The 2013/14 NHL season is now 2 weeks old, and we are all trying to figure out how good every team actually is. The rankings are on a "per game" basis, so there is no reward for playing more games than another team. In honour of season 4 of the Walking Dead starting this weekend on AMC, I tried to pick a "Walking Dead" award for most NHL teams (selected on the basis of which high ranked player is off to the worst start, significantly below expectations). Many of the top teams in the league don't have a legitimate nominee for this award, which is part of why they are playing so good.
1. San Jose Sharks (preseason rank 9): If the season were to end tomorrow, rookie Tomash Hertl would win the Calder, Hart, and Maurice Richard trophies. Playing with Joe Thornton and Brett Burns certainly helps, but the Sharks have had great production up and down the line-up. This is the 2nd consecutive year that the Sharks have been red hot to start the season; last year after starting 7-0, they went on to lose 7 in a row. We'll see if they can maintain their dominance beyond 2 weeks.
2. St. Louis Blues (preseason rank 4): The two biggest story lines for the Blues to start the new season is Alexander Steen playing like he's contending for the Hart trophy, and Jaroslav Halak playing in Vezina form. They have a very strong defense and get balanced scoring from up and down the line-up, with no legitimate "Walking Dead" nominee. When things are going good on a Hitchcock team, everything is wonderful, and right now, life is good.
3. Colorado Avalanche (preseason rank 28): When I predicted that this team would challenge for dead last, I never imagined that they would be undefeated 2 weeks into the season. Normally I would say "show me a team where Andre Benoit is the best defenseman, and I'll show you a team that sucks", not "I'll show you a team that is undefeated". Simeon Varlamov might be the early favourite for the Vezina, with a 1.00 GAA and a .970 SVPCT. Basically through 4 games, opposing teams need about 100 shots to score 3 goals. The forward group has been outstanding, despite a very weak blueline. Eventually the clock will strike midnight and Cinderella's chariot will turn back into a pumpkin.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins (preseason rank 1): The Pens have been without two of their most valuable players in Kris Letang and James Neal for most of the season, but they are still among the best in the league. It helps that MA Fleury has been very solid to start the season, while Sidney Crosby once again leads the league in scoring. It's easier to deal with the loss of Neal and Letang when they have two former MVPs in Crosby and Malkin. If they get the whole line-up healthy, they will be even better.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (preseason rank 8): What a start! It's tough to pick where to begin with the Leafs off to their best start of a season in a very long time. Bernier is providing elite goaltending, and the forwards are providing ample offense. Kessel, Lupul, Van Reimsdyk, Bozak, Bolland, Kadri, Franson, Phaneuf, and Raymond are all ranked in my top 100 for week 2. Everyone they need production from is producing more than expected. All this while their prized free agent power forward acquisition David Clarkson still has not played a game due to suspension. When they get Clarkson back, they should be even better, at least in theory.
6. Boston Bruins (preseason rank 3): The Bruins will continue to be an elite team until the day they lose Zdeno Chara, at which time they will become a borderline playoff team. Enjoy it Bruins fans, the 36 year old franchise cornerstone can't keep this up forever. Will he be an elite player right up until he day he retires like Lidstrom, or will his body slowly break down before our eyes (like a Hall Gill)? Stay tuned. Lucic has been good, Krejci and Bergeron alright, with Eriksson and Iginla off to slow starts. This team is still a handful. Co-winners of the "Walking Dead Award" goes to Iginla and Marchand, who each have just 1 point in 5 games.
7. Anaheim Mighty Ducks (preseason rank 12): Bobby who? The newly acquired Jakob Silverberg has 4 goals in the first 5 games, and is quickly making the folks in Orange County forget about Bobby Ryan. In net, Jonas Hiller has been great (1.30 GAA in 3 games), Viktor Fasth has been far from good (4.00 GAA in 2 games). Throw in solid production from Perry and Getzlaf, and things are looking pretty good in Anaheim. When Anaheim traded for Mathieu Perrault in September, it hardly made a ripple in the national media, but 2 weeks into the season he's on pace for 80 PTS.
Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Kyle Palmieri, who has no points to start the season.
8. Montreal Canadiens (preseason rank 10): It is becoming clear that Brendan Gallegher and Alex Galchenyuk are among the most dynamic duos in the NHL. Lars Eller has also exploded out of the gate, showing no ill effects from the concussion that ended his season last spring. PK Subban is still playing in Norris form, and he's destined to become a very rich man sooner rather than later. Their "Walking Dead Award" winner is easily David Desharnais, with no points in 5 games. The runner-up is Daniel Briere, with 1 assist in 5 games. Thankfully the top players are scoring enough that the slow starts aren't exactly a big deal.
