Denial is all the rage in the NHL these days. The league denies it has any real problems to solve, on or off the ice; GMs guiding wobbly franchises deny the need to make any drastic changes to their rosters; and goaltenders deny they could survive so much as a deflected wrist shot without the protection of gargantuan-sized equipment.
As a matter of fact, just about every team in the league has at least one area where idealism trumps the truth. Let's look at all 30 and provide them a wakeup call. We'll do the first half of the league this week, and the rest next week:
The Delusion: Scott Niedermayer's return means everything will improve quickly, including the Ducks' dire road record.
Reality Check: The domino effect of Niedermayer's return means Anaheim will need at least a few weeks to adjust; if they haven't by the time they begin playing nine of 10 away from home in mid-January, they may be life-or-death to make the playoffs.
The Delusion: Marian Hossa will re-sign with the Thrashers when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Reality Check: If Atlanta is out of the playoff picture by the trade deadline, Hossa gets re-zoned into a playoff rental and signs with the highest bidder after the season.
The Delusion: The Bruins can continue to win without replacing the injured Patrice Bergeron.
Reality Check: Coach Claude Julien employs the most stifling defensive system in the NHL these days, but Boston still needs offense, and without Bergeron, they'll need as much, if not more stellar play from goalies Tim Thomas, Tuukka Rask and Alex Auld -- none of whom have displayed season-long consistency at the NHL level.
The Delusion: The absences of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury are what's behind the Sabres' struggles.
Reality Check: Maxim Afinogenov's measly four goals, 11 points and minus-9, and Ryan Miller's .905 save percentage are as much, if not more, to blame than the unfilled shoes of Drury and Briere.
The Delusion: Cam Ward has rebounded from his off-year last season.
Reality Check: Ward has improved his goals-against average and save percentage this year, but not nearly enough. Carolina's Eastern Conference-best offense has saved him so far, but it may not for the rest of the season.
The Delusion: Tuomo Ruutu might yet become a first-line NHLer.
Reality Check: He's as healthy as he's ever been, but Ruutu is on pace for just 15 goals and 36 points this year. He could be the trade bait that lands the Hawks the veteran blueliner they need.
The Delusion: The Avs went 2-for-2 by signing Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan in the offseason.
Reality Check: Smyth has came as advertised for the most part, but Hannan has been less than impressive, in terms of both his physical presence and his positional play (a team-worst minus-14). Call it 1-for-2 so far.
The Delusion: The Blue Jackets' Cinderella season will turn into a pumpkin in the coming months, resulting in another non-playoff year.
Reality Check: Despite injuries that have intermittently cost them the presence of key veterans Fredrik Modin, Michael Peca and David Vyborny, Columbus has been able to keep it together and stay in the race for a postseason berth. Direct all kudos to Ken Hitchcock.
The Delusion: In improving after GM Doug Armstrong was fired, the Stars have saved coach Dave Tippett's job.
Reality Check: As long as Brett Hull is co-GM, nobody's job is safe. Especially if the Stars get squeezed out of the playoff picture.
The Delusion: Dominik Hasek is the Red Wings' clear-cut No. 1 netminder.
Reality Check: Hasek is on pace to put up his worst goals-against average in more than a decade, and the worst save percentage of his career. And with Chris Osgood's sparkling GAA and save percentage, Mike Babcock should have no qualms about sitting the Dominator.
The Delusion: Sheldon Souray's return will kick-start the Oilers' abominable power play.
Reality Check: When you're converting chances at an 11.9 percent clip, there's really nowhere to go but up. But judging by the continued power-play success of Souray's old team in Montreal, he didn't have nearly as much to do with it as many believed.
The Delusion: The Panthers will make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Reality Check: I also thought this might come to pass, but after watching Florida once again meander its way through the first two months of the season, I'm ready to pull the chute on them. Mike Keenan clearly was not the problem.
The Delusion: Lubomir Visnovsky was worth the five-year, $28-million contract he signed this summer.
Reality Check: I got ripped mercilessly by Kings fans for writing this was one of the offseason's worst free-agent deals. Visnovsky's season so far: one goal, 18 assists, and a minus-14. Advantage: Proteau.
The Delusion: Any second now, the Wild will turn into the Ottawa Senators West, and prove coach Jacques Lemaire really is an offense-first coach.
Reality Check: Minnesota has 73 goals-for this year. That's the third-lowest total in the entire league. Let us never debate this again.
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