HARD HITS: Parity gives underdogs a chance in unpredictable league, Brodeur and Marty St. Louis inducted


A look at the current standings tells a story. The 2018-19 NHL season is unlike most. With few exceptions, most teams are struggling. Both the Capitals and Golden Knights would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today. Each having issues fulfilling lofty expectations. It’s normal when everyone is gunning for you.

The good news for teams like Washington and Vegas is we are not even at the quarter mark. Thanksgiving comes out early next week. By the 22nd of November, that’s usually the first measuring stick for evaluation. While other teams including the inconsistent Penguins and God awful Kings complete trades such as Carl Hagelin for Tanner Pearson in hopes of providing a spark, other disappointing clubs have fired coaches, including the once mighty Blackhawks, who gave three-time Stanley Cup champion Joel Quenneville the pink slip. The Kings sent John Stevens packing, and are still atrocious without Jonathan Quick.

Last year, not one coach was dismissed. This year could more than make up for that rarity with Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle, Edmonton’s Todd McLellan and Blues bench boss Mike Yeo also on the hot seat. Whether it’s due to injuries, poor defense, lack of depth, or inconsistent goaltending, there are plenty of reasons why teams underachieve.

In a very perplexing Metro Division, you have both the Capitals and Penguins leaving the door open for early surprises to hang in the race. Even the first place Blue Jackets aren’t clicking on all cylinders. The Flyers have picked it up lately, but remain incomplete. Could the rebuilding Rangers or rival Islanders stay in it longer than expected? What about the disappointing Devils, who are basically two faced? Lethal at home and miserable on the road. There’s an opportunity here for someone to step up.

With the Hurricanes dramatically cooling off due to scoring and goalie issues, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen. For now, you have a wide open division where all eight teams could remain competitive for a while.

How long can the Blueshirts defy the odds? They bring a 9-7-2 record into Brooklyn for Thursday night’s big rivalry game against the equally surprising 9-6-2 Islanders. Both clubs have new coaches. However, there’s a huge difference between David Quinn and Barry Trotz. While each was brought in to change the culture, which so far they’re having success doing, Quinn is a rookie coach from the college ranks out of Boston University. Expectations are lower on Broadway due to the younger roster he has to work with. Don’t tell veteran Henrik Lundqvist that. He’s been brilliant so far as have rookie revelation Brett Howden along with emerging team leaders Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. With improvements from youngsters Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, Neal Pionk and Tony DeAngelo, things are looking up.

As for the Islanders, it’s a unique partnership between Trotz and Lou Lamoriello. They weren’t brought in not to get immediate results. When you make such radical changes to get two proven winners, it’s not without increased expectations. There is much more accountability and discipline. Most of Lou’s moves have worked thus far, including reuniting Matt Martin with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. Even Valtteri Filppula has been a bright spot providing scoring depth to assist a top six of Matt Barzal, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and the struggling Anthony Beauvillier. Can a team with Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner stay in contention? We’ll see.

Neither classic rival is perfect. The Rangers do it with resiliency by finding a way. It isn’t always pretty. It helps when kids like Filip Chytil and Howden chip in for the two goals in Monday’s 2-1 home win over the Canucks. The Islanders give up a ton of shots. Sometimes, they call on Greiss or Lehner to do the heavy lifting. Not much different from the Blueshirts with Lundqvist most nights. Timely scoring helps.

Recent history shows that the Isles get up for these games and often prevail. Will Quinn’s young roster flip the script in the first of four meetings in Brooklyn?

The Devils are probably the strangest local team to figure out. With a record of 7-8-1 with a disappointing 15 points in 16 games for last in the division, they have really struggled. Since a perfect 4-0-0 start, they’re only 3-8-1 since. Part of the problem is a lack of consistency from game to game. They sure clean up at home. A 6-1-1 mark that was boosted by an impressive 4-2 win over the Penguins on Tuesday, highlighted by a two goal, two assist performance from MVP Taylor Hall, got John Hynes’ club a much needed victory following a brutal road trip that produced one win in seven games. On the road, they’re a dismal 1-7-0. That can’t continue.