9. Calgary Flames (preseason rank 30): The young team that was supposed to suck is at least working very hard, and are currently exceeding expectations due to this excessive effort. They don't have a "Walking Dead Award" winner because most of the line-up is playing to expectations (considering most of those expectations were low). Their "I didn't see that coming" award goes to Hudler, Monahan, and David Jones. In preseason I predicted Hudler to be outside the top 400, and 2 weeks in he's inside the top 40. Do not expect this team to sustain their early pace. They are going to suck before all is said and done.
10. Chicago Blackhawks (preseason rank 2): This is one of the best teams in the league, off to a bit of a slow start with a possible Stanley Cup hangover. It doesn't even matter that they lost a few important pieces, their core is very strong, which puts less dependence on the role players. Their "Walking Dead Award" is split between Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickel, who each only have 1 point to start the season. Expect the Hawks to slowly creep back up the rankings, as they say, the cream always rises to the top.
11. Minnesota Wild (preseason rank 17): Normally I would say something like "show me a team where Matt Cooke is the leading scorer, and I'll show you a team that sucks". In this case, the Cooke production is just a bonus with Parise, Koivu, and Suter all having strong starts. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Danny Heatley, who ranked outside the top 430 in my week 2 player rankings (1 assist in 6 GP). Youngsters Nino Neidereitter and Mikael Granlund are making quality offensive contributions early, which is exactly what the doctor ordered for this team.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning (preseason rank 23): They have started the season on a good note, with Ben Bishop playing great in 3 games, and Anders Lindback sucking in 2 games. Once again the team is scoring plenty of goals, but they are keeping pucks out of their own net much better than last season. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Nate Thompson with no points, thankfully he is not that important a player that his slow start is holding the team back. They are going to score a lot of goals, and if Bishop can continue to keep the puck out of their own net, this might be a decent season for Tampa.
13. Detroit Red Wings (preseason rank 7): The Wings continue to be Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kronwall, Howard and everyone else, but so long as they keep playing like this, they will be a tough team to beat. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Brendan Smith, who has no points, is a -4, and has been healthy scratched. It does not appear as though the replacements for Nick Lidstrom (Kindl, Quincey, and Smith) are going to provide anywhere near the Hall of Famer's production and skill on the blueline. Far from it.
14. Phoenix Coyotes (preseason rank 24): They are playing well, better than I expected. Derek Morris has 5 PTS in 5 GP, which ties him for the team lead with Vrbata and Hanzal. Normally I would say "show me a team where Derek Morris is the leading scorer, and I'll show you a team that sucks". In this case, his production is a bonus and the Coyotes are okay. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Keith Yandle for his 1 point in 6 games, but look for their quaterback to start producing sooner rather than later.
15. NY Islanders (preseason rank 19): This young Islanders squad is now officially a good team, and will be for several years to come. Their biggest hole is a quarterback on the blueline, a hole left by the departure of Mark Streit (who doesn't seem to have helped Philadelphia). Evgeni Nabokov continues to provide them with strong goaltending. It's a safe bet that this is a playoff team, especially if the Rangers, Flyers, and Capitals continue to struggle. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Matt Martin, held off the scoresheet for the first 5 games.
16. Carolina Hurricanes (preseason rank 16): They are who I thought they were. Jeff Skinner and Nathan Gerbe are red hot, but Alex Semin and Jordan Staal are ice cold, each collecting just a single point in the first 6 games. Jiri Tlusty had a breakout season in 2013 with 38 PTS in 48 GP, but currently has no points and is their "Walking Dead Award" winner. Semin and JoStaal should probably be co-winners. They are going to need those guys to produce if they are going to make a run in the playoffs.
17. Columbus Blue Jackets (preseason rank 21): Sergei Bobrovsky is still really good and Marian Gaborick is scoring lots of points. It's enough to get them to .500 hockey, but they are going to need a greater contribution from lines 2, 3, and 4 if they fancy themselves a playoff team. They are at least borderline competitive as currently constituted, and will challenge for a playoff spot. Technically their "Walking Dead Award" winner is Mark Letestu, who should be playing better than 1 point in 4 games.
18. Dallas Stars (preseason rank 18): Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alex Chiasson are off to fantastic starts, but the drop-off is steep after that 1st line. Erik Cole is just collecting a paycheque (he may not have retired as he originally threatened to do after the new CBA was signed, but it's safe to say he has lost the eye of the tiger), while Horcoff (their "Walking Dead Award" winner) and Nichushkin have failed to register a point in 4 games. The young guns are firing on all cylinders, but they are going to need some of the older guys to make a more significant contribution.
19. Ottawa Senators (preseason rank 11): We are about 6 months removed from jokes about Craig Anderson seeing pucks like Neo sees bullets in the Matrix movies, but so far the Sens goalie has not been the same miracle worker. They are getting by with solid production from Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris, but they are going to need better play from Karlsson, Spezza, and Michalek if they are going to be a contender to win a playoff series. Their "Walking Dead Award" winner is Colin Greening, who has just 1 assist in 5 GP.
