The bible says the meek shall inherit the earth, or in hockey terms, the ice. Well, so far this season, the NHL’s Eastern Conference it taking that phrase to heart. Sure, the season is barely two weeks old, but a look at the three division leaders shows that teams that were at or near the bottom of the standings are now at the top.
In the Atlantic Division, the New York Islanders, who finished last in the division last season and 13th in the conference, are sitting at 4-1-2 and in first place overall in the conference. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished dead last in the conference last season, are in first place in the Northeast Division and tied for second place overall with the Southeast Division leading Tampa Bay Lightning at 4-1-1. Tampa Bay was also near the bottom of the conference standings last year, finishing in 12th place.
While it’s unclear if any of these teams will be able to keep up their winning ways over the course of 82 games, here’s a look at why these teams are off to fast starts and what they have to do to continue showing improvement:
Toronto Maple Leafs:
Why they are off to a fast start: The goaltending has been solid in the early going, with J.S. Giguere leading the way. The 33-year-old former Anaheim Duck has shown flashes of the form he showed when leading the Ducks to their first Cup win a few years ago. While Phil Kessel’s offensive output has been expected, ex-Sabres forward Clarke MacArthur is tied with Kessel for the team scoring lead. MacArthur has never scored more than 17 goals in an NHL season, so it’s doubtful he will be able to keep up his torrid pace, but increased offensive output from MacArthur would help the Leafs. On defense, the duo of Luke Schenn and Dion Phaneuf are providing plenty of big hits and Tomas Kaberle is providing assists and is a plus-three in the early going. More than anything, the Leafs seem to be a faster and more aggressive team offensively than they were last year. It seems Toronto is finally beginning to be molded into the team GM Brian Burke envisioned when he took over the club more than a season ago.
Keys to the season: The Leafs need to get consistent scoring from players other than Kessel. They also need Giguere to stay healthy and/or for Jonas Gustavsson to accelerate his development. Team defense must also stay at this level which may be the biggest challenge.
New York Islanders:
Why they are off to a fast start: The Isles seemed doomed when they lost top defenseman Mark Streit and young forward Kyle Okposo to serious injuries before the season even started, but the Isles have gotten off to a very impressive start despite losing two of their key players. The Isles have also overcome minor injuries to John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Trent Hunter up front but continue to get good production from free agent signee P.A. Parenteau and a rejuvenated and healthy Doug Weight. Youngsters like Bailey and Blake Comeau continue to develop and mature. Offensively, the scoring has been balanced while defensively, James Wisniewski has stepped it up offensively to fill Streit’s skates. Increased depth on the blue line in the form of Milan Jurcina, Mike Mattau and Mark Eaton has helped solidify the overall team defense. Role players like Zenon Kenopka and Jon Sim have done their jobs whether it’s winning faceoffs or providing grit. Dwayne Roloson has been outstanding early in the season, allowing Rick DiPietro to ease back into the lineup without any pressure. Special teams have also improved. The attitude has been different on Long Island this season. The team is no longer happy to keep it close and they seem to be comfortable in Scott Gordon’s system as he enters his third year as coach.
Keys to the season: Can the Isles keep getting scoring from so many different players? Are youngsters like Comeau and Bailey really stepping up to the next level, or are they just off to a hot start. Depth at forward is not a strong point so this team needs to avoid additional injuries. How this young team handles its first losing streak will be key as well.
Tampa Bay Lightning:
Why they are off to a fast start: Of the three teams mentioned here, this is the one experts picked to be the most successful. New GM Steve Yzerman rebuilt his roster, adding ex-Flyer Simon Gagne for scoring punch and Pavel Kubina on the blueline. Thus far, the power play has been spectacular and that has made a big difference. Fast starts from Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell have helped offensively. Talented young players like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman have continued to develop and neither has reached his prime. The issue facing the Bolts remains goaltending neither Dan Ellis nor Mike Smith have been truly outstanding. Gagne has yet to score or even pick up an assist but the team is still winning.
Keys to the season: Tampa Bay can’t win all season long by outgunning opponents in high scoring games, can they? Their young defense must become more consistent and one of their goalies needs to establish themselves as a bona fide starter. Scoring should not be a major concern, especially when Gagne gets back on track, but this team needs to mesh and find enough grit to shut down opponents successfully.
Outlook: All three of these teams will have a hard time keeping up this early pace, but they can all contend for a playoff spot if they continue to grow and play more consistent hockey. The talented Lightning are most likely to qualify for the playoffs, but both the Isles and Leafs have a much better chance than anybody gave them credit for prior to the season. Expect all three of these teams to be in the hunt for the playoffs throughout the season.