Believe it or not, half of the NHL season is officially behind us. To commemorate the milestone, and look at both things past and to come, Cold as Ice co-editors Stephen and Jay sat down to discuss the season so far. In part one, they talk about their biggest surprises, both among teams and players, as well as what to think about the recently announced and even more recently delayed realignment.
Jay: Okay, cool. So it’s hard to believe we’re already at the halfway point of the season, huh? Seems like we just did the previews.
Stephen: Yeah. It really has seemed like this one has flown by so far. Though it’s been anything but boring.
Jay: True that. What jumps out at you as the biggest surprises of the first half?
Stephen: I think the entire East Conference really has been a surprise to me. We have two teams we counted out in our previews holding top five spots (Ottawa and Florida), and expected powerhouses like the Caps and Lightning really sputtering as we hit part two of the season.
Jay: No kidding. The Bruins were a surprise for the month of October, because they suck-diddly-ucked out of the gate. But since Nov. 1, they’ve been almost unbeatable. Even so, there’s Ottawa nipping at their heels, three points back. I don’t think even the Senators themselves thought they’d be in that position now.
Stephen: Undoubtedly. Bruins are scary good, to the point I want to see them lose just so I know they can. And the GM in Florida has to be feeling good about his old guy gambles in the off-season. Like Theodore. Who knew he’d be relevant again?
Jay: And Kris Versteeg. Dude was on three teams last year and this year he’s among the scoring leaders. Other positive surprises include my Maple Leafs, who are erratic but much better than last year, but we’ll get back to them later. How about the St. Louis Blues, battling for first place with Detroit in their division? Damn.
Stephen: I smuggly point out that I thought they had a chance this year in my preview. But I didn’t think it’d be this good. Halak is heading back to MTL this week and he has to be happy with how he’s playing compared to Price.
Jay: Halak shut them out tonight! And his goaltending partner Brian Elliott has been lights out, too. The Rangers seem to be putting it all together so far, leading their division. On the other hand, there have been some huge disappointments, including the Capitals, who I thought would go to the finals. Could still happen if they get hot, but they haven’t looked good so far. And I don’t think anybody thought Anaheim would be the worst team in the league.
Stephen: I was going to say Anaheim too. It’s just tragic on their end, really. One of the worst goal differentials in the league. Tampa Bay too is making their deep run last year look more like a fluke than a sign of things to come. And Montreal has has a rough go of it. Their language barrier issues have just been icing on the cake for them so far (referring to the whole coaching deal you talked about last week).
Buffalo too. Their GM was throwing out money like a Wall Street banker in the off-season, and the team is worse for the wear. I guess at least it shows you cannot buy championships in the NHL.
Jay: Yeah, Ville Leino has been a massive free agent bust for the Sabres. Dude signed a ridiculous contract in the off-season and has 10 measly points so far. With Tampa, looks like Dwayne Roloson may finally be at the end; he’s single handedly destroyed my fantasy team this year.
Individually, who’s stood out for you? Certainly Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul have been an impressive duo for the Leafs, currently second and fourth in the league in scoring. Claude Giroux has also been a force for the Flyers.
Stephen: Seguin has really impressed me in his sophomore season. Granted he has two of the leagues better tenders behind him but his league best +33 shows some real discipline on the ice. Giruox and Kessel have to get nods of course. And Sedin, after the slow Vancouver start, has been an assist machine. Both of them really.
Jay: Amazing consistency from the Bruins. Seguin’s their leading scorer and he’s 24th in the league. But they’ve got a ton of guys with more than 20 points. They’re even better right now than they were last season.
Stephen: Yeah, it’s been an impressive effort across the board. Oh, and Jagr. I did not expect his return would be so triumphant. Not that Jagr isn’t one of the greats. But he’s no young guy any more, that’s for sure. He’s almost 40, but he still looks great out there.
Jay: I always liked Jagr, so I’m glad he came back. Kinda funny that he picked a team (Philly) that his three previous clubs (Pittsburgh, Washington, NYR) all totally hate.
Stephen: Yeah, he certainly has stirred up some ire this season. His salute in Consol Arena against the Pens got me pretty upset, I have to admit…
Jay: So let’s talk about realignment, or the lack thereof. The NHL announced plans to shake up its entire conference/divisional system, not to mention the playoffs, next season. Basically, it would have created four conferences, two with eight teams and two with seven, and the playoffs would have returned to the divisional system that was prevalent in the ’80s and ’90s. But the players’ union shot it down last week and now it’s definitely not happening next year. The main concern seems to be over the playoff setup and the fact that the league tried to ram it through. What’s your take? I’m disappointed because it looked like a cool change, but the playoff proposal was problematic.
Stephen: I thought it was a solid plan, and while the playoff end game had its issues, I did appreciate the re-upping of rivalries thanks to seeing the same teams in the first rounds each year. But it wasn’t perfect. While it fixed travel problems for some teams, a few teams were going to be stuck flying a LOT further for games. And I hate for something like that to influence standings.
Jay: And there’s the whole issue of having unbalanced conferences.
Stephen: Exactly. That’s the biggest problem. You have a few unbalanced divisions now (like the Atlantic), but the current system allows good teams to make it in regardless. If you have stalwarts like Philly and the Rangers battling in the first round every year, it really makes it hard for teams from that Conference to make deep runs.
Jay: The core of a good idea is there, they just need to fine-tune it. But interesting that the league backed down. With collective bargaining coming up again and the fact that the NHLPA is now run by one Donald Fehr, who was the head of the MLB players union when the big strike of ’94 wiped out the end of that season and the World Series, it’s no wonder Gary Bettman took a step back. Things could get ugly quick. I sure as hell hope we don’t lose another season like we did in ’04-’05. Hopefully they see that the NBA didn’t exactly score good PR points with its recent lockout.
Stephen: And as damaging as that strike was to the NHL’s popularity, especially here in the USA, we really can’t afford another one, just as the sport is gaining some more traction stateside. I think Bettman made the right call, but I hope that can work things out as soon as possible.
Jay: Yeah, I remember back in ’94, right after the Rangers won the Cup, the NHL was at its most popular point ever. Sports Illustrated even ran a cover story on why the NHL was better than the NBA. Messier, Leetch and Richter brought the Cup on the Letterman show. So what does the league do? Lockout for half a friggin’ season. Ten years later, they wipe out the whole season. And somehow bounce back fairly well. But in this economy, as some NBA teams are finding out, you can’t afford to have fans find other uses for their not-so-disposable income.
Check back soon for part two, as Jay and Stephen discuss the Winter Classic, what to do about concussions in the league, our predictions for the season to come, and our prospects for our favorite teams.