Wednesday, January 4, 2006 Updated: January 5, 1:11 PM ET
Flyers, others battling through adversity
By Barry Melrose Special to ESPN.com
Happy New Year to everyone! Here's hoping you are getting a chance to watch the World Junior Championships, which has been a great tournament so far.
Many future NHL stars are on the ice at the worlds, so take it all in. Now, a look at the NHL itself.
Philadelphia continues to impress me. In the midst of a grueling 11-game road trip, the Flyers are still finding a way to win.
A healthy Joe Nieuwendyk is helping the Panthers gain ground in the Eastern Conference.
A big reason for the success is a group of young players that helped their injury-depleted team stay competitive. The team knew these youngsters would be good players, but it likely didn't think they'd be playing this much. Centers Jeff Carter (21 points), R.J. Umberger (15) and Mike Richards (19) have given the team strength down the middle. Goalie Antero Niittymaki has been solid in the place of the injured Robert Esche.
At the start of the season, the only players you heard about were Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne. But now, no one will deny the depth the Flyers have. This new resource of wealth could also help Philadelphia at the trade deadline. I still think the Flyers need another goaltender -- they don't want to go into the playoffs with a rookie netminder, no matter how well Niittymaki is playing. With younger -- and cheaper -- players showing what they can do, it gives Philadelphia more options.
Another team that has been winning despite a depleted roster is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Without Eric Lindros, the Leafs have gone 8-2-0 in their last 10 games. Jeff O'Neill, Kyle Wellwood and Alexander Steen have stepped up in Lindros' absence, while Ed Belfour continues to be dominant in net. Bryan McCabe, the team's top scorer (47 points) who also leads all NHL defensemen in goals (15), and Tomas Kaberle are strong on the blue line.
I also have to mention two teams that are turning things around and could make the playoff race in the East much more interesting: the Panthers and Thrashers.
The one big reason the Panthers are playing so well right now is because of goalie Roberto Luongo. He finally looks sharp in net -- and just in time for Team Canada and the Olympics, too.
Another reason the Panthers are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games is the play of veterans Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts. After both offseason acquisitions battled injuries early on, they are healthy and producing on the ice. Over the past four games, Nieuwendyk has five points and Roberts has seven. They also bring leadership. If the team gives up a goal early, these two veterans help settle things down.
Meanwhile, the Thrashers are probably playing better than any other team in the NHL (7-1-2 in their last 10 games), and it looks like we're finally seeing the team we projected to see before the season started. Just look at how they beat Ottawa 8-3 the other night.
After dealing with numerous goaltender injuries within the first month of the season, heralded prospect Kari Lehtonen is back in the lineup and playing well. Michael Garnett has also found a home in net for Atlanta. The Thrashers are also fun to watch. They move the puck quickly and have great scorers like Ilya Kovalchuk, Marc Savard and Marian Hossa. If Atlanta can cut down the goals against, it will make the playoffs.
What is wrong with the Vancouver Canucks? They have lost seven of their last eight games, a slump that shouldn't happen with a Naslund-Morrison-Bertuzzi top line. No one on the team is scoring consistently and no one is strong mentally or physically.
The Canucks have to be one of the teams looking for a veteran goaltender before the trade deadline in March. Alex Auld is the main man right now, but the Canucks can't put the weight of the postseason solely on his shoulders. This team is very fragile right now and they have to stop making excuses.
The Islanders are another frustrating team to watch. I've seen them jump ahead in many games, only to see them give up their lead en route to a loss. Garth Snow has stepped in to provide some stability in net (Rick DiPietro has been inconsistent all season long), and yet New York still can't hold on to a lead.
Another issue is Alexei Yashin, who was benched the other night after taking a bad penalty. I think Mike Milbury made a mistake way back when in signing Yashin to such a lofty contract. Yashin is a talented player, but he is not a go-to player. Now, Yashin and his $7.6 million salary are virtually untradable. Unfortunately, the Islanders put all their eggs in one basket with Yashin. The Islanders have to jump over three or four teams to earn a playoff spot in the East. If they don't change their ways, the chase will soon be over.
The Blackhawks made some big moves during the offseason, adding Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Lapointe and Adrian Aucoin to a roster with a lot of young talent. They got a new coach, a new GM -- a whole new attitude. Yet it's the same ol' thing in Chicago, and there is no sign of things getting better.
You can see the Blues at least competing every night, something I don't see in the Hawks. On paper, they should be better than Anaheim and Phoenix. It's like the Hawks mentally expect to lose. They have to try to at least compete in every game. Chicago leads the league with the most shorthanded situations (297). A team cannot have that many minors in the new NHL -- unnecessary minors like hooking and holding or penalties in your own zone. If the Hawks want a glimmer of hope, eliminating these situations is a good place to start.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.