NHL

KELLEY: The West at the midway point

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
Just about any hockey site, and even a few newspapers, will give you a synopsis of the National Hockey League at the halfway point of the season. We here at FOXSports.com decided to take the concept one step further and hold not just the NHL and its players accountable, but ourselves as well. With that in mind, we decided to use the midpoint break to compare what we said last fall to what's actually going on. Going back in the archives, we peaked at our offerings from September and October and decided to compare them to what's going on as most teams hit the 41-game mark, halfway through the regular season. Teams are ranked in the order we picked them before the season started. Where they are now is in parentheses.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Central Division

Detroit (first) Then: We said they could well wrap up the division title by New Year's day. We said what remains to be seen is if they still have a hunger for the Stanley Cup. We said we think they'll stumble a bit early. Now: They did stumble early in large part because there was a new head coach (Dave Lewis) a new goaltender (Curtis Joseph), no (leg surgery) and one heck of a hangover from one heck of a Stanley Cup run and subsequent celebration. Still, they are atop the division and appear to be pulling away (7-2-1-0 in their last 10, 8-2-2-0 in division play). recently proclaimed himself to be the smartest man in hockey and then backed it up with stellar play that comes in part from being experienced enough to make winning plays at the right time. It's rubbing off on teammates. They might add a depth player up front and on defense, but don't look for major changes. St. Louis (second) Then: We said that if the young players don't step up, the will overtake the . Whether or not that happens is up to the leaders who stand up in (Chris) Pronger's absence and, more importantly, after he returns. Now: We'll take a bow here. Most everyone thought the would fall mightily in division and conference play. But they're hanging tough despite a slew of injuries largely because their young players are helping to fill the net and their veterans, notably and , have begun to exert a leadership influence in the room after coming over from other teams late last season. The have only two fewer losses than the , but they're six points behind largely because they can't beat the Wings and they haven't fared well in Division play (4-4-1-2). Budget may limit moves, but this team needs some defensive help down the stretch. Chicago ( third) Then: We said that there are good reasons to suspect the will get past the this season, but when you factor in that they may have overachieved a bit last season and that is now back in a substance-abuse program it is simply too much to ask. His return is likely not as imminent as club officials would have you believe. Of equal concern is the fact that Sutter's demanding style seems to wear on teams after his first season. Now: The 'Hawks have done well, largely on the strength of superb goaltending by . They have a terrible time scoring goals (96 through the first 41 games of the season), but they are doing a solid job of keeping them out of their net (90 goals allowed and a division-leading 2.20 goals-against average). The 'Hawks have done well in their last 10 (5-0-4-1), but another goal-scorer could easily change those ties into wins. 'Hawks will also need a puck-controlling defenseman to help create offense lost by the quitting and subsequent trade of . fills that role, but he is no longer young and the second half is always tougher than the first. Chicago's 5-1-1-1 record in division play is also good, but could be better if it only had more offense. Look for a major move up front near the trade deadline. Nashville (last) Then: We said lots of people have this team ticketed for last overall and Barry Trotz as the first coach to be fired. We disagree and believe some of the kids will start to move forward this season. Trotz may not see them to the Promised Land, but he won't be the first coach fired either. Now: He not only isn't the first coach fired, he isn't the second, third, fourth or fifth. Indeed after a brutal start due in part to injuries, the have closed within one point of Columbus, a move that no doubt aided in Columbus general manger Doug MacLean's decision to fire Dave King and go behind the Columbus bench. The kids, especially , are starting to find their stride in the NHL and goalie has emerged as a bona fide No. 1 and the player the team counts on. Nashville has a near non-existent offense, but it works hard in all three zones on the ice, limits changes and wins close games, even against more talented opponents like Dallas and Detroit. A record of 5-3-2-0 in the last 10 is a good indication that this team is on the way up. Needs veteran presence up front for clutch scoring as well as a bit more size, especially on the blueline. Columbus (fourth) Then: We said they should be better than last year, but no big move upward in the standings. We noted the offense scored fewest goals in NHL last season and while (Andrew) Cassels and a healthy (Geoff) Sanderson should help, it won't be a complete overhaul. Now: Cassels and Sanderson have helped offensively, but the 123 goals against are the most in the division and the second highest total in the Conference. Those two players are responsible for a lot of that. Goaltending is credible, but very young and prone to mistakes at key points in a contest. A veteran netminder to back up and one more scoring winger would be nice, but the biggest issue is overall team defense. It needs help in the form of bodies and a major readjustment in attitude.

