With Mikael Boedker’s shootout winner over Nashville, the first month of the new season was ripped off the calendar. And there was plenty to like about October, including the advanced stats-defying success of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the accelerated development of the Colorado Avalanche under new coach Patrick Roy, and a clear affirmation from San Jose that the Sharks aren’t dead yet.
There was some behind-the-bench magic from Bob Hartley in Calgary, blazing scoring paces set by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, unexpected offense from Alex Steen of the Blues and Frans Nielsen of the Islanders, and the unlikely return of Manny Malhotra to the NHL in Carolina.
In other words, plenty to celebrate.
But, fitting for a month that ends with a day that celebrates everything ghoulish and grim, October had its dark moments as well. Some were fleeting. Others could linger throughout the campaign.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest groaners:
The Metropolitan Division
The name itself was greeted with the sort of upturned-nose disdain that Thurston Howell III reserved for domestic caviar, but there was hope that fans might warm up to the odd moniker once they saw the high quality of hockey it offered.
Instead, we wake up this morning and find that seven of the league’s 11 worst teams boast a Metro address.
It’s been a disaster on an epic scale. Outside of the high-flying Penguins, the division is 28-43-10, with only one team having scored more goals than it has allowed (Columbus, at a barely passable plus-2). The other six teams have combined for a gruesome minus-54 goal differential.
One coach (Peter Laviolette) has been fired. One superstar goaltender (Henrik Lundqvist) got off to the worst start of his career, and one preseason MVP candidate (Claude Giroux) is more likely to be seen on the side of a milk carton than on a scoresheet.
Putting that disastrous month behind them might be the best thing that could happen to this collection of underachievers. Speaking of underachievers, these guys elsewhere should be happy to see October in their rearview mirrors…
Loui Eriksson: He’s expected to be out at least another week while recovering from his run-in with John Scott, but the Bruins hardly miss him. He had a thoroughly forgettable month, struggling to find chemistry with the seemingly custom-fit Patrice Bergeron and notching just three points.
Jiri Tlusty. A surprise 23-goal scorer a year ago, he has just two this year — and both came in the same game against the Islanders. He has to start earning his first-line minutes.
Stephen Weiss: He has just two goals this season and it’s been eight games since he scored a point. He looks lost in Detroit’s system. Mike Babcock could be close to benching him.
Nail Yakupov: He finally scored his first goal of the season in Game 11, but his attitude (he doesn’t like “skating all the time”) and play without the puck are the real problems. He’s been a minus-4 in two of his past four games.
Dustin Brown: Don’t score. Don’t hit. What do ya do?
The Stars’ nightmarish defense
It obviously seemed like a great idea to someone in Dallas at the beginning of the season: pairing struggling puck-moving defender Alex Goligoski with aging puck-moving defender Sergei Gonchar. Surely between the two of them they could get the disc out of the Stars’ zone in a timely and efficient manner, right?
Not so much. In fact, the two have been a running gag of blown coverages, poorly timed decisions, and pee wee-level puckhandling. As one scout said of Goligoski, “He couldn’t look worse if he tried stickhandling with his feet.”
Although he only has a single point this season, it’s not the lack of scoring that’s the real problem: it’s Goligoski’s deteriorating confidence in his own zone. Given a choice between two options in transition, he’s routinely taking the wrong one, and even the simplest of plays is a 50/50 proposition at this point. And those mistakes are turning into high-end chances for the opposition, even if they don’t wind up in the back of the net.
Gonchar’s mistakes haven’t been quite as spectacular, but there’s a plodding quality to his game that makes it easy to forget how graceful and clever he once was.
So a month in, the top pair to start the season has combined for one goal, two points and a minus-13 rating. Lindy Ruff, still new behind the Dallas bench and trying to figure out who he can trust, has to be close to running out of patience with his defensive “studs.”
Anaheim’s power play
If you’ve ever wanted to see an entire team squeeze its sticks until there’s nothing left but a pile of sawdust, you’ve got to watch the Ducks with the extra man. Yes, sawdust from composite sticks. That’s just how tight this team is right now.
When a club is getting the job done the way Anaheim is this season — 10 wins through 13 games, good for third overall in the league — it might seem petty to harp on one area of their game that isn’t going quite to plan. But with the talent they’ve got on hand, four goals on 55 chances isn’t just a rough spot. We’re entering rum-sacrifice-to-Jobu territory. Pretty soon, you’ll see fouled Ducks telling the officials they dove in order to earn an unsportsmanlike call and even things up. Anything to get the game back to five-on-five, where they rank fourth overall.
The Buffalo Sabres
Rebuilds, done properly and with conviction, will always be tough to watch, but what’s happening in Buffalo this year is more viscerally appalling than Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. And almost as violent.
The Sabres lost their first seven games, and while they’ve “rebounded” to win two of their last eight, they’re still likely to have more balls in the draft lottery hopper than W’s at the end of the season. This is a team on pace to win 11 games and rack up 30 points. Count ‘em, 30! That’s not quite 1974-75 Washington Capitals bad, but it’s definitely in that same low rent neighborhood.
These Sabres are young and inexperienced, and it shows in both the simple mistakes they make and in how easy it is to knock the fight out of them. Of course, that’s hardly the most frightening thing about this team. That would be the lack of discipline displayed by two players the team employs, ostensibly to provide energy. Instead, John Scott and Patrick Kaleta bring only chaos and mayhem and no small amount of shame to the franchise.
This is a club that needs, as Jeff Z. Klein wrote, to reform as much as it does rebuild.
Mistakes are part of the process. Stupidity doesn’t have to be.
It was a ghastly month for own goals, with score sheets stained by epic blunders, cruel bounces and the sort of bad luck that comes only after one’s path has been crossed by a herd of black cats. And just when you thought you’d seen the most painful self-inflicted wound possible, another puckstopper came along to redefine human suffering.
There was Jonathan Quick’s stickhandling wizardy:
Roberto Luongo’s experiment in unlikely angles:
Ben Bishop’s unpleasant daydream:
And the moment all hand-eye coordination left Jonathan Bernier’s body:
You’re not imagining it. You were, in fact, treated to an uglier brand of hockey in October than in previous opening months.
After suspending John Scott on Thursday for seven games as a result of his near-decapitation of Loui Eriksson, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety concluded an inexcusably busy stretch that saw it send nine players home for a total of 42 games while garnishing more than $600,000 in wages for acts of mayhem that ranged from careless to thuggish to stupid. Add in a couple of preseason suspensions that included regular season games, and the totals run to 13 players, 55 games and nearly $900,000.
Compare those numbers to the first month of last season (four suspensions, seven games total) and of the year before (three players, 11 games) and you have reason to wonder what’s going on.
Sure, guys are constantly being told to finish their checks, even the illegal ones, but while most have figured out how to play the game hard and honest, there are still some who lack a basic level respect for their opponents. And there are general managers who continue to employ grocery sticks as 13th forwards/seventh defensemen instead of carrying an extra skill player.
That may be about to change. The one positive to come out of this string of concussions and fractured jaws is that the league’s general managers will consider adding a new layer of discipline at their meetings later this month. That could include fining organizations for the reckless actions of their players. And if the cost of carrying a repeat offender like Max Lapierre or Patrick Kaleta becomes too high, we should see fewer of them in the future.
Maybe there was more good news last month than we thought.