13 wins in shootouts, while San Jose has lost four of five.
Meanwhile, Montreal, Anaheim and Edmonton have been involved in eight games that went to overtime or a shootout, thus producing a three-point game, but St. Louis and Phoenix have been involved in only two such games each. More than anything, having some games with three points and others with two seems to have a bunching effect on the standings.
The result of this early-season mayhem, unpredictability and mathematical oddity is a league without anything close to a truly dominant team, and one in which the top teams are, at least at this point, relatively indistinguishable from clubs that wouldn't hold down a playoff berth if the season ended today.
Which means, for the most part, mostly long faces all around.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."