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Highest marks go to Wings, Flames, Oilers

1/4/2002

With 25 percent of the season complete, it's time to hand out our first-quarter grades. Here's how the teams in the Western Conference graded out:

Detroit Red Wings (15-3-0-1)
There are some potential holes in the Red Wings' amazing start. They are giving up more shots than ever and don't seem to play near the team defense they once did. Their core of defensemen is stretched thin and there's question whether Uwe Krupp, Maxim Kuznetsov or Jesse Wallin can be counted on for long-term help. That said, the new guys (Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille) are meshing well and Dominik Hasek has provided the team with an immense amount of confidence. And the kicker is that coach Scotty Bowman still thinks the team can improve.
Grade: A.

Calgary Flames (12-2-2-2)
The transformation has been a beautiful thing, but Flames fans are still waiting for the bubble to burst. The funny thing is that Calgary has played mediocre at times during the first 18 games and still has found a way to take points out of games. Injuries to Marc Savard, Jeff Shantz, Brad Werenka, Derek Morris and Jamie Allison have tested the Flames' depth, but players like Craig Conroy, Dave Lowry, Igor Kravchuk and Dean McAmmond have all stepped up to take bigger roles. Jarome Iginla and Roman Turek have been spectacular, but that shouldn't be that much of a surprise as both have showed signs of bursting through. The real key to the Flames' success has been their ability to buy into the system and do the little things (53.1 percent on faceoffs, 20.2 percent on the power play, 227 blocked shots). The Flames have a road heavy schedule ahead and that could test them.
Grade: A.

Edmonton Oilers (12-5-2-1)
Kevin Lowe might be the best GM in hockey right now. When he had to get rid of Roman Hamrlik because of expenses, he turned him into Eric Brewer (23:40 in ice time, 35 hits). When he had to lose Bill Guerin because of expenses, he turned him into Anson Carter (11 goals, 7 assists, plus-11). When he had to lose Doug Weight because of expenses, he turned him into Jochen Hecht and Marty Reasoner and made darn sure that Mike Comrie (7 goals, 10 assists, plus-11) was ready to step up. The Oilers now have one of the best collections of young talent in the NHL, despite losing some of their better older players. And with Tommy Salo toting a .922 save percentage and not scheduled to be going anywhere, this team has a chance to finally build some steam, stay out of the No. 8 slot and maybe do some damage in the playoffs. Let's just say it would be well-earned if it works out that way.
Grade: A.

Chicago Blackhawks (12-5-4-0)
So much of what is going on here is unexplainable. The Blackhawks have received decent goaltending (ranking 15th at 2.52 GAA with a .902 saves percentage), horrendous penalty killing (ranking 27th at 78.6 percent with 21 goals against), a good power play (ranking 9th at 18.1 percent with 17 goals) and a bad performance in the face-off circle (24th at 48 percent) and yet they still win games. The key to it all is that their offense is the best in the NHL. Alex Zhamnov, Eric Daze and Michael Nylander are hot and Kyle Calder and Mark Bell are playing above their heads. If this continues, the Blackhawks will win and draw fans. If it dries up, the Hawks could plummet. Part of the key to the momentum is keeping Tony Amonte in Chicago or getting something really good in trade. That awaits in the second quarter ... or maybe the third.
Grade: A-minus.

St. Louis Blues (9-5-3-1)
After getting to the Western Conference finals, the Blues went out last summer and made major changes. So, you had to expect a little bit of a slow start. And while the feeling is that this team isn't performing near close to potential, you can't be too critical of what it has accomplished. Sure, the team boosted its payroll by 61 percent over last season, but much of that was in raises to players it already had. The new offensive leadership of Keith Tkachuk (21 points, plus-12) and Doug Weight (18 points, plus-8) has taken over and the new goaltending of Brent Johnson and Fred Brathwaite (combined GAA of 2.24 and save percentage of .904) hasn't been bad at all. The best thing for Blues fans is they know this team can get even better.
Grade: B-plus.

San Jose Sharks (9-5-4-2)
Give Darryl Sutter credit. He knew what the Sharks' shortcomings were last season and he took strides early to correct them. First of all, the team handed out 441 power play chances last season, second worst in the league. Sutter had the team more disciplined than ever at season's start. Secondly, the Sharks relied far too heavily on amazing goaltending, so Sutter had the team playing better team defense. Lastly, the Sharks were awful on the power play, so Sutter unleashed a unit that cashed in on opportunities. But nearly 20 games in now, the Sharks have gone back to taking undisciplined penalties, they're giving up almost 30 shots per game and the power play is starting to dry up. All of that said, the Sharks, on paper, should be one of the most competitive teams in the West. They have a solid group of top six forwards, good forward depth and a good group of defensemen. There's no reason to believe that a winning pace can't continue throughout the season, and yet you're always waiting for the next slump. Until the players prove it to the critics (and maybe to themselves), there will always be doubters.
Grade: B.

