Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we ask the Globe's roster of puck writers to give their opinion on the latest happenings in the hockey world.
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Today's question: What has been the biggest surprise of the NHL season so far?
The mediocre, half-hearted and confused shambles that the New Jersey Devils find themselves in represents the biggest surprise of the new season, if only because they were supposed to be so much better this time around under rookie coach John MacLean. Looking good Lou! The Devils were a 103-point team last season that landed the biggest fish in the free-agent pond - Ilya Kovalchuk - and reinforced their blue line by adding Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder. Sure, they lost Paul Martin to free agency but Martin only got into 22 regular-season games in an injury-filled season last year. If they could overcome his absence for 60 games, you'd have thought they could overcome his departure to the Pittsburgh Penguins just as easily.
Instead, you've seen a Devils' team uncharacteristically weak in its own end; future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur is on his way to posting potentially the worst numbers of his storied career; and the despite general manager Lou Lamoriello's protestations to the contrary, the axe has to be hovering over MacLean's neck on some level, if things don't turn around in a hurry. The Devils have NHL stars in their primes (Kovalchuk, Zach Parise) good emerging youngsters (Travis Zajac, Andy Greene) along with players who've won before and are generally lauded for their leadership abilities: (Brodeur, Patrick Elias, Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner). Why the sum of that collection of talent is so much less than all its individual parts is October's biggest mystery, right up there with the early-season scoring exploits of Mark Letustu, P.A. Parenteau and John-Michael Liles. You wonder if the Devils' issues are a permanent condition, or a blip that can be fixed over time. You'd have to think the latter, right? Right?
Not so much a surprise as a depressing reality -- and that is that day after day after day we see people debating whether or not a shot to the head was deliberate or not. The absurdity of this is pointed out by two other penalties -- the defenceman shooting the puck over the glass and the high stick -- that are punishable regardless of whether or not the action was deliberate or accidental.
It seems to me bizarre that a puck and a stick blade get more respect than the human brain, but that's hockey for you.
How many more concussions, how many more brain dissections, how many more shattered careers and messed-up lives are required before hockey wakes up and declares the human head a protected zone?
Well, seeing that Roy has stolen the meta-analysis thunder on the kookiness of the head shot situation, I guess my view will be restricted to the rink-level perspective.
To me, the biggest surprise is the astonishing level of parity in the early going. No one expected to see teams like Nashville, Tampa, St. Louis, Calgary, L.A. and Montreal anywhere near first place, but there they are, piling up those valuable October points (speaking of which, think it's too early to rag the TSN panel for picking the Habs to finish out of the playoffs? Just askin'.) Whereas there were three, maybe four elite teams last year, none have emerged so far this year, but there are 8 or 9 very good ones. Either way, it really does seem that on any given night...
The biggest surprise in terms of players has to be Tim Thomas. People in Montreal like to obsess over Jaro Halak's impressive early season stats, but Thomas has him whipped all ends up. Four months ago this guy was DONE, too old, too slow, too fat, his contract was an albatross that Boston would never get rid of, blah, blah, etc. and so forth. And here's the stat line: 5-0, two shutouts, .980 save percentage and 0.60 goals-against. Are you kidding me? They may have to send Tukka Rask down to the minors to get him some games.
Yeah, it's early, so early not a single NHL head coach has been fired - yet.
But how about that Tim Thomas in Boston? He was thought to be the Bruins' 36-year-old backup goalie; the mentor for the ever-so-promising Tuukka Rask. But Rask loses two games, posts a 3.53 goals-against average and finds himself out.
In goes Thomas and it's like the second coming of Turk Broda. Thomas hasn't lost in his five starts. Has thrown down a GAA of 0.60. Has a save percentage of .981. The guy surrenders goals the way Peter Pocklington gave U.S. investigators all his financial data.
Sure, it's so early that Thomas could slump, be benched and revive himself all over again. But for now, he's fashioned a remarkable run and deserves a meritorious mention.
Now, where's that coach firing?
Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
By Sunbelt standards, Tampa-St. Pete was a good hockey market until Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum took over. And the Lightning was a competitive team until 2007-08.
But the new GM certainly gave the franchise a shot in the arm this summer, and the early returns are promising.
The Lightning have six wins and 13 points in nine games, the type of start that should bode well for a return to the postseason next spring, after three straight misses.
Steven Stamkos hardly qualifies as a surprise, but his two-points-per-game pace exceeds even the highest expectations. Defenceman Victor Hedman, the No. 2 pick of the 2009 draft, is playing a team-best 23 minutes per night and chipping in offensively, and unheralded Yzerman acquisitions such as Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim are also contributing.
Perhaps the best part is that Tampa is winning despite suspect goaltending from the tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. If that comes around, especially given the firepower up front, than the Bolts might actually challenge Washington for the Southeast Division. Go figure.