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Quarter pole can be helpful in measuring success

Friday, 21.11.2008 / 4:37 PM / Features
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Quarter pole can be helpful in measuring success
Larry Wigge examines the importance of the season\'s first 20 games in this week\'s Wigge on Hockey.
The quarter pole. A valuable measuring stick? You bet.

Some skeptics look at the NHL season as more of a marathon than a race, but I'd beg to differ. While the quarter pole -- which will be reached by most teams Monday -- won't show you who the winners are, it will definitely show the teams that have found a good chemistry after an offseason of acquiring talent, as well as working developmental players into the organization's mix.

New faces. New places. Yes, and in this world keeping up with the Joneses, teams use the offseason to write a check and throw money at free agents. But in the past few seasons, that idea hasn't always worked. It was like pouring gasoline on an economic fire.

Suddenly, however, in this world where stockbrokers are being urged to be more cautious in their spending, teams are thinking twice about how they spend their money too. And it's clear that the San Jose Sharks -- with new offensive defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake and new coach Todd McLellan -- plus the New York Rangers -- with Nikolai Zherdev and Markus Naslund up front and Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin on defense -- are two of the best examples, as they bolted to the top of the standings early.

What is even more interesting is that while critics like to poke fun at all of the money spent by teams in the offseason -- especially when it hasn't worked in a lot of instances -- that a week ago, six of the 30 teams, or 20 percent, had a player who changed teams at the top of its scoring list.

Marian Hossa in Detroit, Alex Tanguay in Montreal, Doug Weight with the Islanders, Nikolai Zherdev with the Rangers, Keith Ballard, a defenseman no less, with Florida and Olli Jokinen in Phoenix were atop the points lists in their new cities.

"It can be tricky to go from one team and try to fit in right away," Hossa said. "I just knew -- after playing against Detroit in the Stanley Cup Final -- that I wanted to be pushed, I wanted a chance to win a Stanley Cup and the way the Red Wings play was best for me."

But there was no guarantee that Hossa, a free-agent signing, would do that, especially with all-world centers Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk returning for the champions. The chemistry. The work ethic. The standards of a champion. It all fit for Hossa and his new Red Wings linemates -- Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom.

Actually, Datsyuk says having Hossa on his line makes his job easier.

"I can shoot more ... and I can be faster, because Hossa is faster," Datsyuk smiled. "And he backchecks, so I can pick my spots to try to make a big play."

Adds Holmstrom, "Marian's a strong guy. Hard to get the puck from him for the opposition. Most important, for us, he's been a good guy off the ice -- a perfect fit."

Montreal center Saku Koivu made a similar point about his new linemate -- Tanguay, acquired in a draft-day trade in June from Calgary.

"He skates well and has great hands," Koivu said. "But the bottom line here is that sometimes you just feel confident with certain players. I don't know how else to describe it."

Now, look at Calgary, where Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi have made great contributions. In Pittsburgh, Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko have written a few headlines. In Columbus, Kristian Huselius and R.J. Umberger have been big-time producers. In Minnesota, Antti Miettinen and Andrew Brunette are off to Wild starts. In Toronto, Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman and Jeff Finger have been terrific. And what about that feel-good story line in Vancouver with Kyle Wellwood?

Clearly, chemical reactions have been quick to work around the entire NHL. And that's a sign that this season will be great to watch from start to finish.

