Our scribes go off deep end while assessing NHL's early-season losers
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" returns this season as ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Assessing some of the NHL's bottom-feeders at the quarter mark. Can they rebound and reach the postseason?
Scott Burnside: Pierre! C'as vas? I know you're in Montreal for Patrick Roy's big sweater-raising, so I thought I'd trot out my French for you. Le gateau est sur la table. Should be an interesting weekend in Montreal. But what I'm interested in talking about is how some of the NHL's bottom-feeders are making some noise. Specifically, the New York Islanders are on a 5-2-1 sprint, the Thrashers recently won five in a row, and the Los Angeles Kings had a four-game winning streak, including a sweep of the Dallas Stars. What gives?
Pierre LeBrun: Scotty, it always amazes me that the only French saying you know is, "The cake is on the table." Not sure whether that speaks to some dark emotional issues you have from your childhood.
In any case, I wouldn't get too caught up in some of the lightweight NHL teams winning some games. It's called parity. That's what happens when you have a salary cap. Only three points separated eighth place from last in the East. Everyone's got a shot, at least until late January or so, and then we start to see more of a gap between the teams headed somewhere and the teams facing reality. Still, there will be some great races for seventh and eighth in both conferences.
Burnside: At some point, I guess, we'll see some separation, as we always do, but do you think any of those teams that were considered long, long, long shots at the start of the season have a chance of making the playoffs? I should have included the Toronto Maple Leafs in that group, too, as they were tied for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference before play Thursday. Do any of them have the kind of lineup that you think has staying power?
LeBrun: Of that group, I would say Toronto has the best shot and L.A. the worst. For starters, the East is so much weaker, so that's the only reason I'd automatically count out the Kings. But they're on the right track. The Leafs have leveled off after a nice start, but under coach Ron Wilson, I think they will claw out enough wins to stay in the mix until at least March. The Thrashers are getting a lot of offense from players who might be flying under the radar, guys such as Bryan Little or Erik Christensen -- but, in the end, they'll also fall short.
To me, the two most pressing questions when looking at the early jockeying for playoff spots are Ottawa and Dallas. Both are near the bottom of the respective conferences right now and neither club is showing a sign of life.
Burnside: Yes, the situation for teams like the Thrashers and Islanders, and even the Kings, looks better because perennial playoff teams like Ottawa and Dallas are uncharacteristically off. Frankly, I think the Stars have a much better chance of rebounding to playoff form than the Sens, mostly because they have a bona fide NHL starter in Marty Turco and a solid lineup that is even better with the addition of Mark Parrish. The Sens? With all due respect to goalie Alex Auld, one of the lone bright spots, how long can he continue his level of play? If he reverts to form and the Senators continue to struggle to put up offensive numbers, things could get downright ugly in the Canadian capital. Who goes first, GM Bryan Murray or forward Jason Spezza?
LeBrun: I agree with you on the Sens. And I suspect, given the mercurial nature of team owner Eugene Melnyk, Bryan Murray's term as GM may very well be in jeopardy. Melnyk can't stand losing. Spezza's no-trade clause doesn't kick in until July 1, so he is indeed movable. But the question you have to ask yourself is, what do you get in return? He's still a young guy with tons of offensive talent. Centers like Spezza don't grow on trees. That's why not every team has one. I do think Murray will make a trade over the next few weeks, but I don't see how it can be Spezza unless the Sens are offered similar marquee value in return.
Burnside: That's the Catch-22 for Murray; you don't have enough offense and you need a puck-moving defenseman, but to improve, you will have to move an offensive asset, either Spezza or someone like Antoine Vermette. The bottom line is the Senators are better than their record shows. How much better, I'm not sure, but the answer has to come from within. And fast.
I'm not sure the Leafs have enough to keep pace, especially if Vesa Toskala is going to keep getting lit up every night. How about those Isles, though? Aside from Simon Gagne in Philly, Doug Weight gets my early vote for comeback player of the first quarter.
