|ESPN.com: Cross Checks||[Print without images]|
Maybe it was the loss of former playoff MVP Brad Richards to free agency, or the uncertainty surrounding the team's ownership, or the way the Dallas Stars collapsed down the stretch last season. But it was somehow easy to dismiss the team as the 2011-12 season approached.
Well, the Stars have roared to a 5-1-0 record and a share of top spot in the Western Conference in the early stages of the new season.
GM Joe Nieuwendyk pointed out that the Stars weren't exactly chopped liver with 95 points in 2010-11 (tied for the most points recorded by a team that failed to make the playoffs).
Yes, Richards signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers, but the Stars added Stanley Cup winner Michael Ryder and reclamation project Sheldon Souray, who was banished by Edmonton and spent last season in the American Hockey League. Souray has been terrific early on, and his five points tie him for the team lead with Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott and Jamie Benn.
"You don't lose that big shot even if you've been out of the league for a year," Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com.
The Stars GM, a Hall of Fame player, knows firsthand Souray has a bit of a mean streak, and that mean streak has been on display for the Stars, who have allowed just 13 goals in six games. Perhaps most important, Souray doesn't have to be all things to all people, a burden he carried in his last two stops in Montreal and Edmonton (where he signed big-dollar contracts).
Ryder, too, has been a pleasant surprise, Stars rookie coach Glen Gulutzan told ESPN.com. Ryder had scored in two straight games but was also on the ice in the waning moments of Tuesday's 3-2 road win in Columbus.
"He's another guy that doesn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders," Gulutzan said. "His two-way game has surprised me, too."
Even with the early success, the Stars have struggled to attract crowds (the fall remains the domain of the Dallas Cowboys, college football and the World Series-bound Texas Rangers). But if, as expected, ownership is stabilized in the near future and the Stars keep playing as they have, they're going to be hard to ignore in Dallas and around the NHL.
"Hopefully our story will get out there," Nieuwendyk said.
Buffalo Sabres red-hot rookie Luke Adam has seen this movie before.
After just one American Hockey League game last season, he was asked by reporters if he had it in him to follow in the path of two Sabres prospects, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis, who had earned top rookie honors the previous two seasons.
"That was after my first professional hockey game," Adam recalled with a laugh in an interview this week. Now, after going on to win top rookie honors in the AHL, the easy-going forward is answering similar questions about his ability to follow up Tyler Myers' rookie exploits in 2010 and take home the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
"The guys have given me a little rookie razzing. It's cool," Adam said after posting three goals and three assists in his first five games for the 4-1-0 Buffalo Sabres.
It may appear as though the 21-year-old Adam has fallen out of nowhere to assume a share of the rookie scoring lead ahead of more high-profile first-year players such as No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Edmonton and Gabriel Landeskog of the Avs, but his production probably shouldn't come as a surprise. Adam was tied for the AHL rookie lead in goals, points and plus-minus, despite playing in just 57 games for Portland. Adam also got a taste of NHL life. He was called up six times last season, and his stays in Buffalo ranged from one day to one month.
Those periodic stays proved invaluable, and by the end of training camp, Adam wasn't just on the bubble to make the team, he was playing first-line minutes with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.
The big winger's father, Russ Adam, was a Windsor native who played eight NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1980s. He moved to Newfoundland to play senior hockey, and there he met and married Adam's mother, who owns a hair salon.
"He went there for two weeks, and 25 years later, he's still there," Adam said of his father.
Adam said he understands it's early for any talk of trophies. "There's lots of work to be done," he said.
Still, he wouldn't mind following in the steps of fellow Newfoundlanders Dan Cleary, who became the first Newfoundlander to bring home the Cup in 2008, and Ryder, who won a Cup with Boston last season.
You don't have to go too far into the stats to figure out that Ryan Kesler is not just a key piece of the Vancouver Canucks' machinery, but maybe the key piece.
Take a look at the Canucks' penalty-killing unit.
