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November 30, 2011 :: 10:04pm ET
Plenty of action early on
 Tab Bamford looks at the first quarter of the NHL season, with an early prediction on the summer's hardware.

CHICAGO, IL -- The first quarter of the 2011-12 NHL season is in the rear view mirror, and the second month is quickly coming to a ferocious close. The changes keep coming in the NHL, and players continue impressing all over the league. What have we learned, so far?

Teams have no fear of pulling the trigger on change. St. Louis let Davis Payne go early, and the response has been overwhelming.

Entering Monday's action, the Blues were right on the heels of the Red Wings and Blackhawks in the Central Division, and their team defense has been stifling under Ken Hitchcock.

With the way the Blues have responded to their coaching change as the catalyst for other organizations, Washington and Carolina made their own changes on Monday. Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice filed for unemployment, while Dale Hunter and Kirk Muller received much-deserved calls.

Hunter will have to answer two huge questions quickly: Will he keep Alex Ovechkin's attention? And will Alex Semin appear interested on a regular basis?

For Muller, he'll try to turn around the luck of the Canes, where Eric Staal has been one of the most shocking disappointments (on paper) in the league this year. From a distance, it appears Staal is lost; upon closer examination, he's one of the most snakebit players in the league. Getting his captain's swagger back will be the most immediate charge of the new boss in Carolina.

With some other teams off to underwhelming starts, will the firing squad stay busy? The buns are getting warm with the Ducks and Islanders, and the list of top candidates is shrinking with each subsequent termination. How many coaching changes will happen before Christmas?

Overall, the League has enjoyed increased scoring. So far, 10 teams are allowing an average of three goals per game, double the total at the end of last year. The five-on-five play across the league has improved, at the expense of goaltenders everywhere; there isn't an enormous difference around the league in the quality of penalty killing from last year (six teams under 80 per cent penalty kill to date, same number as end of last season).

Some individual players around the league that are impacting those scoring numbers, and some are starting to carve out an argument for individual hardware next summer in Vegas, as well.

The early leader for the Hart Trophy would have to be Chicago's Jonathan Toews. Entering Tuesday night's action, Toews is in the NHL's top 10 with 25 points and 13 goals, both impressive numbers from a player that's been a notoriously slow starter in the last few years. Most impressively, Toews continues to take as many faceoffs as anyone in the game and is winning over 61 per cent of his draws in the season's first 24 games.

The early leader for the Hart Trophy would have to be Chicago's Jonathan Toews. Entering Tuesday night's action, Toews is in the NHL's top 10 with 25 points and 13 goals, both impressive numbers from a player that's been a notoriously slow starter in the last few years. Most impressively, Toews continues to take as many faceoffs as anyone in the game and is winning over 61 per cent of his draws in the season's first 24 games.

Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel and (of course) Sidney Crosby will be in the discussion as the season continues. And, if he can continue his incredible early pace, Florida's Kris Versteeg could be a sleeper for an invite to Vegas this summer.

The Vezina is wide open right now. The renaissance of journeyman Brian Elliott in St. Louis has been remarkable, as he leads the League in goals against and save percentage. Another netminder that was thought to be washed up, Nikolai Khabibulin, has been fantastic in Edmonton early on as well.

While Tim Thomas, Marc-Andre Fleury and (before injury) Kari Lehtonen have been superb, Elliott and Khabibulin are big reasons their teams are competing in the Western Conference. Could Cory Schneider sneak into the Vezina discussion... as the "back-up" in Vancouver?

Injuries have impacted the Norris race already. Certainly Mr. Lidstrom will receive his annual invitation, but what happens from there? The up-and-down play from defensemen like Duncan Keith has been maddening to fans early this year, while injuries have slowed the production of guys like Kris Letang.

In the standings, many projected Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit and Boston to be near the top, but who had the Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild leading a division at the end of November? But, then again, nobody is running away in either conference. Entering Monday, five points separated fourth and twelfth in the East and the same five was the difference between fourth and eleventh in the West.

What hockey fans can look forward to in December is more competitive hockey, and more questions than answers.

Tam Bamford is a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Chicago Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.


 

 

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Nov. 18, 2011 Should Boston have dealt Thornton?
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