- Scott Burnside, NHL
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So here we are, 10 games into the new NHL season, the new NHL reality. Surprised? Amazed? Dismayed? Perplexed? Of course you are. So are we.
Here is a quick look at 10 things that caught our eye three weeks into what will almost certainly be known as a seminal year in the game's history.
You say hooking, I say baloney
With a nod to the band Chicago, does anybody really know what a penalty is? No? Neither do the players. Not yet. On-ice officials, likewise, seem to have different ideas of just what constitutes a penalty from night to night, and that idea varies from crew to crew. This has prompted some coaches, like Tampa's John Tortorella, to take notes on individual referees and their tendencies as one might take notes on opposing goalies.
The question many coaches and GMs are pondering is what happens now. Will players be able to adjust to the standards being imposed on clutching, hooking and holding, further improving the flow of the game while cutting down on the number of penalties? Or will league officials have to take a step back and modify how the game will be called?
"Maybe the game of hockey just can't be played the way we want it to be played," Boston GM Mike O'Connell said. "I just don't know. In the game of hockey, people bang into each other and they bang into each other by accident a lot."
And those accidents are being called. For instance, elbowing is an act. But if an opposing player runs into a player's elbow, is it a penalty? It is now. But should it be?
"There's nothing in the rules saying you can't crowd a guy. There's no two minutes for pushing someone," said O'Connell. "These are very difficult things to determine."
For the record, through 128 games, penalty minutes are down to 34.5 from the same point in 2003-04 (35.2 PIM).
Not sure why Bryan McCabe's ascendancy to the top of the scoring list among NHL defensemen is a big surprise. The former Islander registered 16 goals in 2003-04, tied for the league lead among defenders. He finished with 53 points and was a remarkable plus-22. OK, so maybe no one expected McCabe to be tied for the league lead in scoring with 15 points early on in this campaign, but there he is.
What is perhaps more surprising is the overall improvement in McCabe's play. Previously prone to bouts of undisciplined play in previous years, (remember McCabe's patented "can opener" or "flying butt" checks? No? Well, you didn't miss a thing), McCabe looked to be a player that would have difficulty making the transition to the new NHL. But McCabe has adjusted with flying colors, having drawn just 14 minutes in penalties. Can anyone say Norris Trophy? How about Canadian Olympic team?
Resisting temptation ... Or not
Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough insisted there really was no temptation on the part of the club when the new CBA was unveiled this summer and an unprecedented number of free agents flooded the market. In spite of consternation from some Wild fans and derision on the part of many hockey observers, the Wild made almost no moves on the free-agent front, holding firm to a five-year plan that has seen them develop a speedy, skilled squad from within.
"I would say 'no,' there wasn't any temptation," Risebrough said. The patience has been rewarded early on with stellar work from Marc Chouinard, a center who was drafted back in the 1995 draft but has played just four NHL seasons. Chouinard has 11 points in nine games to lead the Wild into second place in the Northwest Division (5-3-1).
The team's long-standing commitment to detail and discipline is reflected in the league's top-ranked power play and a penalty-killing unit that is second in the league. "Jacques is really hard on penalties. He doesn't like bad penalties," Risebrough said of coach Jacques Lemaire, who many thought might find it difficult to adjust to the new open play.
But I'm not dead yet
Even before the New York Rangers' first shift of the season, many hockey prognosticators dismissed the Blueshirts as a guaranteed bottom-feeder. And although no one's talking Stanley Cup on Broadway just yet, the Rangers have been an early surprise because of a strong work ethic imposed by head coach Tom Renney, the play of unheralded netminder Henrik Lundqvist and a guy named Jaromir Jagr.
Jagr, a five-time scoring champion, is tied for the league lead with 15 points through 10 games and also leads the league in shots with 52. He's on a pace for about 420 shots, which would be a huge jump from 2003-04 when Jagr took just 257 shots. Part of this is a function of having the time and space to shoot the puck and part of it is coaching. "We have stressed it vehemently to get pucks to the net," Renney said. The last time Jagr hit the 400-shot mark was in 1995-96 when he scored 62 goals and had 149 points.
The Rangers lead the Patrick Division with a 4-3-3 record and are fifth overall in power-play efficiency. No surprise given Jagr's start, but perhaps the greater surprise is that the Rangers penalty-killing unit ranks ninth overall. If the team can stay in the top 10 in those categories, a playoff berth for the much-maligned Rangers isn't out of the question.
"We're still just a .500 club. But mediocre is an improvement on what's happened in the past here," Renney said. "What we have to hope is that what we're doing stands the test of time. We realize this is a work in progress."
The Star stew factor
Many teams that gorged themselves on the free-agent buffet have ended up with a little early-season indigestion.
• The Pittsburgh Penguins loaded up on big-name talent like Ziggy Palffy, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Jocelyn Thibault to compliment super phenom Sidney Crosby and captain/owner Mario Lemieux. Yet heading into action Tuesday, the Penguins were the only NHL team without a win. Gonchar has been a huge disappointment with just two points. LeClair is a ghastly minus-6, as is Lemieux, and Thibault has either been injured or shelled with a 6.30 goals-against average and .850 save percentage in three games.