Don't confuse him with Jarkko -- It was just a couple of years ago that I remember writing that Tuomo Ruutu was the best player not in the NHL before the former first-round pick, No. 9 in the 2001 Entry Draft came over to Chicago. But he never seemed to be able to stay healthy after he played in every game as a rookie and had 23 goals and 21 assists in 2003-04. After being traded to Carolina for Andrew Ladd, Ruutu has once again found his game. In his first 16 games this season, he had 6 goals, plus a game-winning shootout goal Nov. 16. Said Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette, "He's hard to play against. Nasty. And he's got world-class skill." ... Boston center Marc Savard is fast becoming the king of the four-point games. In a 7-4 triumph against Buffalo Nov. 19, Savard had 1 goal and 3 assists -- marking the sixth time that Savard scored at least 4 points in a game in his three seasons with the Bruins. Since the start of the 2006-07 season, the only NHL players with more games of four-plus points than Savard are Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla (seven each). Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Joe Thornton also have four such games during the last three seasons. ... Montreal's Andre Kostitsyn is starting to show that physical edge he displayed last season when he had 26 goals. That's good news for the Canadiens, who are trying to figure out what happened to their power play that was No. 1 last season and isn't close to that this season. ... Looking for production? Look no further than Pittsburgh's third line of Jordan Staal, Matt Cook and Tyler Kennedy. A third line with 22 points in a stretch of seven games. Nice, eh? ... Cal Clutterbuck won't knock your eyes out with his offense, but the Minnesota wing, who was taken in the third round, No. 72, in the 2006 Entry Draft, is an impact player for the Wild nonetheless. He hits everything -- and he hits hard. ... Willie Mitchell has never been mistaken for anything but a big, tough shutdown defenseman. But this season he's adding a touch of offense in Vancouver with 1 goal and 6 assists in his first 18 games. The most points Mitchell has had in his previous six NHL seasons was 14 (he did that twice). ... Columbus wing Kristian Huselius is playing more effectively since he was moved from the right side to left wing, saying he feels better on that side. ... Boston coach Claude Julien says nothing has changed with Patrice Bergeron's compete level after missing all but 10 games last season with post-concussion syndrome. "All he needs is time before the points will start coming again like they used to," Julien said of Bergeron's 10 points in his first 18 games. ... Simon Gagne suffered from the same concussion problems and he's showing off those skills again in Philadelphia, with 11 goals and 22 points in his first 16 games, including two shorthanded goals in one period -- the first time that had been done by a member of the Flyers since Brian Propp did it back in 1985. ... Florida rookie coach Peter DeBoer loves those kids who can create excitement on the forecheck. Recently, he raved about the play of former 2006 first-round pick (No. 10) Michael Frolik for his ability to use his speed to make things happen on the forecheck. ... Mikhail Grabovski had only 3 goals in 27 career games with Montreal before this season and one more in 10 games in October in Toronto this season. But with his speed, it was only a matter of time before he broke out. That happened when he scored 7 goals in his first eight games in November. ... Here's one of those chemistry situations, where a player seems to have a better feel with a certain player: Dallas center Brad Richards seems more comfortable when Loui Eriksson is on his wing. ... Take six? A few weeks ago we counted the many players Vancouver has tried on left wing with Henrik and Daniel Sedin to try to jump-start their terrific twins this season. The list is too numerous to mention again. Well, Pavol Demitra joined that list Nov. 17 on Long Island -- and just 49 seconds into the game he found the net. Next game, another goal by Pavol -- this time against the Rangers. Said Daniel, "I felt a little magic. Pavol likes to cycle down low like we do. Hopefully, we can get some chemistry going."

No Ducking the obvious -- Stanley Cup champions two years ago. Out in the first round last season. Struggling to find their identity now.

"The success we've had here the last three years, our main focus was to shut down the goals-against," said Anaheim's usual goal-scoring leader Teemu Selanne. "We could always find a way to score three or four goals. Right now, our mentality seems to be to try to more goals than them -- and that has to change."

Identity? It's becoming a little more difficult when you consider that the Ducks always had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer on one defensive unit with Sean O'Donnell joining Pronger and Francois Beauchemin with Niedermayer. And last season, Anaheim added Mathieu Schneider to the defensive mix.

This season? O'Donnell's in Los Angeles, Schneider's in Atlanta and Beauchemin is lost for the next six months with an ACL injury to his left knee.

Selanne and his fellow forwards won't be able to duck their defensive responsibilities, will they?

Winging it better this time -- Remember all the success Brent Burns had last season on defense for Minnesota? With newcomer Marek Zidlicky now showing off his offensive skills and Marc-Andre Bergeron combining to provide offense from the defense, the Wild now have Zidlicky, Bergeron, Nick Schultz, Kim Johnsson, Martin Skoula and rookie Eric Reitz playing well on defense. A pretty good six-some. That has enabled coach Jacques Lemaire to move Burns' big body up front when he chooses to from night to night.

Always the professor, Lemaire was seen blowing his whistle a lot at a recent practice, before he took Burns aside.

"Burnsie, you've got a great shot, whether you're playing defense or the wing," Lemaire told Brent.

With that the 63-year-old coach took two pucks. With one shot he hit one post and then he hit the other post with the second puck to show Burns how easy it is to hit your target if you practice and have confidence in your shot.

Look out for Burns when he gets that same confidence -- on the wing, or back on defense.

