- Craig Custance
The NHL season will be entering its second week this weekend and three teams still do not have a win. And two of them are presumably Stanley Cup contenders.
Adam Oates and the Washington Capitals head to New Jersey tonight to play against a Devils team that Oates helped guide to the Stanley Cup finals. That team lost not only Oates but captain Zach Parise, yet the Devils have found a way to start the season 2-0. That's just how New Jersey does it.
Washington? The Caps haven't won yet, they've barely led a game and even worse, Oates says it's a byproduct of effort.
"Some of our mistakes are pure effort; it's very upsetting," Oates said during his postgame news conference. "Not pushing the panic button, but obviously that's upsetting."
So when is it time to push the panic button? That brings us to our first question in the return of the weekly NHL mailbag (submit your questions for next week in here):
Do you think it is a stretch to judge teams making the playoffs based on the first three games? And when do you think in the season we will see who will make the playoffs based on the shortened schedule?
Bill O'Brien, Ann Arbor, Mich.
This seems like a good time to point out that the team that won the Stanley Cup in 1995 during that 48-game season didn't start particularly well. The '95 Devils didn't win their first game until the fifth game of the season. I'm sure that point has been brought up inside the dressing room of struggling teams.
So when are we allowed to panic? We'll defer to Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland who, during a normal season, prefers to wait until American Thanksgiving to evaluate his team. He has a pretty good track record of getting into the playoffs. Last year at Thanksgiving, most teams had played about 20 games. That's 24 percent of their season. So if my math is right, the equivalent this season is about 12 games. If the Capitals are still struggling when they play the Panthers on Feb. 9, it may be time for concern and perhaps a shake-up. The same goes for the Kings, Flyers and all the other struggling teams.
Do you think [Penguins GM] Ray Shero will call Beau Bennett up before the end of the year?
Matty, Steel City
Yes. We've already seen injuries hit the NHL hard and the expectation is that most teams will dip into their AHL ranks plenty of times before the playoffs. Bennett should be one of the first to get the call if there are any issues up front in Pittsburgh. Bennett saw time during training camp on a line with James Neal and Evgeni Malkin, which is a fantastic place for him to be. He's more playmaker than shooter, so those are two pretty good options for him to look for as linemates. He has made a successful transition from the University of Denver to the AHL, where he put up 24 points in his first 32 professional games this season.
What are your totally-revised-based-on-less-than-four-games-Stanley-Cup-finalist-predictions, ridiculous as they may be? i.e. Who looks good out the gate?
C, Northern New York
My original Stanley Cup final pick was the Rangers over the Canucks and after three games, that doesn't look great, eh? I appreciate your giving me a chance to revise those picks. I'm going to stick with them for now, but if I was picking based on what I've seen so far this season, I'd predict a Stanley Cup final between Boston and Chicago. The Blackhawks already have some impressive wins, beating the Kings, Stars, Coyotes and Blues. The Bruins haven't lost in regulation and if Dougie Hamilton is going to be an impact player this year, watch out.
Do you see Ken Holland making any significant moves for a top D man soon? PK Subban?
Scott Relox, The D
Yeah, it has been a rough go so far for the Red Wings. Just on defense, they've seen injuries to Ian White, Jakub Kindl, Carlo Colaiacovo and Jonathan Ericsson. Brian Lashoff and Kent Huskins are getting regular playing time, and we've seen the ice time jump for Brendan Smith. As if it wasn't bad enough to lose Nicklas Lidstrom and miss out on Ryan Suter, injuries are even more salt in the wound for Detroit. Holland will aggressively try to fix holes on his team, but like any good GM, he'll tell you that it doesn't make a lot of sense to make a trade out of desperation or during rough stretches like this. As Brian Burke used to say, these are the times when opposing general managers offer you anchors while your ship is sinking.
What effect will the intra-conference schedule have on the season? You'd think it would be a little tougher on the West with further road trips than the East. Maybe the biggest loser in this case is Winnipeg and anyone that plays them. What are some teams affected the most by playing a high percentage of games within their own division?
Jonathan, Alexandria, Va.
Jonathan, the teams in the Southeast are at a bit of a disadvantage having to travel to Winnpeg to play their out-of-place division rival, but it's a bigger issue for the Jets; they lead the Eastern Conference in travel distance this year, according to calculations by The Wall Street Journal. But the biggest disadvantage remains those teams in the Western Conference that have to travel the most. Minnesota travels more than any NHL team (31,273 miles per WSJ), with Dallas, Vancouver, Phoenix and Los Angeles also traveling more than any team in the East. The other thing to consider is the strength of the division and conference. The West is the better conference but teams in the Atlantic, where even the Islanders look competitive, will have it tough on a nightly basis. Assuming the Flyers get their act together, those teams will be beating each other up during the regular season. "It's going to be challenging for us," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "It's going to be challenging for them too."
When is a decision expected to be made on the availability of NHL players for the 2014 Olympics? Any rumblings as to which way the league is leaning?
Hey Nick, I checked in on this yesterday and there still hasn't been any movement toward a decision as to whether or not NHL players will compete in the Sochi Olympics. But expect the NHL, NHLPA, IOC and IIHF to sit down sometime in the next several weeks to hammer this out. This is when Team Canada and Team USA need to be scouting potential players and shaping the roster of players who will be invited to orientation camp this summer. There are definitely concerns among NHL owners about shutting the season down during the Olympics, especially when there's significant financial risk and little financial gain. But people I've spoken with expect NHL players to get the green light to play, especially if there's a way to recoup some of the financial losses, perhaps through a World Cup or other event.
I've got a radical idea for the NHL to consider that I need you to be the first to publicize. I think they should start planning an 82-game season once the [lockout] is over to begin an NHL season that begins in the spring and ends in the fall. And they should stick with this schedule. Think about how great it would be. First they wouldn't have to compete for dollars and arena space with the NBA and even the NFL playoffs. Second, the coolest game on ice should be played at the hottest time of the year. Think about it, it's a balmy 95 degree humid day in Chicago, what better than to go catch a Blackhawks game? No more traveling to Edmonton, Calgary or St. Paul in minus-zero weather. Really, we need to push it and what better time than a [lockout] season where we may actually be able to play a full NHL season when it's resolved?
Tim Liao, San Diego
This suggestion hit the mailbag during the lockout, but I love hockey fans who come up with innovative ideas. I'm a proponent of hockey being played during the Summer Olympics so it doesn't interrupt the NHL season, but not sure I'm ready to cover hockey in July. What do you think? Pass or fail: Moving the NHL to the summer.
With a short season, is it time for the winless Capitals and Kings to panic? Craig Custance explores that topic as he dives into his weekly mailbag.