Pacific Division

San Jose (last) Then: We said we'd like these guys for the Cup except for a couple of nagging little questions, such as not being able to put away Colorado when they had the chance last spring and not having a true leader who brought a team to the top. Might even have a little problem at the start in that several star players, including goaltender Evengi Nabokov, defenseman had contract problems and others had bothersome injuries. Now: Wow, were we wrong. These kids stumbled out of the gate for all the above reasons, but they've continued to falter despite firing coach Darryl Sutter and replacing him with Ron Wilson. Defense is the big problem here with just not enough pucks being kept out of the net. The 130 goals against is worst in division and worst in conference and costing wins and even ties. The team needs to show some grit on defense, especially now that Stuart is shutting down because of ankle problems. Los Angeles (third) Then: We said the are in a tough division and not making major moves in a situation like that is scary, but this is a good team with good young talent ready to replace those that were lost. Look for rookie to contribute from the second line and a variety of kid defensemen to rotate in 's spot. Now: Injuries are never an excuse, but they are a factor in this team struggling at the start. As many as seven regulars have been out of the lineup together for extended periods of time. Still, the compete and as of Jan. 10 they were back to within one point of a second place tie with Anaheim and within one win of .500. This team really just needs to get healthy to be back in the playoff hunt. Dallas (first) Then: We said there were too many people dazzled by the off-season pickups, but coach Dave Tippett shouldn't be one of them. He's got the reputation of an offensive wizard and that will help, but he'll need to install a solid defensive system that has some physicality to it and that is harder than even owner Tom Hicks might be willing to admit. The lost a lot at home last season and it wasn't all goalie 's fault, it was also because of their poor team defensive play. Their penalty killing also was awful and that needed to be addressed. Now: The have done all those things. Their special teams are excellent, among the NHL's best. They have lost just once at home this season and that's a tribute to their hard work, especially from the team commitment to defense and the play of No.1 goalie . The goals-against number of 90 is best in the West and third best in the NHL behind New Jersey and Philadelphia. Meanwhile the offensive output of 137 is second only to the high-flying Ottawa . The spread between the two figures is the best in the game. The need to be just a little stronger on the road, a possibility if they add just a bit more muscle up front. Phoenix (fourth) Then: We said the were an improved team from last season, but that so is this division and that the race to repeat as a playoff team will be a difficult one to win. Now: Injuries have been a factor here and it's clear that this team is better when goalie (ankle injury and now a knee) is in the lineup, but the real problem was and remains offense. There just isn't enough there even with free-agent pickup in the lineup. This team needs a playmaking center and some more size up front. Anaheim (second) Then: We said the Ducks are in a rebuilding mode and are attempting to accelerate the process, while still giving time and consideration to a growing stable of young players who will at some point be the core of the team. It's not easy in today's NHL and management knows that. There will be patience and a push for the playoffs, but don't expect both. Even if they improve by 20 points, an almost unfathomable accomplishment in this division, that will still leave them with 89 points and that surely won't be enough to get into the playoffs in the West. Now: Second place in the division is great, but the Ducks are still in ninth place one spot out of playoff land. They got off to a great start and have a much-improved power play with the addition of , but we stand by our statement. The club is 2-7-1-0 in last 10 and we expect the fade to continue as the defense is neither strong nor deep. The inability to win on the road is also a serious problem. The Ducks may not end up last in their division given Phoenix's problems, but they are still not a playoff team.