It’s worth noting that the one victory was over their favorite opponent, Pittsburgh. They dominated the Pens thanks to a symbolic hat trick from inspirational leader Brian Boyle. Fully recovered from cancer, the proud veteran recorded his first career hat trick on Hockey Fights Cancer night in Pittsburgh. It was meant to be like a higher power. Boyle has six goals so far, going above and beyond for New Jersey. An injury has him on the injured list. 2015 first round pick Pavel Zacha was recalled with the injury bug also hitting top center Nico Hischier. Zacha remains without a point so far. At some point, he needs to prove he can play at this level. Especially given some of the players taken after him in that draft.

Kyle Palmieri has been terrific pacing the club in goals (10), power play goals (5) and game-winners (2). Hall may finally be finding his ’17-18 form with the four points moving him up to 19 (9-10-19) for the season. Hischier is 3-9-12 so far in 15 games. He can play better. The Devs have to be pleased with the performances of Travis Zajac (7-6-13), Damon Severson (3-9-12), Blake Coleman (5 markers) and Jean-Sebastian Dea (3-2-5). With Jesper Bratt (2 assists) recently returning, they need more from Marcus Johansson, Miles Wood, Sami Vatanen and Will Butcher. Is Keith Kinkaid the answer in goal with Cory Schneider still struggling, or does Hynes find a way to re-establish Schneider?

While it’s the land of confusion in the Metro, the Atlantic Division is clearly better. So far, the Lightning and Maple Leafs are right where they belong due to star power, balanced scoring, elite blueliners and steady goaltending. Even without Auston Matthews, Toronto boasts John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly with the lethal trio a big part of a high wire act in support of Frederik Andersen. The Bolts do it with more balance thanks to emerging stars Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde, who support scary combo Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. With Victor Hedman back healthy and Ryan McDonagh performing well along with J.T. Miller and starter Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa is a handful.

The real surprises are the play of the improved Sabres and Canadiens, who could be starting to dip without ace defenseman Shea Weber. He’s due back soon, which could aid a struggling defense unable to help Carey Price, or Antti Niemi. Buffalo could have more staying power due to the dynamic duo of Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. They are dominating with vet Jason Pominville. Now that Sam Reinhardt and Casey Mittlestadt are starting to come alive, Buffalo could be even better than expected. Especially if both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark continue to play well. We are still waiting for a good stretch from top pick Rasmus Dahlin.

The Bruins are about where we expected. It’s just odd how important Jaro Halak has become due to off ice issues with Tuukka Rask. Now that he’s returned, figure him to get back into form. The top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand continues to dominate. Pastrnak leads everyone with 17 goals while Bergeron is in the top five in scoring. Keep an eye on sophomore Jake DeBrusk, who popped two more goals in last night’s 6-3 loss at Colorado. If Zdeno Chara misses time, that’ll hurt.

Since Roberto Luongo returned, the Panthers are quietly back to winning games. Luongo is the key to Florida along with Sasha Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Keith Yandle and Vincent Trocheck, who’s yet to get going. Mike Hoffman has been a huge addition with his current 13-game point streak matching Pavel Bure for the franchise record.

Even Detroit has recovered from a poor start thanks to the play of Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Gustav Nyquist and Mike Green. Give them credit. Ottawa isn’t that bad due to stars Mark Stone and Matt Duchene playing for contracts. Thomas Chabot is everything I thought he was when he starred for Canada in the World Juniors, and Brady Tkachuk is the real deal. Ryan Dzingel continues to score goals.

While parity remains, the Predators are playing lights out. Written off by many pundits due to Winnipeg and the Sharks adding the underwhelming Erik Karlsson, Nashville is the best team so far. Vezina winner Pekka Rinne could repeat. Roman Josi has been superb as have Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and P.K. Subban. They have plenty of balance up front and on D. It’s just whether they can get it done next Spring.

The West is so tough with uber talented teams such as the high scoring Jets and streaky Sharks to contend with. Winnipeg remains scary due to the combination of forwards Mark Schiefele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Nik Ehlers, along with rover Dustin Byfuglien. Connor Hellebuyck has yet to match the level he was at last year.

