1. Real test coming for the Bulin Wall and young Oilers
In a season of surprise, no surprise has been bigger than the play of the Edmonton Oilers. From dead last in the standings the past two years and among the worst, statistically speaking, over that time period, the Oilers have surged to a 7-2-2 start that puts them in a tie for first in the Western Conference as of Wednesday morning. They are riding a five-game winning streak and lead the league in goaltending thanks to a renaissance start from Nikolai Khabibulin. They rank fourth on the penalty kill and are a respectable 12th on the power play, having scored five times with the man advantage in the past three games. So life is good for the Oilers. But (and you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) the next four weeks are going to say an awful lot about this young team and whether this is all a mirage or the foundation of something special.
Starting Thursday in Los Angeles, the Oilers will play 10 of their next 12 on the road.
“That’s definitely going to be a benchmark. It’s going to be a good measuring stick for us,” head coach Tom Renney told ESPN.com this week.
Lots of different things are going to come into play over this period of time away from the Rexall Place.
Renney won’t be able to get the favorable matchups he has at home, especially when it comes to his top young line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, last year’s first overall draft pick, Taylor Hall, the 2010 first overall pick and Jordan Eberle. There will be the question of travel fatigue on his young team, the inherent issues of crowd noise and all the other things that can make extended road trips onerous.
Renney’s not going to be hiding his young players and the opportunity, not to mention the need for them to continue to contribute while away from home.
“We need to see what they can do,” Renney said.
And then there’s the element of keeping his squad grounded. After so much losing, Renney will have to ensure that his team doesn’t get ahead of itself and simply expect the wins to keep coming.
“We’re trying to create an identity here,” Renney said.
That means playing the same way night in and night out.
Apart from perhaps five periods, Renney said he’s been happy with what he’s seen thus far in terms of his team’s consistency.
He’s gotten production from his skilled youngsters and to balance that, veterans Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff have combined for seven goals and 10 assists in 11 games for the Oilers.
There is a symbiotic relationship between those veterans and the young core of the team, Renney said, with both groups feeding off the other.
Over the next three weeks, the hockey world is going to find out, in Renney’s words, whether what we’ve seen through the first month of the season is fool’s gold or the real thing. Perhaps as important, the Oilers will start to find that out themselves.
2. Smith everything and more for the Yotes
The fact the Coyotes opted to sign netminder Mike Smith out of Tampa to compete for the No. 1 job with Jason Labarbera contributed to the overall consensus that the Yotes wouldn’t be able to replicate their surprising run to the playoffs the past two years, when Bryzgalov had been a rock between the pipes.
Well, just for fun let’s examine these numbers.
Bryzgalov: 4-4-1 record, 3.16 GAA, .880 save percentage.
Smith: 4-2-1 record, 2.57 GAA, .919 save percentage.
This isn’t meant to knock Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist two years ago, who will almost certainly turn those numbers around with the Flyers. But Smith’s strong play reinforces that old adage that it takes a village. Although there were a number of goaltenders on the open market July 1, head coach Dave Tippett (who coached Smith as a youngster in Dallas), GM Don Maloney and, perhaps most significantly, goaltending coach Sean Burke felt there was a lot to work with when it came to the 6-foot-4 Smith.
Early on, Smith has rewarded that faith in spades.
After a rocky opening night against San Jose, Smith has been stellar, and the 5-3-2 Coyotes carry a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) into Wednesday’s game in Colorado.
Tippett said that Burke has helped focus Smith’s energy in practice and helped refine his game.
“Smitty’s driven to be a legitimate No. 1 NHL goaltender,” Tippett told ESPN.com.
“The student has put in the work,” the coach said.
Smith’s ability to help his defensemen with his high-end puck handling skills has forced opposing teams to alter how they approach the forecheck and allowed the Coyotes to break out of their own zone more smoothly.
Smith, the proud father of 3½-month-old son Aksel, likewise passes along much credit to Burke, saying he has learned as much from the veteran NHL netminder in the short time he’s been in Phoenix than in his entire career.
“I didn’t know how it was all going to play out,” Smith acknowledged.
But now the emotional netminder said he’s thinking less and playing more, and that has resulted in more pucks hitting him and fewer going by him.
“I’m not thinking about it. I’m just kind of reading and reacting,” he said.
At one point last year, Smith was sent to the minors, his NHL career at a crossroads. He ended up returning to the Lightning and backing up Dwayne Roloson as the Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. He made a couple of strong performances in relief during that conference finals series and now seems to have found a home in the desert.
