NHL

KELLEY: Quarter-point ratings

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
AROUND THE BOARDS: Kelley's look at the NHL

At the quarter pole

We pause in our twice-weekly bantering of tidbits of information for your knapsack of hockey knowledge to put forth our view of the NHL at the quarter mark of the season. All 30 teams have now played 21 or more games on the season, and these are our thoughts on a variety of topics:

Best teams

Some publications will tell you it's the Boston because of how they overcame so many player losses at the start of the season, but we like the Dallas . It's tough to work in a new coach, new people in the front office and new players on the ice, especially after such a bad season last season, but the have done it almost seamlessly. Runners-up honors go to the , a good team that seems to be playing to avenge last season's first-round playoff loss, and the Vancouver , just a really good young team.

Worst teams

We'll take a different stance, since the worst are at the bottom often because of financial problems. We'll use the term "disappointing." Here are our top choices for most disappointing teams: Colorado , because they aren't playing to their ability and there is no good reason for it. San Jose , because they made their own mess. Philadelphia , because any team with Ken Hitchcock behind the bench and a talented core of forwards trying to prove they were right in getting five coaches fired in six years should be better than ninth overall. Runners-up: The New York because they don't play as a team; the Buffalo because they don't play for each other.

Pleasantly surprising teams

Tampa Bay , because of their dramatic turnaround: Hapless to playoff contenders in one rush. Runners-Up: Minnesota (see above); Pittsburgh , because their defense looked so ineffective of paper, and St. Louis , because they overcame injuries at so many key positions.

Pleasantly surprising players

, forward, Tampa Bay: Who knew he would be matching point-for-point? Who knew him period prior to late last season? , goaltender, Carolina: In 25 games or less he made people forget , and he still has the second-best save percentage in the league. , forward, Columbus: There's a decent crop of rookies in the NHL again this season, but this teenager is a contender for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. That's no small achievement.

Best forwards

, Pittsburgh: This guy may well become the oldest player to win the scoring championship. He's 37, performing like he's 27, and making us all remember how great the game can be. , Boston: Jumbo has finally taken his place in the center ring. He plays like a big two-way center with attitude, because he is one. And he is the reason for Boston's success. , Dallas and , Minnesota: Modano is Dallas, and he's also still one of the best two-way players in the game. Gaborik is like a rough-cut Lemieux; he keeps amazing you with what he can do with a puck. Runners-up: The double-entry of and of Vancouver; Oli Jokinen for his impact on the Florida and for keeping Toronto afloat offensively through a very rough start.

Best defensemen

, Detroit: Simply because he's the best in the game. , Pittsburgh: Great two-way play, solid on the power play and a real surprise as a scorer. and , Dallas: Two of the best two-way performers so far this season, and Zubov adds even more with his stellar work on the power play. Runners-up: , New York for his puck-handling and offense; , St. Louis, for keeping it all together in the wake of the injuries, especially to blueline partner .

Best goaltenders

, Dallas: Sure the play a nice game in front of him, but he's got the best save percentage on any given day (.938 the last time we looked), as well as the best goals-against. Save percentage is the mark of greatness at the position. , New Jersey: He wins and wins and wins some more, but most importantly he wins the close ones, and the are almost always in a close game. He also gets points as a workhorse who plays every night. , Tampa: Because he makes the most of his extraordinary talent every night and he's master of the big stop at the crucial time (see Tampa's won-lost record as proof positive). Runners-up: Tie between Weekes, Carolina and , Vancouver: Weekes, because he not only has us forgetting Irbe, but because he sees a ridiculous amount of shots and still battles for the best save-percentage in the game. Cloutier, because he keeps on winning and putting that playoff disaster from last season further and further behind him; and in Boston (combined save percentage of .926); , Chicago, a stunning goals-against number (1.88) on a team that really can't help him offensively; , Detroit, because he just wins every time they send him out.

