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November 7, 2011 :: 11:31am ET
Feeling Groovy
 Dennis Bernstein looks at some feel good stories from the first month of the NHL 2011-12 NHL season.

LOS ANGELES -- If you look at the standing some mornings, it looks like they've been flipped upside down with the expected stalling of the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks out of the gate, but no one saw a Red Wings six-game losing streak or the Dallas Stars leading the Pacific.

Instead of asking 'why not', we'll asking 'why' some teams are in rarified and unexpected air.

The Edmonton Oilers: They Don't Know Better

We caught these young cats last Thursday night in Los Angeles and boy, are they fast or what? They've learned well over the couple of seasons under Tom Renney's stewardship (who remembers that silly co-coaching arrangement now?) and move the puck quickly out of their own end, making life far easier for Nikolai Khabibulin.

Despite the young stars on the roster, it's the veteran Bulin Wall that's the clear-cut reason for this team's surprising ascension to the top of the Northwest Division. Nik has shrugged aside his physical and legal issues to craft a start that reminds us of his championship season in Tampa Bay.

For the Russian netminder, it took a full year after back surgery for him to get back to a level that he expected. To be frank, he was lucky to be in the NHL last season with the lack of production he gave the last place Oilers; a record of 10-32-4 and a goals-against of 3.40 was only mitigated by the poor health of his back as well as the team.

"I definitely feel a lot better," he said. "After the surgery last year, I was sore and achy, and I thought that was the way I was supposed to feel. But a year away from last September, I feel so much better now overall and that's helping a lot."

The boys probably think that the Old Man Between the Pipes can't handle that much work because on this particular night, they blocked 22 shots, three more than the amount that managed to find their way to the crease.

Khabibulin's heroics aside, what impressed us most on this night was that the Oil succeeded despite the fact that their young guns weren't a factor in the game. Ryan Smyth got a dirty goal, the fourth line and Sam Gagner, possibly the odd forward out, chipped in an insurance marker.

But let's not kid ourselves, Oilers fans. For all the wonderful things happening in Texas North, the triumphant return of Smyth (fed up that he wasn't the focus on a contending Kings team with bigger names), early season surprise of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and the aforementioned goaltender revival, you can't ignore the fact that the defense, well, it's not the one of a contender.

Edmonton's run is even more impressive when you consider its best defenseman, Ryan Whitney, has been sidelined with a right knee injury. In his stead, Ladislav Smid, Tom Gilbert and Corey Potter have picked up the slack.

That last name is universally unrecognized, but is the Oilers' leading scorer on the blueline. Alberta is his third stop in his NHL career and up until this season, he never scored a goal and was a veteran of all of 10 NHL games. These days, the 2003 fourth round draft choice of the New York Rangers is logging 20 minutes per night mostly with Jeff Petry, not exactly Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook there.

If the Canucks extend their struggles into the New Year and the Oilers youngsters don't get worn down by the daily grind, they actually may be looking to acquire, not jettison, talent at the deadline. If they do, look for Gagner to be in the mix and it must be for veteran defensive help.

Despite the fact that they've been a non-contender for a couple of years, ownership has spent green, presently that have about $60 million in salaries committed more than teams like Chicago and Detroit. Maybe a Radek Martinek (Columbus) or Adrian Aucoin (Phoenix), veterans with expiring paper could be a fit if the Oilers find themselves in the usual 8-9-10-11 scrum that annually occurs in the Western Conference playoff hunt.

While many in the Edmonton organization acknowledge that their forwards are far more NHL ready than their organizational depth on the blue line, there is confidence that the next wave of talent to be injected at the NHL level will be on defense. It's essential that the continued development of that talent occur if they are to emerge long term from also-ran status.

The Phoenix Coyotes: They Don't Care

So, all the Coyotes playoff hopes packed up and left town when Ilya Bryzgalov left town with that huge Philadelphia Flyers check under his arm?

When reached for a comment poolside at the Phoenician Hotel, new Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith was rumored to say, 'not so much.' At last check, Dave Tippett still manages from behind the bench, Shane Doan still wears the C and they're exactly where they were last season, in the mix and difficult to play against, especially on the road.