You have second tier contenders Minnesota and Colorado with the latter boasting the best scoring line in the sport. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog torched the Bruins on Wednesday, combining for eight points (3-5-8) in their three-goal home win. With a goal and two helpers, Rantanen is up to a league-leading 29 points (7-22-29). He was taken tenth overall in 2015 behind Zacha. MacKinnon (12-14-26) is tied with Oilers wizard Connor McDavid (10-16-26) for second along with Bergeron (9-17-26). Pastrnak (17-8-25) rounds out the top five. If the Avalanche continue to get strong netminding from Semyon Varlamov along with improved offense from Alex Kerfoot and Sam Girard, they could be a handful.

There are questions surrounding Alberta rivals Edmonton and Calgary. The Oilers boast the game’s best player in McDavid, who teamed with Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, are scary. Do they have enough secondary scoring and defense to reach the playoffs? What about the odd goalie situation with Mikko Koskinen having one less win (4) in five starts than starter Cam Talbot (5) in 13 starts?

The Flames will go as far as their potent offense led by Johnny Gaudreau will take them. Even with the addition of Elias Lindholm, and the return to form from Mark Giordano, they can’t rely on starter Mike Smith. Virtual unknown David Rittich has performed better.

The most exciting team is the Canucks led by Calder front-runner Elias Pettersson. He’s a special talent. The gifted Swede is so good with the puck, he makes you reimagine images of Peter Forsberg. It’s hard to believe the Canucks got him at number five overall in 2017. The Rangers had him ranked number one on their list, but had to settle for Lias Andersson. Petterson is a breathtaking player worth the price of admission. It’s too bad Brock Boeser is injured again. So is Sven Baertschi. With a core featuring Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Boeser and soon Quinn Hughes and Thatcher Demko, things are looking up in Vancouver. Just don’t expect them to sustain their current level. The record is misleading. If only Jacob Markstrom were a NHL caliber starter.

Dallas boasts gifted rookie Miro Heiskanen. Taken third overall in the same draft, the Finnish defenseman is sure to improve in his first season. He will be leaned on with top D John Klingberg out. The Stars remain a top heavy team due to Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. Is Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin good enough to get them back in the postseason?

The Blues have the talent up front by adding former Sabre Ryan O’Reilly to a nucleus that includes Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn. But even with depth additions David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, it comes down to Jake Allen in net. Chad Johnson has never been a starter. They should be a playoff team.

If the Golden Knights can continue to get consistent production from future power forward Alex Tuch, that’ll take some pressure off the top line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. Without Paul Stastny and Erik Haula, they need more from Max Pacioretty. Cody Eakin provided a lift with two goals in a laugher over the woeful Ducks. Nate Schmidt is due back soon. Marc-Andre Fleury recorded career shutout number 51.

I’m not sure how good the Coyotes are. They won’t win consistently until Antti Raanta returns. Darcy Kuemper isn’t good enough. Since he returned, Alex Galchenyuk has been good. However, Max Domi has been great for Montreal leading them in scoring with 22 points. A change of scenery works sometimes. It’s one of those trades that’ll be good for both sides. I’m not sure I would’ve invested so much money in oft-injured defenseman Jakob Chychrun. Only 20, he has the talent, but remains unproven. He better stay healthy. Michael Grabner has been a spark plug with three of his four goals coming shorthanded. He, Brad Richardson and Derek Stepan have combined for eight of the Coyotes’ league best nine shorthanded goals. For a lowscoring team, it’s uncanny. They’ll need more production five-on-five from Stepan and Clayton Keller. Dylan Strome only has two goals and three assists so far. They need some of the kids to step up. Still no Christian Dvorak either.

BODY CHECKS

*I’ve never seen Martin Brodeur so nervous as he was during his Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Normally so calm, cool and collected, the legendary netminder who holds records in wins (691), shutouts (125), games played (1,266) along with three Stanley Cups, four Vezinas and two Olympic gold medals, was clearly very emotional making his speech on Monday in Toronto. Reduced to tears when reflecting on how much his Dad Denis and Mom Mireille meant to him, the popular Devils legend thanked them along with his wife, kids and brothers. He made special mention of teammates Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko for what the bond they shared together in winning three Cups for New Jersey. Those defensemen helped define a remarkable era of Devils hockey under Lamoriello and former coaches Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Pat Burns.