Northwest Division

Colorado (fourth) Then: We said depth can be a problem at times, especially on the blue line, though that seems rectified via the trade with Calgary that landed . There is some question whether can remain an elite goalie playing as much as he does at age 37. The offense can go south from time to time at key points in the game, especially when the kids fail to step up and take the load off players like and . There's concern that losing in a trade will hurt team chemistry and the offense. All minor stuff. Now: Maybe not minor at all. All those things have come to pass in the early part of the season, a situation that cost coach Bob Hartley his job (he's been replaced by assistant Tony Granato, a man with no head coaching experience). Still, this team shows signs of coming around, having gone 5-4-0-1 in their last 10 and showing signs of offensive life. Still need to improve special teams, especially woeful penalty killing unit and must work backup goaltenders into the equation to spell Roy. The Avs are still a playoff team and likely to get better as the second half rolls along. Edmonton (third) Then: We said this is a team that had 92 points last season and didn't make the playoffs. That will provide an edge, but the young players have to contribute to the offense to make it all work. If newly acquired can play up to his huge ability, the offense should be better for it. Now: Dopita was a bust and was bought out of his contract, but the have survived on speed and grit and decent goaltending. This team needs a second-line center who can score and one more winger with some size, but this team still looks like a playoff club though it will be tight. A record of 4-2-1-3 in the last 10 is impressive in light of injury to No. 1 forward . Goalie has also been a strength. Vancouver (first) Then: We said this is very much a team on the rise, but it's no easy run in this division or in this conference. The were remarkably healthy last season and they also caught a lot of teams by surprise. They might stay healthy, but the surprise factor is gone. They'll have to fight for every point. Now: They have fought for every point and they got most of them. They are atop the Northwest Division, atop the Western Conference and challenging for No. 1 overall. They do it with a solid offense and a decent defense and goaltending, but mostly offense. The 133 goals-for is exceptional, especially for such a young team, but their ability to win in the clutch is what breaks this team out from the pack. They've enjoyed a 7-3-3-0 mark despite a serious injury to No. 1 defenseman . Oddly enough the have lost more games at home (seven) than they have on the road (four). Championship teams entertain at home, but they win at home. The troubling number is five division loses, a number than can impact on playoff positioning. Calgary (last) Then: We said trading hurts, but that brings leadership and a second-line center. Pairing him with should help the line grow into a productive second unit. is a good checker who should anchor a solid checking line. Defense will be less mobile without Morris, but there is a lot of promise there with youth and a bit of toughness. The team should improve markedly, but is not yet a playoff club. Now: A difficult start brought on by injuries and a falloff in scoring, especially in regards to league scoring leader (last season) started a snowball effect that cost coach Greg Gilbert his job and put the future of general manager Craig Button in question. Some of that was solved with the hiring of fired San Jose coach Darryl Sutter, but even with the coaching change we don't see this team as a playoff team. A good young team on the rise, but not yet a playoff team. Minnesota (second) Then: We said is a star destined to shine even brighter. This team has a solid all-for-one team work ethic. They've got balanced goaltending with and in friendly competition. Excellent veteran coach in Jacques Lemaire and patience in general manger Doug Risebrough. Still, we said this team had a long way to go. Now: This team has come a long way. The surprise of the Western Conference is starting to fall back a bit, but the hot start has opened the door to a possible playoff position and that has put a lot of pressure on mid-back and lower echelon teams in the West. This looks very much like a bubble of success and with a 3-6-1-0 record in its last 10 and now a goaltending problem, it likely won't last forever. Still, Gaborik alone is worth the price of admission and the hard work by his teammates, coupled with excellent coaching, has made this team tough to beat. Still needs skill and depth at every position, but count on this, management won't sacrifice the future for a playoff berth today, so team is likely to stand pat. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Flames, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Oilers, Kings, Stars, Rangers, Avalanche, Sharks, Blues, Canucks, Coyotes, Ducks, Predators, Blue Jackets, Wild, Derek Morris, Jocelyn Thibault, Steve Yzerman, Mike Comrie, Martin Gelinas, Philippe Boucher, Brett Hull, Marty Turco, Joe Sakic, Chris Drury, Stephane Yelle, Brad Stuart, Doug Weight, Scott Mellanby, Ed Jovanovski, Sean Burke, Tomas Vokoun, David Legwand, Marc Denis, Marian Gaborik, Manny Fernandez, Jarome Iginla, Alexander Frolov, Peter Forsberg, Dwayne Roloson

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