One final thought

It's hard to get a handle on why the NHL cleared Chicago forward to play just when his team is readying for a trip to his old stomping grounds, New York. There will be extraordinary pressure on Fleury going into Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum. Fans in both arenas can be tough on visiting players who don't have serious substance abuse problems. History tells us they will show no mercy to the ones that do. The fact that Fleury left the two seasons ago with 20 games left in the season to enter a rehab clinic will only make things worse inside the Garden. Fleury has been traveling with the for weeks now, ready to play, but not cleared by doctors or the NHL. He got heckled in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where a fan kept offering him beers as Fleury watched the game from the press box. It likely will be worse in New York where one only has to attend an NFL game or a golf tournament to know how merciless fans can be. It will be interesting to see if the 'Hawks actually play Fleury in those games or wait until the team completes its New York swing with a game in Buffalo on Dec. 13. The problem is that coach Brian Sutter has been lobbying to get Fleury back in the lineup for weeks and is planning to play him Friday in Chicago against Anaheim. Sitting him out after that would have to be Sutter's decision and it would be an awkward one at best.
Who's he?
For a guy many wrote off as a bust, Florida's Oli Jokinen is now likely to have a full statue erected outside the National Car Rental Center when he's done. Jokinen's 14 goals through Thursday is the second highest total in the NHL, and his 29 points, earned in 26 games, equal his career season-high to date. He has had four two-goal games and eight multi-point games. Like a lot of guys who suddenly "find themselves" after four or five years wandering in the league, Jokinen credits the arrival of Mike Keenan behind the Florida bench as the reason his career is finally taking off. Prior to Keenan he had six goals and 17 points in 102 games. Since Keenan arrived he's racked up 23 goals and 57 points in 82 games. "My first four, five years in the league, I make a mistake, I was sent to the bench," Jokinen said of time spent with the now departed coaches. "Not anymore. Mike came in and started playing me more and now I don't think about going back to Finland anymore." Keenan places a premium on performance. The better one performs, the more ice time he gets. Jokinen, a talented center who had a reputation for not having confidence, now gets more ice time than any of the forwards. "The one thing he should reinforce in his own mind is that he earned the ice time," Keenan said. "I'm not a coach that gives ice time unless people are earning it. I mean, I gave him a chance to earn it, but he did earn it. There's a difference. "The more opportunity I gave him, the better he played. The more he earned it, the better the results."
Five things you should know
1. Through Thursday night's games, the Dallas are the NHL's only team not to have suffered a regulation loss at home (10-0-1-1). They've also outscored opponents 45-17 at the American Airlines Center. 2. With 14 goals so far on the season, Atlanta second-year sensation is on a pace that could see him strive for 50. More important to the is that he's no longer a defensive disaster. After being benched in Toronto because he was minus-13 after the first nine games, Kovalchuk played to even in the next 14 and in recent victories he was a plus-3 and a plus-2. 3. Columbus rookie earned NHL Rookie of the Month for November because he had nine points in 15 games. What the stats don't tell you is that Nash could have had an additional 10 to 15 points had he or teammates been able to convert chances he created. This kid is the real thing. 4. Seems like a silly stat, but we like it. Dallas' had a streak of at least one shot on goal in 121 consecutive games that came to an end this week against Montreal. While there are no official records in this regard, it's known that Ray Bourque had at least one shot on goal in 360 consecutive games from 1990 through 1995. 5. After starting the season with a 10-3-2 record, the Minnesota are now 3-4-3-2 in their past 12 games after tying Calgary 1-1 on Thursday night. Slowing things down is an offense that can't seem to get to the three-goal mark lately. The scored three or more just three times in those 12 games. They've scored one or no goals in five of their last six.
Thug Watch
Florida enforcer admits to making a mistake while drinking and driving, but denies he has a drinking problem after his second DUI arrest in Florida. "It's far from being something where it's an addiction to me," Worrell said. "As far as me craving or things like that, it's not really something that comes into my thoughts. It's never been a thing at any time where it was something where I was dying to get out of here so I could go get drunk. I wouldn't sit home all day and just drink by myself." That may be, but Worrell does have problems. He's lost his license for at least five years. He was put on a year's probation and will have to do 10 days in jail once his season is over. There will also be some community service work ahead. There's growing concern that Worrell may soon become the focal point for a backlash over soft sentences for athletes. Two DUIs usually results in more serious jail time and not at the convenience of the person convicted. Still, if he violates the terms of his current status he's looking at doing a year in jail.
  • We told you last week that another NHL bruiser, , of Edmonton, faced charges as a result of an accident he created in Edmonton. That came to pass this week as he was tagged for running a stop sign and causing an accident with injuries. There's not much chance of jail time for Laraque, but it's possible the injured parties will sue. Oddly enough, Calgary forward 's father is a lawyer who specializes in these kinds of cases and he lives and works in Edmonton.
  • In the next 48 hours
  • Look for the Ottawa to make a move on a defenseman either demoting rookie to the minors (he can't be exposed to waivers) or trading someone. The have eight healthy defensemen and have to make a move somewhere in those ranks.
  • Expect the Tampa Bay to be interested in talking to the about a defenseman. An injury to forward hurts, but the injury to defenseman (torn rotator cuff) hurts a lot more. Cullimore is the team's best defenseman and is likely to be out for the remainder of the season.
  • F.Y.I.
    The Washington are said to be gearing up to make a trade. Management is said to be upset about the lack of production coming from its $48 million payroll and wants to make some moves both to trim the cash outlay and re-ignite some chemistry on the team. Don't be surprised if anybody, including the high-priced ($11 million per season), is shopped. Jagr is playing like he wants to force a trade, and it's common knowledge that he wanted to go to New York when Pittsburgh moved him and was not thrilled that he ended up in Washington instead. There aren't many teams willing to take on Jagr's salary, but that doesn't mean he isn't available.
    Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
    Tagged: Bruins, Sabres, Flames, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Oilers, Hurricanes, Stars, Devils, Rangers, Senators, Blues, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Capitals, Panthers, Jets, Blue Jackets, Wild, Bill Guerin, Jocelyn Thibault, Tom Poti, Georges Laraque, Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov, Chris Pronger, Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny, Markus Naslund, Dan Cloutier, Jaromir Jagr, Marian Gaborik, Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash, John Grahame, Manny Legace, Jassen Cullimore

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