• In Atlanta, a team that looked primed for a jump up the standings has struggled mightily to find on-ice chemistry with its new-look lineup that includes Marian Hossa, Peter Bondra, Jaroslav Modry, Niclas Havelid and Bobby Holik. The Thrashers started play this week tied with Washington for last place in the Southeast Division.
• The Edmonton Oilers were thinking playoffs and more when they traded for Chris Pronger and Michael Peca, but find themselves tied for last in the Northwest Division. Pronger has yet to score and has but one assist and Peca has tallied just once as the Oil struggle to find a rhythm.
• Although the results have not been as dire in Boston, the Bruins have had difficulty getting untracked after their revamped lineup had some talking Stanley Cup. The Bruins are last in the Northeast Division and have been beset by injuries (captain Joe Thornton missed three games with a bad back) and absences (defenseman Nick Boynton has played in just five of 10 games).
"Of course you're always concerned when you're under .500," O'Connell said. "But not as concerned as if the whole team had been together the whole time."
All of these teams should improve with time but illustrate the old adage that it's not necessarily who've you've got but how they play.
Boys to men
Last season must have seemed like an eternity to young prospects eager to launch or take the next step in their NHL careers. Many of the league's top young players still on entry-level contracts ended up toiling in the AHL. Yet early returns in the NHL show that the year of development has been worth its weight in pucks.
When last we saw Eric Staal in 2003-04, he was a gangly teenager who looked a little lost among the men of the NHL. Now, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft has filled out and has been the best player on a Carolina Hurricanes team that is fast shedding its image as an offensive punching bag. Staal is third in scoring with 13 points and has shown a deft touch around the net, including a beauty Monday night as the 'Canes erased a two-goal deficit to hand the Senators their first loss of the season.
That game featured another rising star in Jason Spezza, who led the American Hockey League in scoring last year and has moved seamlessly into a pivotal role with the Senators, who once again see themselves as Stanley Cup contenders. Spezza, playing alongside Dany Heatley, leads the Sens in scoring with 12 points.
Other players who have taken a surprising jump from the anonymity of the minors (or European leagues), include Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Richards of the Flyers, who has made the jump from juniors with a brief stop in the AHL playoffs, and Kings netminder Jason Labarbera, who two years ago was the AHL's most valuable player.
Bright spot in dark place
With all of the hype (much of it justified) over the arrival of Sidney Crosby, it's been easy to overlook the arrival of last year's top pick Alexander Ovechkin, who has been the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape in Washington.
Crosby has not disappointed, leading all rookies with 11 points in eight games while playing mostly with established NHL stars. But Ovechkin has sparkled playing alongside a mostly anonymous cast in Washington. Ovechkin's 10 points rank him second amongst rookie scorers. He is, surprisingly, a plus-1, not an easy accomplishment for a team that's been outscored 40-20. He is also logging a lot of ice time, 18:14 per game, among the highest of all rookie forwards.
Plan A and A1
Is it possible Alois Hadamczik, new coach of the Czech Republic's Olympic team, will have to decide between the two best goaltenders in the world when he sets his roster for Turin next February? Early returns suggest he will.
Tomas Vokoun has surprised no one with his superlative play in Nashville, where the Predators are off to their best start in franchise history (7-0). The Predators are the only unbeaten team in the league and Vokoun (1.95 GAA, .934 save percentage in six games) is a big reason why.
In Ottawa, Dominik Hasek and the Senators suffered their first loss of the season, 3-2, to the surprising Hurricanes on Monday night. The loss does nothing to diminish the renaissance of Hasek, the man considered among the greatest goalies of all time. After a disastrous turn in Detroit at the start of the 2003-04 season (he played just 14 games after sitting out the previous season), there were many who believed his return to the game would be ill-fated given his age (40) and his unorthodox, sprawling style of play.
Early on, it's shooters who have been ill-fated in their attempts to beat the Czech icon. Hasek has turned in a 1.95 GAA and .931 save percentage. There's also the matter of the shootouts. Neither Czech goalie has been beaten, each stopping all five shooters they've faced. That could provide another dilemma for Hadamczik, given that Vokoun ousted the Americans in a shootout en route to a gold medal at the World Championships last spring. And of course, Hasek ousted Canada with a memorable turn in a shootout at the 1998 Olympics en route to a gold medal in Nagano. Decisions, decisions.
Power surge in Northeast
Want to know where the balance of power in the new NHL lies? Look no further than the Northeast Division, in which the Senators, Habs, Leafs, Sabres and Bruins have combined for 57 points in 42 games. The closest of the five other divisions is the Northwest, where the Canucks, Wild, Avalanche, Flames and Oilers have collected 49 points in 45 games.
Only the Bruins are sub-.500 at 4-5-1.
What does it mean? Well, in the old NHL, it's possible all four teams might have qualified for the playoffs. But with a schedule that pits division foes against one another eight times throughout the season, chances are that only a handful of points will separate first from last, and at least one quality team will be forced to the sidelines when the dust settles in the spring.
The Vancouver Canucks, our personal favorite to win the Stanley Cup next spring, are off to a sterling start at 7-1-1, but Todd Bertuzzi has been slow to emerge as the force many expected him to be in the new NHL. Although he continues to prowl the right side along with Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison, Bertuzzi has just two goals, one on a flukey deflection, and seven points in total.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
We're a few weeks into the NHL season. Surprised? Amazed? So are we. Here's 10 things that have caught our eye.