3. Avery won’t make a big impact
Interesting to listen to New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella bury San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton for some ill-timed comments about the Rangers’ softness this week. Thornton made the comments after the Rangers had thumped the Sharks 5-2 on Monday to end the Sharks’ five-game winning streak. Tortorella then suggested Thornton hadn’t won anything in his career and that he should just shut up. Great theater, but we couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t a little misdirection by Tortorella, who will be facing daily questions about what to do with Sean Avery now that the polarizing winger has cleared waivers and is back with the big club.
Fans and sometimes the media are slow on the uptake when it comes to a player’s diminishing skills and/or diminishing role with a team. Avery has been a fan favorite in New York because he is a character (or a caricature, depending on your viewpoint). But the truth of the matter is he has long ago ceased to be a player whose presence in the lineup makes any significant difference. We recall doing a radio interview at the start of the playoffs last spring, and there was much debate about whether Avery would be in the lineup against the Washington Capitals. He had been a healthy scratch down the stretch, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he didn’t play to start the series.
When Tortorella put him in during the final four games of the five-game series loss to the Caps, there was much discussion about his potential impact. As it turns out, the discussion was much ado about nothing as the Rangers lost three of those four games, and Avery added one assist.
In three of those four games, he played fewer than 15 minutes, once playing fewer than 10 minutes.
Twice during his career, Avery scored 15 goals and his ability to skate and agitate made him the kind of player that could alter the flow and tempo of a game whether it was drawing a penalty, goading opposing players into losing their minds or chipping in a smart offensively play. That seems like a lifetime ago.
Last season, Avery scored just three times in 76 games and was sent to the minors before the start of this regular season.
Even as he was about to rejoin the Rangers this week, Tortorella wouldn’t or couldn’t confirm that Avery would actually be in the lineup, which speaks volumes about just how far Avery’s stock has fallen regardless of how many pro-Avery signs show up at Madison Square Garden and how many times Tortorella gets asked about the player.
4. Are the Senators for real?
Talking about youth and surprises, the Ottawa Senators remain one of the more intriguing stories as the NHL approaches the one-month mark.
Although they had a six-game winning streak broken in Boston on Tuesday night, the Sens are 7-6, boast the league’s second-ranked power play and are tied for fifth in goals per game. Not bad for a team that a year ago ranked 29th in goals scored and 15th on the power play. Erik Karlsson, in just his third season, is tied for the league lead among defensemen with 13 points. The 21-year-old also leads the Sens in average ice time per night at 25:05. The Sens have received better performances from veteran blueliners Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar, but they still rank dead last in goals allowed per game at a whopping 3.85.
The penalty kill is 27th in the league. Still, predicted by most everyone to finish at the very bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the Sens have to be thrilled about their record especially after the season started with losses in five of their first six games. Now there are two schools of thought moving forward: One theory is that the youngsters, who include top-rated defensemen Jared Cowen and David Rundblad, will gain confidence from the team’s recent successes, and the team defense will get better and the Sens won’t see the bottom fallout. Theory 2 is that as the season moves along, those young players will hit a wall and that water will seek its own level, and in the Sens’ case, that means sinkage. Talk to us in a month.
5. Garrison making his presence felt in Florida
How’s this for an early success story? Florida defenseman Jason Garrison, an undrafted former University of Minnesota-Duluth player, leads all NHL defensemen with five goals. Signed as a free agent by the Panthers in 2008, Garrison has scored in three straight games for the 6-4-1 Panthers. GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com that Garrison is finally getting to use his cannon of a shot, thanks in large part to the passes provided by defense partner Brian Campbell. In 113 NHL games prior to this season, Garrison managed seven in total. "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy," Tallon said. "Almost every goal is the same, one-timer from the deep slot. He just hammers it."
Still, there are question marks surrounding the Panthers: Backup netminder Scott Clemmensen has started practicing with the Cats again after a knee injury sustained in training camp that required surgery to repair. Although top goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom was solid in his first sustained NHL action, backing up Jose Theodore, look for Clemmensen to move back into that role when he’s healthy and Markstrom to return to the American Hockey League, where he will get plenty of action. Still, Markstrom’s play (he is 2-2 with a .945 save percentage) bodes well for the 31st overall pick in the ’08 draft and for the future of Florida’s goaltending, whether that future arrives sooner or later.