LeBrun: I don't share your love for the Isles, Scotty. Not sure what you're smoking. I think they are apt to lose five games in a row at a moment's notice. I will run across press row naked at the Cup finals if the Islanders make the playoffs. Not enough talent or depth. Interesting to see Weight doing so well; I agree with that. His contract is massively incentive-based, so he's smart to keep playing this way.
I'll tell you one team that is hard to figure out -- Buffalo. The Sabres started the season like a house on fire and now look completely out of sorts. I spoke to coach Lindy Ruff this week for a blog item and he was alarmed at his team's defensive play.
Burnside: Thanks for that image of you prancing across press row at the finals, sans duds. Yikes. The NHL already has enough problems getting reporters to cover the finals. This will cut that number in half. But I digress.
Ruff won't be any happier after watching his team score four in the first against the Bruins and then collapse to lose 7-4. Ryan Miller was off to an Olympic-worthy start to the season, but got yanked against Boston and has been pretty ordinary. Of course, ordinary is the curse of most of the Eastern Conference. We were talking about trouble brewing in Ottawa; it'll be interesting to see how things shake down in Calgary and Edmonton, where both teams are struggling with consistency. Loved Craig MacTavish's assessment of Dustin Penner the other day; it's been a long time since a coach threw one of his players under the bus like that.
LeBrun: The thing about Edmonton is that people have to realize some of those young guys still need time to develop. As long as they hang around the eighth spot most of the season, people shouldn't be too upset. I do wonder what MacTavish is doing with his goaltending. Has Mathieu Garon been kidnapped? Where has he been? I know he was brutal for a few starts earlier this season, but where's the loyalty? I don't think I like the whole three-goalie thing, although I understand why the Oilers don't want to risk losing Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers on waivers. It's tough to make trades at this time of year, but they need to move either Garon or Dwayne Roloson ASAP. As for Calgary, I think the expectations were too high in that city. They're hanging out as a lower-bracket playoff seed right now and that's exactly what they are. They're not among the elite teams in the West. Anyone who expected otherwise was seriously misled.
Burnside: I agree with you on the Flames' possibilities, but what surprises me -- apart from Miikka Kiprusoff looking more and more like Andrew the goalie from Monday night hockey -- is that almost nothing appears to have changed about the Flames since Mike Keenan took over as coach. He was supposed to bring blue-collar Flames hockey back, but they're a million miles from the team that went to the Cup finals in 2004. I know the game has changed, but the Flames seem to have lost their way since the lockout. Three straight first-round knockouts, and it's not going to change anytime soon.
LeBrun: Keenan won't be back next season. What about Anaheim? The Ducks have a new GM, but the same old problem from last season -- inconsistency. Last season, there were legitimate excuses with the Cup hangover, and Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne waiting until halfway through the season to come back and play. But what's the excuse now?
Burnside: Well, they did just lose a key defenseman for the season in Francois Beauchemin. And they did get red-hot in the second half in 2007-08. I like the Ducks to be a top-four team again. It'll be interesting to see if Bobby Ryan can make a difference, as their offensive depth looks again to be their Achilles' heel.
OK, last item -- do the fans go crazy for Patrick, or do they boo him Saturday night?
LeBrun: The place will rock for him. Time has healed those wounds. It was 13 years ago. The fans haven't forgotten that it was Patrick who was the biggest reason for their 1986 and 1993 Cup titles -- Montreal's last two NHL championships. It'll be interesting to see how Patrick reacts. He told me this week it figures to be an emotional moment, but he doesn't usually display that on the outside. I predict a tear or two and a long, rousing ovation like only Habs fans can deliver.
In the meantime, don't forget about the Grey Cup here in Montreal on Sunday night! Have you forgotten your Canadian roots, Scotty? Talk to you next week, you traitor.
Burnside: Grey Cup? Or is that Coupe Gris? Oui, j'ai mal a la tete. Have fun. Until next time.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com. They were last heard debating whether Mr. Burnside has mastered the English language, as well.
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