On one level, it probably isn't surprising that the Phoenix Coyotes are one of the most talked about teams in the NHL this season. After all, the Coyotes were one of the most talked about teams in the NHL last season - mostly because of their financial woes; and the eventually unsuccessful attempt by RIM jillionaire Jim Balsillie to uproot them from the Arizona desert and plunk them down in Hamilton.
No bad team received more ink than the Coyotes, with the possible exception of the Toronto Maple Leafs who, in mid-season, turned the keys over to a new general manager, Brian Burke, so he could undertake a major restoration.
But Phoenix earned most of its headlines last season for its off-ice news and shenanigans. This year, inexplicably, with one of the NHL's lowest payrolls and under a coach, Dave Tippett, who took over midway through training camp, they went into weekend play, jostling with the San Jose Sharks for top spot in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division - and went toe-to-toe with the Sharks Thursday night before losing 3-2 in a shootout.
In the same year as the Coyotes stand last in overall attendance, they also established a franchise record by winning their 10th consecutive home game earlier this week.
At mid-season, they had as many wins as the Sharks, one more than the Washington Capitals; are on pace for 50 victories, which would smash the franchise record of 43 (set in the 1984-85 season as the Winnipeg Jets); and would also get them into the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
The fact that the Coyotes are not the stand-alone long shot to come out of nowhere at the halfway point of the season - which officially arrives Saturday - is only because the other nominal sad sack in the West, the rebuilding Colorado Avalanche, is also far exceeding expectations. Just about everyone had the Coyotes and Avalanche jockeying for the right to draft Taylor Hall first overall in 2010.
Instead they - along with two other non-playoff teams from last year, the Los Angeles Kings and the Nashville Predators - are all in the top eight in the West, challenging for a playoff spot at the expense of a couple of former powers, the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings, who've fallen on hard times this season.
Most of the teams that fall into the "surprise" (read: good) category play in the West.
Most that fall into the "disappointing" category reside in the East, beginning with everyone's darling choice to win the 2010 Stanley Cup, the Philadelphia Flyers. In the off-season, the Flyers bolstered their team with a stud defencemen in Chris Pronger (without giving up much tangible off their roster) and with a brand new (and theoretically improved look in goal, Ray Emery and Brian Boucher replacing the duo deemed inadequate a year ago, Martin Biron and Antero Nittymaki.
Washington was still considered too la-di-da to really contend. Pittsburgh was supposed to suffer from Stanley Cup hangover. New Jersey? Well, the Devils were supposed to be just too Jacques Lemaire-ish to pose any real threat. Who thought a blast from their past would invigorate the team so much?
But there you have it - the Devils, Capitals and Penguins have been good, while the Flyers ran up more losses (18) than any team except for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes too were a mystery underachiever, a team that made the playoffs last spring and won two rounds before falling to the eventual champion Penguins. With no discernible roster changes, they started badly, were undermined by injuries (to Cam Ward and Eric Staal among others) and now have a big lead in the fight for 30th overall and the chance to put another franchise player in the mix.
Generally, what sets the NHL apart from the far more predictable (and parity-free) NBA is the curious effect that team play and chemistry, coaching and camaraderie can have on results.
On personnel alone, Phoenix shouldn't be this good. Colorado shouldn't be this good. And one cannot underestimate the effect of goaltending (Ilya Bryzgalov for the Coyotes, Craig Anderson for the Avalanche) on the results thus far.
But what it does create, in commissioner Gary Bettman's world view, is a league in which every team, save Carolina, realistically remains in the playoff chase - and the Hurricanes would probably want to remind you that St. Louis Blues overcame a nine-point deficit at the all-star break last year to secure a playoff berth.
It also means that predicting the playoff positions is as difficult today, when everybody gets a 39-to-42 game head start, as it was at the start of the season, when it all seemed so clear.
Could even Philadelphia play its way back into favor? Of course they can. The Flyers turned it around this week - and Wednesday night's 6-0 rout of the New York Rangers in the showdown of ex-TSN analysts, John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette, will only enhance their slowly rebuilding confidence.
The topsy-turvy nature of the first-half competition will also affect the trophy races, where some of the usual suspects (Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton, winners of three of the four post-lockout MVP awards) are being pushed by a handful of newbies (Bryzgalov, Anderson, Henik Sedin of Vancouver, Marian Gaborik of the Rangers, Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres).
Following is a look at the mid-season races for the six major awards. As the ballots nowadays go five deep, so do our choices.
Hart: Ilya Bryzgalov (Phoenix). Runners-up: Joe Thornton (San Jose), Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh), Alex Ovechkin (Washington), Ryan Miller (Buffalo).
Calder: Tyler Myers (Buffalo). Runners-up: John Tavares (Islanders), Matt Duchene (Colorado), Victor Hedman (Tampa), Niclas Bergfors (New Jersey).
Vezina: Bryzgalov. Runners-up: Miller, Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary), Martin Brodeur (New Jersey), Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh).
Jack Adams: Dave Tippett (Phoenix). Runners-up: Barry Trotz (Nashville), Joe Sacco (Colorado), Jacques Lemaire (New Jersey), Lindy Ruff (Buffalo).
Norris: Mike Green (Washington). Runners-up: Duncan Keith (Chicago), Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), Zdeno Chara (Boston), Tomas Kaberle (Toronto).
Selke: Patrice Bergeron (Boston). Runners-up: Mike Fisher (Ottawa), John Madden (Chicago), Martin Hanzal (Phoenix), Jordan Staal (Pittsburgh).
AND FINALLY: Belated holiday wishes and all the best in 2010 to all the Friday NHL notebook junkies out there. Keep those cards and letters coming. If you're checking in on New Year's Day, you know you've got it bad - and that's good.