If you look at Smith's numbers versus the man he replaced, you'd think that he and not Ilya should be making $10 million large this season. Smith, who cashes a bi-monthly check five times less, has a save percentage over .920 and a goals-against of under 2.40. He's stolen games for the Coyotes and has established himself as one of the best value unrestricted free agents from this past summer.

As they dwell in continued anonymity in the desert, GM Don Maloney continues to go unnoticed as one of the savviest managers in the NHL. When he needed a second line center in support of Martin Hanzal, he took a risk and dealt underperformer Lee Stempniak to Calgary for Daymond Langkow, who missed virtually all of last season with a neck injury. Though now at the advanced hockey age of 35, Langkow hasn't missed a game for Phoenix in the early going and the move looks to be a winner as Stempniak continues to mystify observers with his lack of consistency. Langkow's presence also mitigates the absence of Kyle Turris, who remains off the ice in a quizzical contract stalemate.

Tippett's style isn't going to change and it's not exactly the type of hockey that thrills the ticket sales department. We were in Phoenix last week for Coyotes-Kings on a Saturday night, and while the crowd wasn't close to being a sellout, it also wasn't the disaster that many media types have painted.

Granted, a Tuesday night game against Columbus draws a paltry crowd, I saw enough of a fan base in an early season game to feel that Arizona isn't a lost cause in the NHL landscape. If you talk to Keith Yandle, he's heard it all before and it affected him so much that he signed a $26.25 million, five-year deal when offered to stay. Doan, the face of the franchise since its arrival in the Southwest, has never asked out, even in the darkest days. It's that kind of attitude that fills the locker room nightly when most of the seats aren't.

But that doesn't aid to the present reality, the Phoenix Coyotes are sans owner and is kept running only by the auspices and resources of the NHL. It's a minor miracle that Maloney can carry $53 million of payroll given the team's predicament. \

If Tippett, Doan and Associates can will this team to within striking distance of a playoff spot 50 games into the season, we don't see the ability of Maloney to go get additional ammunition for the final weeks of battle.

The Toronto Maple Leafs: They Haven't Been Killed by the Hype (yet)

Phil Kessel for Hart! James Reimer, no, wait, Jonas Gustafsson, hold on, Ben Scrivens for Vezina!

To the great consternation of Montreal Canadiens fans, when the standings were published on Friday morning, the Buds were sitting atop the list of 30. While the close of last season provided an inkling of what this team could do at maximum potential and most thought they'd be in the mix for a lower seed playoff spot, even the most rabid of Leafs fans wouldn't have put this team at the top of the heap at any point. Kessel, arguably under as much pressure as any player in the league due to the market he plays in and how he was acquired, has been white hot magnificent at the Air Canada Centre.

Despite all the criticism heaped on him, Phil's start likely makes him a 30 goal scorer for a fourth consecutive season with two different franchises. They say he's soft, they say he'd get killed playing in the West, but the other side of the coin says what would Kessel produce when GM Brian Burke finally gives him the gift of a legitimate number one center. Not only are the Leafs winning in the early going, but they're playing exciting hockey.

I've never been a fan of Ron Wilson, and while it's unlikely that this start will change my attitude, he should receive a substantial amount of kudos for the strong move out of the gate. If Mike Komisarek is a plus-8 through 12 games, a touque has to be tipped in someone's direction, eh?

Dion Phaneuf has finally established the attitude Brian Burke desired when he made the deal to bring him in from Calgary, a trade that is now a huge steal for the Leafs. Dion has settled into the heavy lifting of wearing the C for "Canada's Team" and he's being more judicious laying out hits this season. While Kessel makes things happen on the front end, it's Phaneuf who's galvanized the blue line and at 26 years old, he now appears to have matured into the type of leader needed in this intense media market.

As important as the qualitative parts of his game, the production present in his early days in Calgary has returned. A player who was some thought was the second coming of Chris Pronger may in fact get to that level if he can help to establish the Leafs as a legitimate contender for the Northeast Division by the trade deadline. When Burke came to town, we went on record that he was one of few managers that could bring a championship to Toronto and it's as much a function of the more subtle moves he make as it is the blockbuster. His move to cull pending UFA John-Michael Liles gave the defense another veteran puck mover and greatly helped the aforementioned Komisarek stabilize.

