We are at the halfway mark of the 2009-10 NHL campaign and although no one gives out awards for playing half of a season, one thing can be admitted: the Buffalo Sabres have had a very strong start to their season. As of January 13th, through 44 games played the Sabres have a 28-11-5 record, amounting to 61 points. They are in second place in the Eastern Conference and they also have a 10 point lead over the Boston Bruins in the Northeast Division.
The rest of the NHL is having what can be described as a strange season. Recent powerhouses such as the Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks, and Montreal Canadiens are not having the type of success that many people predicted they would. On the flip side, teams such as the Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators have all had unforeseen success that not many people had predicted before the season started.
But can this good run of fortune last for the rest of the season for the Sabres? Can the under-achieving powers of the league turn their seasons around? Are the surprising teams contenders or pretenders? These are some of the topics that have league circles talking, and that we at Sabres Hockey Central are buzzing about:
1. Q: Can the Buffalo Sabres continue their winning ways for the rest of the season?
A: Most likely, yes. Before this season, Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff realized that his team’s system, which relied mostly on playing “run-n-gun” hockey, wasn’t working. After spending some time at Team Canada’s Olympic orientation camp with Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock, Ruff learned how to incorporate Detroit’s puck-possession scheme into his own philosophy. This combination of “run-n-gun” hockey and “puck-possession” hockey has worked wonders for the Sabres. Plus the dominating play of Ryan Miller, the steady play of Tyler Myers and the return of Mike Grier have been godsends for Buffalo. If they can continue playing at this level, don’t be surprised if this team can make a deep run into the playoffs.
A: Detroit, yes. Philadelphia? No. Detroit has had a lot of injuries this season, and many of those injuries have been to their top players. Names such as Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Dan Cleary and Johan Franzen have all missed significant time due to injuries, but they will all return either before or after the Olympic break. The return of these players should provide a big boost for their team down the stretch. The play of rookie Jimmy Howard in goal has been a revelation.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, has been an inconsistent team all year. (This lead to the firing of former head coach John Stevens.) Many expected that the addition of Chris Pronger to a team that already boasted the likes of Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards would make the Flyers a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. However, players such as Carter have underachieved, and the annual problem that faces Philadelphia is back again: goaltending. Even a healthy Ray Emery is mediocre at best, and the old adage remains true that you need good goaltending to win in the NHL. The Flyers don’t have that, and that is why they will miss the playoffs.
3. Q: Are the Colorado Avalanche and the Phoenix Coyotes for real?
A: Colorado, no. Phoenix? Yes. The Avs have played surprisingly well in the first half of their season (as of January 13th they are second in their division and fifth in the Western Conference) and Craig Anderson may finally prove to be a worthy replacement of Patrick Roy. But after looking at their roster, they don’t have enough scoring depth behind Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski , Milan Hejduk and Matt Duchene. They also need more offensive-minded defensemen; their only real threat from the blueline is the inconsistent John-Michael Liles. Even if they do make the playoffs, they will most likely flame out in the first round.
Phoenix, meanwhile, has bought into new head coach Dave Tippett’s system. They also have a nice mix of veterans and younger players. Players such as Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata and Ed Jovanovski have all played well and Ilya Bryzgalov has been stellar. This team will most likely make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
4. Q: Will the Atlanta Thrashers trade Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline?
A: Most likely, yes. With negotiations between Kovalchuk’s agent and GM Don Waddell progressing slowly, this looks like the situation that the Thrashers had two years ago when they couldn’t re-sign Marian Hossa. Atlanta’s perennial problem of never having Kari Lehtonen healthy will also sink their ship. Outside of Nik Antropov and Rich Peverley, they don’t have enough depth at center. Ron Hainsey isn’t having a good season, and other than Pavel Kubina, Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom, they don’t have enough depth on defense. Kovalchuk will likely be dealt to a Stanley Cup Contender at the deadline in March for prospects and draft picks.
5. Q: Can the New Jersey Devils continue to win despite enduring many injuries?
A: Yes. Any team that has Martin Brodeur in goal is going to be tough to beat. Lou Lamoriello looks like a genius for bringing back Jacques Lemaire, who has implemented his trap system with ease. With a solid group of defensemen lead by Paul Martin and a group of good two-way forwards such as Patrik Elias, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner, the Devils should continue to be a Stanley Cup Contender for the rest of the season.