New/old D for the Stars -- Dallas wanted the cool head on defense that Daryl Sydor gives them in his third tour of duty with the Stars. The Penguins wanted a right-handed defenseman with a shot to man the power play for the Penguins. They got that guy in Philippe Boucher. Just look at how important a right-handed center like Mike Zigomanis has been for the Penguins. Same thing could happen for the Pens with this deal. ... The first job of Tampa Bay coach Rick Tocchet is to find out what ails Radim Vrbata. A 27-goal scorer for Phoenix last season, Vrbata was still looking for his first goal after signing a big free-agent contract (three years, $9 million) with the Lightning in the offseason. He finally got that elusive goal Nov. 17 in Tocchet's second game as coach. ... We all know how good Ryan Smyth is in front of the net, but did you see the end of the Colorado's game against Edmonton on Nov. 15, when Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson not only had to worry about Smyth blocking his sightline but another crease-crasher extraordinaire, Darcy Tucker, on a 5-on-3 in the final minute to deflect a game-tying goal. Then, Tucker beat Roloson in the shootout as well. ... Phoenix always hoped that winger Fredrik Sjostrom, who was the Coyotes' first-round pick (No. 11) in the 2001 Entry Draft, would be able to score around 20 goals with his great speed. He wound up with just 32 goals in parts of four seasons before he was dealt to the New York Rangers late last season. Former Coyotes GM Michael Barnett always compared Sjostrom's skating stride to the powerful Pavel Bure. Now, in New York, Sjostrom is using that stride to make a different kind of impact on the penalty-killing unit of the Rangers with Blair Betts -- my favorite PK unit in the NHL. ... Next time you watch a Buffalo game, take a moment to watch the work of Andrej Sekera, a third-round pick by the Sabres in 2004, who is being mentored by veteran Jaroslav Spacek. First it was language and being comfortable in the North American lifestyle. Now, it's the technical stuff it takes to be a solid defenseman in the NHL -- and Andrej is getting better and better. ... Earlier this season, Chicago was looking at veteran Kyle McLaren, the veteran who was sent to the minors by San Jose, to give the Blackhawks a physical defenseman. His contract, even on waivers, was too much for the Hawks to fit under the salary cap. Since Joel Quenneville became coach, Aaron Johnson was put into that role -- and he's been exactly what Chicago fans wanted. ... The New Jersey Devils may still be trying to figure out who to put between the pipes in Martin Brodeur's absence. Not so on Long Island, where Rick DiPietro's injury has given Joey MacDonald the chance of a lifetime in goal. The 28-year-old, undrafted netminder, who had a 5-12-4 career record in 24 previous NHL games for Detroit, Boston and the Islanders before November, posted an impressive 5-2-1 record in his first eight games this month. ... We're always hearing about the soft ice in the warm-weather cities. Put a great skater like defenseman Bret Hedican in Anaheim and, well, you get a good example of the problems the NHL has with ice in certain arenas. Signed as a free agent Oct. 23, Hedican went nine games with no production. Finally, he scored a goal in Game No. 10 that helped the Ducks beat Los Angeles 2-0. Afterward he talked about the cause and effect, saying, "I felt like I was skating in quicksand. The ice in California is a lot softer than I'm used to, so the equipment folks here helped me completely change the hollow of my skates to make things feel right."

Sense of humor -- Some post-surgery levity from New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur after having a torn tendon in his left biceps re-attached: "I asked them to squeeze it to stop my slice in golf. Just a little bit this way. We'll see in June."

DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS

Hockey's all about flow and transition from defense to offense -- plus watching those defensemen step up and get involved in the offense without jeopardizing their responsibilities on defense.

St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray is always quick to point out how of the top eight teams in defenseman scoring in the Western Conference, seven have made the playoffs each of the last two seasons (Minnesota was the team without the point-producing defense to make the playoffs each year). It's just another measuring stick to see where your team is in the scheme of things. Unfortunately for Murray, his team was near the bottom in points by defensemen, and things don't look much different this season.

A quick check shows how San Jose, which had an amazing 13-point game from its defense a week or so ago, Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver and Columbus are all challenging for the West lead at the quarter pole. Toronto isn't off to a surprise start if you look at these numbers. Plus, acquiring Redden and Kalinin and re-signing free agent Michal Rozsival has cemented the Rangers' defense to offense flow that is essential in championship teams.

Also, the bottom of this points ladder may be even more telling, when you consider the struggles St. Louis, Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Ottawa have had. The only real irregularity is that Pittsburgh is succeeding -- though not in points by its defense -- minus key contributors Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney. But then they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up front and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, don't they?

Following are the points-leading defenses in the NHL through games of Nov. 17 -- the statistics provided by the numbers-crunching experts at Elias Sports Bureau:

DEFENSE TOTALS
TEAM G A PTS
Sharks 11 50 61
Maple Leafs 12 39 51
Rangers 8 40 48
Predators 16 31 47
Hurricanes 8 37 45
Red Wings 7 37 44
Blackhawks 15 27 42
Ducks 14 27 41
Oilers 10 31 41
Sabres 3 37 40
Canucks 8 32 40
Blue Jackets 7 28 35
Panthers 8 26 34
Flyers 4 30 34
Flames 6 27 33
Canadiens 7 25 32
Kings 7 24 31
Capitals 10 21 31
Devils 2 28 30
Thrashers 5 24 39
Bruins 9 20 29
Wild 9 20 29
Islanders 8 21 29
Senators 6 23 29
Penguins 7 20 27
Lightning 3 21 24
Stars 4 19 23
Coyotes 3 19 22
Avalanche 6 15 21
Blues 5 8 13