NHL’s Eastern Conference: change is in the air
It’s been the ignition switch triggering many a discussion since the salary cap came into play 17 years ago – the days of dynasties in the National Hockey League are done.
The Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s, NY Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s dominated hockey at its grandest level. The likelihood of seeing runs of three or four consecutive Stanley Cup wins again is no likelihood at all.
Tampa’s been the anomaly, coming within a hair of turning that theory into dust last summer. But even with hockey’s cleverest management group running the show, it looks like the Lightning are slowly coming back to the pack again.
This season, maybe more than any other in recent memory, is showing signs of profound change; particularly in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Regular doormats Detroit, Buffalo and Ottawa have all made significant improvements. Yes it is very, very early but the eye-test suggests the on-ice product in these three centres has been upgraded, big time.
As of this writing, the Wings remained undefeated through five games; the Sabres were 4-1; the Senators dropped their first two on the road then reeled off four straight wins at home.
Under the watchful gaze of Steve Yzerman, the Wings have brought in a slew of gritty veterans in Ben Chiarot, David Perron and Andrew Copp to augment young ‘uns Lukas Raymond and Moritz Seider. Good moves there.
Buffalo’s story is a big one, in more than one way. Recent acquisitions Tage Thompson (6-foot-6) and Alex Tuch (6-foot-4) as well as former first overall pick Owen Power (6-foot-6) lead the way on a much-improved club.
As for Ottawa?
Suddenly there is depth. The loss of Josh Norris and the Senators top two netminders hasn’t slowed down the roll. Shane Pinto’s rapid start (six games, five goals) wasn’t expected but was certainly welcome. Ottawa management has even managed to hide away Nikita Zaitsev from the catcalls. The area’s favourite whipping boy has dressed for only one game.
While that trio has made a jump, can’t help but think we’ll see some slippage at the top. Tampa is still very good, but they continue to shed quality support season by season (Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh pop into mind. Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow the season before this one).
Elsewhere age is becoming a factor in Pittsburgh, Boston and Washington. Yep, the B’s and Pens are off the good starts, but again, eye-test people . . . eye-test. We can see any of the above headed for a major tumble, and quite soon.
Hockey’s cycle looks to have started.
THOUGHT, SEEN AND HEARD: Have to wonder when the rest of the NHL catches up and realizes Ottawa is no longer the spot to start your backup goalie. Scott Wedgewood got the call Monday for Dallas instead of the stellar Jake Oettinger. Oettinger’s been superb this season and last. Monday Wedgewood was – well – Wedgewood . . . The last three seasons it was backup after backup after backup from the opposition. Time to wake up . . . Going to take awhile for the locals to find the stands, apparently. Only 12,000 at the CTC Monday . . . The Senators best year at the gate? That’d be 2007-08 when an average of 19,821 per night flocked to the rink . . . I completely get why Sheldon Keefe threw some muscle into the Leafs’ lineup this week: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are getting shellacked left and right. Only problem is, Toronto’s muscle has a grim time keeping pace with today’s game, and unless there’s a full out brawl, they’re fairly unusable . . . I could write an entire column on Habs’ bruiser Arber Xhekaj. My type of player x2 . . . The way things are (not) going with Vancouver prompted an old Harry Neale line that maybe Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau could adopt: “I know my players don't like my practices, but that's OK because I don't like their games.” . . . Or my favourite: “Last season we couldn't win at home. This season we can't win on the road. My failure as a coach is I can't think of any place else to play.” . . . TSN’s weekly power rankings has Ottawa as Canada’s top team, at No. 10 league-wide . . . The Senators are followed by Calgary (No. 11), Toronto (No. 12), Edmonton (No. 19), Montreal (No. 25), Winnipeg (No. 26) and Vancouver (No. 30) . . . At a loss: Now that I’ve finished The Last Kingdom, I have nowhere to go. The Netflix series was/is that damn good . . . Better writing and character development than Vikings, IMHO.
SENATOR’S WEEK AHEAD:
Thursday, Oct. 27: Minnesota at Ottawa (7 pm)
Saturday, Oct. 29: Ottawa at Florida (4 pm)
Tuesday, Nov. 1: Ottawa at Tampa (7 pm)