The goaltending... who knew? Reimer was the next coming of Terry Sawchuk before he went down with a concussion. Gustafsson's stats are bad, but he played every game in Reimer's stead and is over .500. Scrivens comes in and doesn't miss a beat, stopping 38 of 39 shots in his NHL debut (even it was against the Blue Jackets), who would think that a potential cradle of net minding would be located on downtown Bay Street this season.

Now for the cold water... I wouldn't be reserving my spot on Bloor just yet for that Maple Leafs June Stanley Cup parade. Despite Kessel and Joffrey Lupul's great start, long term scoring depth on the top six is a major concern as the season's lengthens. Tim Connolly is always going to be a sketchy health proposition for the duration of his two year deal at the ACC. The current second pairing of Clarke MacArthur-Mikhail Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin put up career highs last season but most of was while the team was on the outside looking in during the Eastern Conference playoff.

This season, the glare of the spotlight in this intense media market has even brighter just ten days into the regular season and we're interested to see how this group handles the inevitable losing streak that comes in an 82 game schedule.

PRETTY, PRETTY PENGUINS

A month into the season, my Penguins-Blackhawks Stanley Cup Finals is looking pretty sweet, but I'm sure something will come along to screw that up.

The Eastern end of the bargain waddled west for a curious three game road trip that went Toronto, San Jose and Los Angeles. While we all await the return of Sidney Crosby, more intrigue injected itself into the mix prior to the game last Saturday at Staples Center. The local media was put on notice earlier in the week that 87 would be available to the media after the Penguins morning skate. He was to be available in a scrum situation but no one on one, a reasonable stance for the most recognizable player in the game. Come Saturday night, word spread around the rink that Sidney flew the coop from San Jose and went directly home. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said that Crosby had a previously schedule doctor's appointment and he wanted to be ready for a team building event scheduled with the team off until Thursday.

The reasoning behind his no-show was sketchy and just added to the shroud of mystery when Bylsma said, "there is no timetable, there is no return date," a statement that gave closure to the practice, but no closure to the situation.

Sidney's looming lack of presence on the ice detracts that this team, and more specifically their good guy coach, has done a masterful job of winning despite having a huge excuse not to. The injuries just keep coming, the early season schedule has not been kind to help to heal the walking wounded and yet on Sunday morning, they're the first seed despite playing almost twice as many road games as home.

Kris Letang could be in line for a Norris, Marc-Andre Fleury is a top-five goalie and Geno Malkin is finding his way after a catastrophic knee injury. Despite all the shuttling and with few assets to count on every night, Byslma seems to find 20 dudes every night that get the 'W.' If I was a voter for the Jack Adams Trophy, I'd just cast my vote now to get out of the way. He brings energy and charisma to the role, established chemistry in the locker room (we saw genuine, mutual respect and friendship among the boys in our visit to the room) and is a savvy a move the Pittsburgh organization as any of their high draft picks.

One of the new bros, cagey veteran Steve Sullivan has been added to the mix this season. After spending six seasons as one of the faces of the Nashville Predators, he signed a one year, $1.5 million deal when it was decided that his days in the Honky Tonk were through. While no one expects Sullivan to put up huge numbers it would come to no one surprise if he chipped in a vital tally somewhere in the Penguins playoff run this Spring. As a newcomer, Sullivan gives a fresh perspective to why Pittsburgh shrugs off all their roadblocks to victory.

"We've got a really good system that everyone's bought into, our expectations from man to man are extremely high," Sullivan stated. "We all understand that this system when executed properly will be better than individual skill and we're proven that right now. Dan's got a different mentality than any coach I've had and it's been fun."

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.


 

 

Archives:
Oct. 21, 2011 Ain't Nothing Gonna Change
Oct. 03, 2011 The Cup Waddles Back to Pittsburgh
Sep. 28, 2011 Defending the Bad Guy
Sep. 19, 2011 Stealth Ducks
Sep. 04, 2011 Alex Boyd: From the Blueline to the Crooner
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