Phoenix Coyotes (7-6-3-3)
For what the Coyotes were trying to accomplish this season, being over .500 is a minor miracle. They have cut back almost all of their fat-cat veterans and have moved in a group of solid youngsters that plays hard now and has a great future. Young defensemen Danny Markov, Paul Mara, Radoslav Suchy and Ossi Vaananen are learning as a group and goalie Sean Burke (2.15 GAA and .926 saves percentage) is cleaning up their mistakes. The Coyotes still need to find more scoring (Claude Lemieux leads them with 11 points) and could easily falter in the second quarter, but their start has them running at a level above what was expected.
Grade: B.

Minnesota Wild (7-7-3-1)
Jacques Lemaire is no dummy. He knew the Wild needed more goals, so he told his players to go score more goals. Minnesota has done just that, but along the way the Wild might have lost its identity. Only one team in the NHL (Atlanta) has been outshot more than the Wild, which is yielding 31.1 shots per game while getting 22.8. That has led to the Wild going from 12th in the NHL in goaltending (2.52 and .909) to 28th this season (2.96 and .903). Manny Fernandez hasn't become a bad goalie in one season, he's just being hung out to dry a lot more and he's lost his confidence. That Minnesota is playing .500 hockey 18 games into the season is a huge plus, but it still has to decide what kind of team it wants to be.
Grade: B.

Vancouver Canucks (9-11-1-0)
The Canucks are a strange bunch. Their players either seem to be overachieving or underachieving, and they can't seem to stay on the same page. This year, Brendan Morrison is taking the next step up with 19 points in 21 games and Trent Klatt and Ed Jovanovski have been spectacular. Meanwhile, Markus Naslund has been merely good in returning from surgery and the much ballyhooed Sedin twins appear lost. The acquisition of Trevor Linden should help, but the Canucks can't expect much more than they're getting from Dan Cloutier (2.26 GAA and .911 saves percentage), so they're going to have to get better as a team if they want to get better overall.
Grade: C.

Dallas Stars (6-6-4-3)
Well, they predicted a transition to the new players in Dallas, and there has definitely been a transition. Pierre Turgeon is battling an ankle injury, Donald Audette is getting almost six fewer minutes per game in ice time, Jyrki Lumme has struggled mightily and Valeri Kamensky has been a healthy scratch more often than not. So much for the influx of offense. On paper, the Stars are doing a lot of things right, winning faceoffs, drawing penalties and keeping their own penalties down. On the ice, it doesn't seem to add up yet. Optimists will tell you that the team will improve its shots against (currently ranking 16th at 27.8) and will also find a way to score (currently ranking 23rd at 2.22 per game). But, until the Stars do, they will be seen as falling far short of their standards.
Grade: D.

Colorado Avalanche (8-10-1-0)
Of all the problems anyone could have ever predicted for the Avalanche, nobody would have ever tabbed lack of scoring. However, the Avalanche rank 27th in the league (2.00 per game) after 19 games. This after ranking fourth in offense (2.84) last season. The big question is when and if Peter Forsberg will return from his hiatus in Sweden. Nobody really knows. Until that time, Colorado should have enough offense to break out of the slump. Then again, this team has continually moved out solid role players in order to pay for their top players, and maybe that's finally catching up.
Grade: D.

Anaheim Mighty Ducks (6-9-3-0)
The good thing about the Ducks is that there is plenty to improve upon. Paul Kariya appears to be getting over an early-season slump. Steve Rucchin, Jeff Friesen and Matt Cullen also appear to be warming up. And the goaltending (at 2.57 GAA and .912 saves percentage) is much better than anyone expected. However, the loss of Keith Carney (hand) for a couple of weeks isn't going to help. Anaheim is trying to become a better team defensively, and that hasn't happened yet. If it does, you could see some improvement.
Grade: D.

Los Angeles Kings (5-10-1-2)
The good thing is that the Kings have only been outscored 49-46. The bad thing is they have found every way possible to lose close games. Los Angeles is outshooting opponents an average of 29-23, has a decent power play at 16.3 percent (14th) and a stellar penalty kill at 89.0 percent (5th). So where's the rub? How about goaltending at 2.62 GAA (20th) and an alarmingly bad .886 saves percentage (30th). Fix the leaks in net and the rest of the team should come along nicely.
Grade: D.

Nashville Predators (6-10-2-0)
This was supposed to be the season the Predators made the next step up. Instead, they seem to have regressed a little in every area. Goalie Mike Dunham (2.59 GAA and .897 saves percentage) is struggling under the weight of a new contract and expectations from the U.S. Olympic team. Scott Walker has seen his scoring touch shrivel and his plus-minus fall (minus-8) and team defense has taken a hit with the injury to Cale Hulse (hand). All in all, it has been a tough road for the Predators. And playing in the Central Division (which touts three of the conference's top six teams), the road doesn't look to get any easier.
Grade: D.

Columbus Blue Jackets (4-10-4-0)
In truth, the fact the Blue Jackets have won four games is a minor miracle. They have been outscored 52-34 through 18 games. They've been OK on the road and horrible at home (1-6-2), which can't be helping ticket sales. The offense needs a severe boost, and that means the entire team. Lyle Odelein led in scoring with eight points -- a bad sign if ever there was one. The good news is that Marc Denis (2.34 GAA and .920 saves percentage) appears ready to take over as the No. 1 goalie. That could help forge a much better second quarter, especially if veteran netminder Ron Tugnutt can be traded for some offensive help.
Grade: D.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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