January 04, 2012
Last summer, the Florida Panthers added 11 veteran players and a head coach. They crammed a long table for an introductory press conference, looking very much like a fantasy team come to life, albeit one with lousy fantasy draft position. Some expected, at best, they'd be competitive. Others expected this to be Tallon's Folly.
Instead, they turned out to be the third best team in the Eastern Conference at the moment. Which is sort of baffling.
But they're not the only team that's playing above its head right now, rather inexplicably. Here are five NHL teams that are bafflingly successful this season. (Note: The St. Louis Blues aren't listed here. There's nothing baffling about the right coach coming in and making a talented, playoff-caliber roster bend to his will.)
This really shouldn't have worked.
There's no precedent for what GM Dale Tallon did here: Spend copious amounts of money on a disparate collection of veteran players, some of whom won a Stanley Cup together with the Chicago Blackhawks and others that were significant role players on other teams. Combine them with holdovers from a lottery team last season, shake and pour out a division leader with 47 points in 39 games.
What we all underestimated what the Blackhawks Factor. Kris Versteeg leads the team with 38 points, acting as the major offensive cog for their top line. Brian Campbell has 31 points in 39 games, acting as the offensive engine Tallon sold him as when he traded for him (18 power-play assists!).
Their goaltending has been better than expected. They play with some edge. Kevin Dineen's pushing the right buttons.
The notion that this mercenary group would exhibit some of the best chemistry in the NHL is one of the season's greatest surprises. And now they add John Madden, one of the most well-liked players in the room you can find, to that mix.
Here's the baffling part: This team looked like it was headed for a massive rebuild no less than two months ago. Like, in a "clear out the front office" sort of way.
Instead, they're eighth in the West with a 22-18-1 record and on a 9-2 streak.
Offensively, the story hasn't been about Duchene (now injured) or Paul Stastny. It's been about Ryan O'Reilly, who has skated with Gabriel Landeskog and Milan Hejduk to form a dependable line, much in the way Versteeg's line with Stephen Weiss gave the Panhers something to build on. They also match up with opponents' power lines and outplay them.
The hidden MVP for this team has been Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who went 5-2-0 in December and really steadied things for the Avs when they needed it. Semyon Varlamov is still Tretiak one night and Cloutier the next, but he's won three straight.
They're also 7-0 in shootouts, which the New Jersey Devils will tell you is a nice crutch to carry …
Joe Sacco survived the heat and now his team's in playoff contention. Would you have believed as much back in October?
That the Ottawa Senators have 45 points in 40 games and are currently in a playoff position is rather baffling. Their PP is around 18th in the League at 17.7 percent. Their PK is below average at 79.5-percent. Their defense and goaltending has been horrific: 3.32 GAA as a team, trumped only by the porous defense in Tampa Bay.
So what's the trick? Their offense has been much better than expected, and rather clutch. From the Ottawa Citizen:
They rank eighth in the 30-team NHL in goals per game (2.97), a lofty jump from 2010-11, when they were 29th with only 2.32 goals per game.
The scoring hasn't been overly top-heavy, with Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Alfredsson being asked to carry the team offensively every night. Michalek leads the way with 19 goals, but hasn't scored since returning from a concussion on Dec. 27. Spezza has 13, followed by Alfredsson, Nick Foligno and Zack Smith (11 each), Colin Greening (eight), Erik Condra (six), then Erik Karlsson and Chris Neil (five each).
Just to dial it back for a moment: Milan Michalek has 19 goals.
The job Paul MacLean has done here is underrated and under-appreciated. Maybe he can ask Mike Babcock what that's like.
Travel and injuries kicked their asses a bit on the last month, but the Wild remain sixth in the West with 48 points in 40 games. The credit goes to Coach Mike Yeo. He worked them hard in the preseason, demanded effort, demanded they play his system. The earned positive results early in the season which made the sell job easier.
Yeo is a different coach than I thought he'd be. When I met him last summer, my first impression was he was going to be more volatile, more heavy-handed in dealing with a core group of players that never completely bought into their previous coach's system.
Instead, he has been even-keeled. He seems subdued at times. He keeps the team's business in the dressing room, making corrections or critical remarks behind closed doors. Most important, he has created that one-for-all attitude that has resulted in numerous improbable comebacks.
The baffling part of this team's success is that it doesn't necessarily correlate with the changes they made last offseason. Dany Heatley as 12 goals, which leads the team but isn't exactly pushing for the Richard Trophy. Devin Setoguchi, limited by injury, as eight. They're middle of the pack 5-on-5 and on the power play, but they're eighth in the League on the PK (84.6 percent).
Everyone's been waiting for the bottom to fall it, and there have been times in which it's felt close to happening. But it hasn't.
Finally, a team that's just outside the playoff picture … but closing in.
The predictions were that the former Thrashers would be lauded by local fans but, ultimately, fall short of playoff contention. Instead, they're hanging tough: 43 points in 38 games, one point out of a playoff seed. And they have their rabid fans to thank for it: 14-6-1 at home, one of only five teams to have 14 or more wins on home ice.
They're finding a away to win games, maturing as a team under Claude Noel. From QMI:
The team defensive play is a source of pride and it's the primary reason why the Jets are challenging for a playoff spot as the season nears the midway point. "I'm really happy with the way we've defended, from our goaltender on out," coach Claude Noel said. "Our team is becoming a really good checking team against heavy opponents."
When the Jets were scrambling, turning pucks over and sacrificing defence for offensive opportunities, Pavelec had terrible numbers, largely through no fault of his own. Today, he's one of the hottest goalies in the NHL and he's improved his goals against average to 2.82, his save percentage to .911.
Then there are the 18 goals from Evander Kane, who has blossomed into a star this season and, frankly, might actually creep into the Hart Trophy conversation if he keeps up this pace and the Jets make the playoffs.
Which, bafflingly, they might just do.