20. Vancouver Canucks (preseason rank 14): The Canucks look a little bit shaky out of the gate. The Sedins are still elite players, and currently carrying this team on their backs. Luongo is typically known as a slow starter, as he is currently on pace to have the worst season of his career. Meanwhile the "Walking Dead Award" goes to Ryan Kesler, who has 1 point in 6 GP and is a team worst -5 to start the season. Something is not right with Kesler. Fans calling the post-game radio shows are repeatedly asking what's wrong with Kesler. They need this guy in Selke form if they are going to be a top 10 team. 6 games into the season, they are barely a top 20 team.
21. Los Angeles Kings (preseason rank 5): Is it possible that the Kings should have traded the Conn Smythe winning Quick and kept the younger Bernier? Well over the first 2 weeks, Bernier has been playing far better. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Trevor Lewis, pointless in 6 games, albeit that's not too far below his expected production. Right now Kopitar, Carter, and Richards are carrying the offense; and they will require some help if they are going to climb back up the rankings.
22. Winnipeg Jets (preseason rank 22): They are who I thought they were. As I have said on many occasions, Andrej Pavelec is not an elite goaltender and will never lead a team deep in the post season. They are getting lots of offense from deep in their line-up, but are giving up too many goals. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Zack Bogosian for providing the best puck handling blunder highlight since Patrik Stefan.
23. Nashville Predators (preseason rank 25): Seth Jones is a legit NHL hockey player, but the Preds seem to lack any substantial firepower. Pekka Rhine is struggling and once again this team can't score goals. Either the goalie has to rediscover his old form, or they need to start scoring goals if they are going to climb into the playoff hunt. They are officially in a rebuilding process, and it's better if they accept that and bottom out for another year or two.
24. Florida Panthers (preseason rank 29): I have my doubts that Tim Thomas can take this team to the promised land. They are not very good, but have a lot of quality young talent that should be good eventually in theory. 2nd overall pick Alex Barkov is playing great with 5 PTS in 6 GP, and has an even plus/minus on a team with a lot of minuses (they have 9 players that are at least -4, if not worse). Their "Walking Dead Award goes to a pointless Tomas Kopecky.
25. New Jersey Devils (preseason rank 26): Show me a team with Damian Brunner and Marek Zidlicky as the 2 leading scorers, and I will show you a team that sucks. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Ryane Clowe, with 1 assist in 6 games. The Devils officially suck. They are going to end up losing a very high draft pick with that Kovalchuck contract penalty. It's too bad Lou didn't give up the 29th pick in 2012. That was a dumb idea, and you are going to regret it.
26. Edmonton Oilers (preseason rank 20): Devan Dubnyk's start to the season is comparable in many ways to a train wreck (5.43 GAA, .829 SVPCT) Although the team defense hasn't exactly been great in front of him, he has let in several goals that he should have stopped. Ilya Bryzgalov would have to make this a better team. They have been able to score goals, but if they can't keep the puck out of their own net, they are going nowhere fast. Their "Walking Dead Award" is easily former 1st overall pick Nail Yakupov, who has no points and has been a healthy scratch.
27. Philadelphia Flyers (preseason rank 15): The first team to fire their coach may want to consider firing the General Manager. The sad state of the franchise has as much to do with how it's built as it was coaching. Brayden Schenn is their leading scorer and best player 2 weeks into the season. Normally I would say "show me a team where Brayden Schenn is the leading scorer and I'll show you a team that sucks". Right now, the Flyers suck. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Claude Giroux, with 1 point in 6 games, or the pointless Scott Hartnell.
28. Washington Capitals (preseason rank 6): It should have been predictable that Washington would struggle after being moved out of hockey's easiest division, but nobody would have predicted that the Caps would be this bad coming out of the gate. They managed to beat the Oilers on Monday night, but that's not saying much because it looks like the Oilers are a really bad team. Their "Walking Dead Award" goes to Martin Erat, who has failed to register a point so far this season.
29. Buffalo Sabres (preseason rank 28): Through 6 games, Cody Hodgson and Thomas Vanek are producing about 65% of the offense. Their "Walking Dead Award" is shared between Christian Ehrhoff, Mikael Grigorenko, and Tyler Myers who have no points between them. This team sucks. It's not getting any better anytime soon. If Vanek is a risk to leave via free agency this summer, they need to trade him sooner rather than later. A team in a rebuild cannot afford to lose that kind of asset for nothing.
30. New York Rangers (preseason rank 13): Wow, they are hands down the worst team in the NHL through the first 2 weeks of the season. Do they miss Torts that much? I would love to give their entire roster the "Walking Dead Award", but the distinction will have to be split between Dan Girardi (no points, -7) and Henrik Lundqvist (4.21 GAA, .887 SVPCT). We'll see how long they will play this poorly. Is there any chance that Vigneault's job is in jeopardy? This is a team that has made noise in the playoffs the last two years. I don't think anyone expected them to be this bad, least of all their owner.