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Next Question: Rangers already buried?

10/21/2013

As someone intimately familiar with the Western Conference and now learning the Eastern, Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards was asked about the success his old conference is enjoying against its Eastern Conference counterparts to open the season.

NHL.com's Corey Masisak pointed out last week that the West started 31-11-4 against the East, a pretty big statement.

"I'm just wondering about home games compared to road games," Richards said. "The one thing that would stand out to me is how many games have they played at home? I know the Rangers started out on a tough road trip. They've been out West. Ottawa's been out West."

And for the Rangers, it's a fair argument. Not only did they start the season on the road and in the West, but at one point played four games in five nights.

They're wrapping up that nine-game road trip in the East, a chance to gain some points after surrendering in ugly losses to the Ducks and Sharks. The Rangers showed that they don't match up particularly well with some of the big, heavy teams in the West, especially defensively. Playing teams such as the Capitals, Devils and Flyers should have helped address that.

So far, the results of the return East have been mixed. After shutting out the Capitals, the Rangers lost to the Devils on Saturday. It was New Jersey's first win of the season. And it leaves us wondering if it might be getting late early for the Rangers.

Next question: Are the Rangers burying themselves in the Metropolitan Division before even their Oct. 28 home opener?

On top of the brutal travel, we haven't even mentioned the injury situation that is sinking New York. Ryan Callahan broke his thumb during the 2-0 win over the Capitals last week. The team desperately misses Rick Nash, who hasn't played since taking a hit to the head from San Jose's Brad Stuart.

So where will the improvement come from?

For one, the Rangers could start by rediscovering a team identity that inspired them to battle for every inch of the ice and compete relentlessly under John Tortorella. That seemed to work.

But the reality is, a rebound rests on the shoulders of franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who allowed four goals against the Devils after it looked like he was starting to get comfortable. Before that game, he had stopped 38 of 39 shots. Lundqvist is now 2-4-0 with a .890 save percentage. It's not that he's struggling, it's how he has looked while he has struggled.

"I've never seen him like he's been," one NHL source said. "[Usually] even when he's off, he's not off."

It's possible that stalled contract negotiations are interfering with Lundqvist's success. He arguably has been the best goalie in the league for the past several seasons, but has to watch as Tuukka Rask, Corey Crawford and Mike Smith get taken care of long term by their teams while he waits for his deal to get done.

"Both sides are motivated to find a way to work together," Lundqvist's agent, Craig Oster, said when we chatted last week. "It's been good positive discussions. The Rangers have tried, we just haven't been able to find something that satisfied both sides."

In January, Lundqvist started the season with a rather pedestrian .904 save percentage before heating up, but this is really the only season start in which he has struggled.

Lundqvist had the best save percentages of his career under Tortorella, but Canucks goalies Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider did just fine posting strong save percentages for Alain Vigneault when he coached in Vancouver. History suggests that Lundqvist will rebound, and when he starts working that save percentage closer to his .920 career average, the wins will start coming for the Rangers.

The trend: The Anaheim Ducks have the league's longest winning streak, and with their seven consecutive wins, sit one point behind the Sharks in the Pacific.

Next question: Which California team is best poised to win the Pacific Division this year?

The Ducks, Sharks and Kings have made the California portion of the West Coast swing absolutely miserable this season. San Jose has been the best team in the league in the early going, and both Anaheim and Los Angeles are clicking.

The Ducks tied a franchise record with seven straight wins, and Corey Perry has been outstanding for Bruce Boudreau's team. Both he and Ryan Getzlaf have nine points in eight games. Mathieu Perreault has been a nice find for general manager Bob Murray, playing at a point-per-game pace. The depth in goal gives them an edge that will allow them to remain competitive all season.

The concerns in Anaheim center on the defense. Boudreau is leaning heavily on Cam Fowler, who leads the team in average ice time (23:45). He has responded with a Relative Corsi of 12.0, suggesting that the Ducks control offensive play when he's on the ice. It's a dramatic improvement from last season, when Fowler, 21, finished with a minus-4.4 Relative Corsi. After him and Francois Beauchemin, it thins out a little. The Ducks have played 19-year-old defenseman Hampus Lindholm more than 19 minutes a game, which is a dangerous proposition as the season grinds on.

The Kings are a team built more for postseason success than the regular-season haul, so we expect this group to remain competitive in the division, then play its best hockey in the spring.

The Sharks are the pick to win the division. Not only are they off to the strongest start, they're doing it with a team PDO of .996, which suggests their success is warranted and affected little by luck.

The Dan Boyle injury hurts, but the Sharks also have played a majority of their season without Brad Stuart, who was hurt and suspended. GM Doug Wilson has quietly constructed a deep blue line capable of withstanding the inevitable injuries that happen over the course of the season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic (17.3 Relative Corsi, per behindthenet.ca) is one of the game's most underappreciated players. Up front, Tomas Hertl's production will slow as the grind of a first NHL season wears on him, but playing with Joe Thornton has a way of helping when it comes to putting up points. The big question will be whether this group suffers one of those December/January slumps that San Jose teams have been susceptible to. If it doesn't, it would be a statement that this team may be mentally tougher than the Sharks of the past.

The trend: Nashville defenseman Seth Jones is starting to wipe out Hertl's early Calder Trophy lead as the NHL's best rookie with an impressive start.

Next question: Is he playing himself into a prominent role on the United States Olympic team?

Jones played exactly one game this season where he saw less than 20 minutes of ice time, and that was the season opener against St. Louis. He's quickly earned the trust of coach Barry Trotz, no small accomplishment for a teenager playing for the Predators.

His 24:28 ice time per game leads all rookies, and it's not close. Fellow American Jacob Trouba averaged 21:15 in Winnipeg before getting hurt, and sits at No. 2 among rookies.

Jones is paired with Shea Weber, which isn't a bad way to break into the league, and he's starting to produce offensively. He has three points in his past five games, including the first two goals of his NHL career.

He's getting a real look by USA Hockey, although the brain trust there would be quick to point out that there's still a lot of hockey to be played between now and when the rosters are announced at the Winter Classic. That said, Jones' play certainly has been everything USA Hockey would have hoped. It certainly doesn't hurt to have Team USA/Nashville GM David Poile making the call, either.

"He has continued to show real versatility, maturity and steadiness in his play," Team USA assistant executive director Jim Johannson said in an email Monday morning.

Those are strong attributes for a defenseman who just turned 19.