Last season, the Canucks had the best penalty-killing squad in the Western Conference and were tied for second in the league with Washington (Pittsburgh was No. 1). The Canucks have stutter-stepped out of the gate with a 2-3-1 record following a 4-0 home loss to the Rangers on Tuesday. It was Kesler's first game back after nursing a sore hip from offseason surgery, and the defending Frank J. Selke Trophy winner played 19:02.
Without Kesler in the lineup, the Canucks' penalty kill had struggled, allowing six goals on 25 attempts and giving them the 26th-ranked unit in the NHL heading into action Tuesday night.
Although the Canucks somehow managed to give up four goals on 19 shots, they didn't give up a power-play marker Tuesday, and it will be a shock if Kesler's return doesn't spark a move up the standings for last season's Presidents' Trophy winners.
Big picture, no matter how often coaches try to talk around the issue, the biggest challenge in sports is to turn a long Stanley Cup playoffs run into a strong start the following season. The teams that reached the conference finals this past spring -- Boston, Tampa, Vancouver and San Jose -- have a combined 6-13-3 record and have allowed 70 goals so far.
No one is suggesting these teams can't right the ship; it would still be a major shock if all four didn't return to the playoffs. But it does help put the feat that Detroit and Pittsburgh accomplished -- reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009 -- into perspective.
Having spent some time with the Minnesota Wild during training camp, we got a sense of the anticipation for this season. We can also understand the angst Wild fans may be feeling because this new season is suddenly looking much like many other previous seasons in the State of Hockey.
Despite the addition of offensive sparkplugs Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, the Wild are 2-2-2, including a disappointing 4-2 home loss Tuesday against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik.
Perhaps most disappointing for the Wild and rookie coach Mike Yeo is that the team's big line of Mikko Koivu, Heatley and Setoguchi has fizzled. The three have combined for three goals, one by Heatley and two by Setoguchi.
Part of the rationale for trading Martin Havlat to San Jose (he is out with a shoulder injury, by the way) for Heatley was to try to jumpstart Koivu's offensive production. It hasn't worked out. The big line was broken up during Tuesday's loss, with Setoguchi playing a bit with Matt Cullen and Guillaume Latendresse. Setoguchi leads the team with 20 shots, and Heatley has 17, but the pair needs to be doing more as front-line players.
The Wild have scored just 14 times and the power play ranks 18th with three goals. The unit was 0-for-5 against the Pens on Tuesday.
Without better production from the Wild's big three -- whether they play together or not -- Wild fans can once again kiss the playoffs goodbye.
There is an interesting game of brinkmanship being played out in the desert as the Phoenix Coyotes continue to hold firm on their position that they will not trade disgruntled prospect Kyle Turris.
League sources told ESPN.com that Turris, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, is looking for a three-year deal worth an average of slightly more than $4 million annually or a two-year deal worth slightly more than $3 million.
Those numbers would put Turris in the same high-rent district as James van Riemsdyk, who signed a six-year extension worth an average of $4.25 million with the Philadelphia Flyers before training camp. Another young player from that draft class who recently signed a new deal is Logan Couture, who signed a two-year extension at $2.875 million annually, a price tag that is generally considered a bargain for the San Jose Sharks.
The key part of the equation is that those have been Turris' demands of the Coyotes. Would he sign for less somewhere else? Almost certainly he would. A source familiar with the situation said money isn't the issue and Turris would sign a deal moments after being traded, if the Coyotes decided to move the young center. We have also been told at least half a dozen teams have made inquiries about Turris' availability.
But what is Turris' value? He has managed to score just 19 goals in 131 NHL games spread mostly over two seasons and has shown little to suggest he could become a player like van Riemsdyk or Couture, let alone Patrick Kane, who was the top pick in that 2007 draft year.
If Coyotes GM Don Maloney could add a young NHL-ready player to the roster (and we are told NHL teams are prepared to part with NHL-ready prospects), does he owe it to the Coyotes to move an unproductive asset in Turris for someone that will actually appear in the team's lineup? Or does Maloney stick to his guns and keep the top prospect and hope Turris signs before Dec. 1 and proves himself?
If Turris isn't signed somewhere by Dec. 1, he cannot play this season. That would be a terrible waste for the team and Turris if that's how it plays out.