While he didn’t mention every teammate probably due to anxiety, it was interesting to see the human side of a great champion who never blinked in clutch moments. From the opposite end of the Hudson rivalry, I always appreciated what Brodeur brought. First with Mike Richter and then with Lundqvist, who interestingly enough, he admitted he enjoys watching now that he’s retired. Congrats to him on a well deserved honor.

*Also joining Marty was Martin St. Louis. A classic overachiever who never gave up on his childhood dream to make the NHL, the former Hart winner became a great player for the Lightning, helping lead them to their only championship in ’03-04 under coach John Tortorella, who he credited for believing in him. St. Louis scored his biggest goal in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final at Calgary to send the series back to Tampa where a pair of goals from Ruslan Fedotenko clinched the Cup. He praised his centers that included Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and current Lightning captain Stamkos.

While he only spent a short time here in the Big Apple, St. Louis gave a special shout-out to the Rangers for making him feel so welcome, especially during tough circumstances with the passing of his Mom France during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’ll never forget the goal he scored on Mother’s Day at a loud MSG in a Game Six win over the Pens. I knew they would win Game Seven and finally get the monkey off their back. It was fitting that St. Louis had a hand in Richards’ series clinching goal. Almost as if it were fate. That whole run was amazing and due in large part to the kind of emotional leader Marty was. Even though they fell short that year and the next, those will forever be two memorable Springs for this loyal Blueshirt fan.

*I don’t have much to add about commissioner Gary Bettman. While I understand why he’s in, all I can think of are the three work stoppages along with skipping the recent Olympics. He’s been non-committal to 2022. There are positives and negatives with him. He’s certainly grown the game globally with expansion and popular games in Europe along with the money grab, Winter Classic and other Stadium Series. But he still remains an unpopular figure who gets booed when presenting the Cup. It’s become a punch line with Bettman playing the bad guy with his dry sense of humor. No wonder he was a lawyer.

*I wish I could add more on the other two inductees as players, but I don’t know enough about either. I know Larry Brooks made it for his many contributions as a writer and hockey columnist. At least we didn’t have to see him speak. He’s definitely not afraid to critique the league, frequently going after Bettman and Seventh Avenue. I wonder if he and the commissioner are on good terms. Brooks is a lifer. I’ll say that. Some of his Sunday Slap Shots columns that appear in The New York Post are good. Then there are other moments where he pushes the envelope like he did that one time with Wade Redden, which annoyed Tortorella. It led to this memorable moment:

They did hash things out afterwards. Two crazy characters. Hockey needs those. That’s why I watch Don Cherry and Ron MacLean on Coach’s Corner. The same reason I loved Stan Fischler and got him after interning. Personality is something the game doesn’t always have.

*Before he retired from the NHL to go home and finish his career playing for St. Petersburg SKA in Russia, Pavel Datsyuk was my favorite overall player. No explanation necessary. Now, it’s Patrice Bergeron for the same reasons. Neither will ever win a scoring title or MVP/Pearson. They don’t have to. They’re both so special overall as complete two-way centers who do everything well. Both have multiple Selke Trophies and are defined by the quality players they are. Datsyuk an integral part of Detroit’s last two Cups and runner-up when he was hurt in the classic series rematch seven-game loss to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin Penguins. Bergeron a key part of the Bruins’ only Cup since Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito headlined the Boston outfit in the early 70’s. Bergeron and the Bruins fell short a couple of years later in a six-game loss to the Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews Blackhawks. Both are future Hall of Famers.

*Players who somehow have been kept out of the HHOF: Alexander Mogilny, Jeremy Roenick, Sergei Zubov, Steve Larmer. All deserve inclusion.

*John Gibson is probably the best puck stopper in the game. Too bad his team isn’t good in front of him. If it were, he’d win the Vezina.

*Congrats to Jumbo Joe Thornton on scoring number 400 in a exciting Sharks’ 5-4 win over the Predators in San Jose. He joins an exclusive group of all-time greats who reached 400 goals and 1,000 assists.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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