By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
One week into the season and already there are more storylines to discuss than we can possibly fit into one three-period column. With that in mind, we felt it easier to allow each of us to have access to one full column to get us started before we delve into the back-and-forth tight-checking game between Alex and me that you’ll see the rest of the year. As the senior member of the duo, I’ll take the first crack and give Alex another week to ruminate on what’s already happened in the NHL in just one week. If the next six months are anything like the first week, this is going to be a phenomenally entertaining season – one the NHL sorely needs.
Possible MVP Already?
At the risk of stating the obvious, no one has ever won an MVP award after just one week. Even in Wayne Gretzky’s unbelievable 92-goal, 212-point season, he had competition for about a month before everyone realize they were living in Wayne’s World. Still, there’s no question that Alex Ovechkin has already established himself as the frontrunner for this year’s Art Ross trophy and will no doubt be a leading candidate for the Hart trophy as well. The Capitals captain scored four goals and added two assists in just three games in the opening week, including a hat trick in his team’s comeback win over Calgary on Thursday. We can debate the merits of Braden Holtby and Michael Neuvirth as championship-caliber goaltenders and whether or not a wide-open style of play is suited for a deep postseason run, but there’s simply no denying that Ovechkin, starting a season in which his country will later host the Winter Olympics, has re-established himself in the post-lockout NHL as the premier scorer in the league.
Hockey Hotbed Rebirth
Just like above, it’s early – no team ever won a division one week into a season. Still, the way the Maple Leafs have roared out of the gate is indicative that this group fully expects to avoid a letdown and instead make another giant step forward in the Eastern Conference. The only team to play three games and win them all, Toronto made the statement they needed to make – they’re for real. Their 11 regulation goals have been scored by eight different players, and Jonathan Bernier has been remarkable in goal, allowing just one puck past him in over 94 minutes of ice time. They have wins over Montreal and Ottawa, two playoff teams from last season, and now have a string of games against Western Conference teams – Colorado, Nashville, Edmonton, and Minnesota, all at home except for the Predators – that are all winnable. While it’s true that the Leafs haven’t yet faced some of the league’s elite like Chicago and Pittsburgh (they’ll see both before October ends), they have given fans in Canada’s biggest city reason to expect that this season could actually be one that finally extends into at least May.
So Sad to Say Goodbye
It seems like only yesterday that the Flyers were hiring Peter Laviolette and playing in the Stanley Cup finals. Hired in 2009, Laviolette gave the franchise instant credibility with his tough but fair approach and stellar track record, which included two Finals appearances with Carolina and a Cup ring from 2006. The Flyers blossomed under his leadership offensively, as Claude Giroux became one of the league’s elite goal scorers and players like Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell, and Jacob Voracek all produced more than they have at any point previously in their careers. Between Laviolette and GM Paul Holmgren, though, they never managed to develop a defensive corps than was campable of stopping other teams’ elite offensive players, either. That became evident in the 2012 postseason, when both the Penguins and Devils seemed to score at will against Philadelphia, regardless of who the Flyers put in net. Laviolette doesn’t deserve all of the blame for Philly’s sudden plunge into irrelevancy in the Eastern Conference, but Holmgren certainly isn’t going to fire himself, so the head coach takes the fall. Craig Berube may or may not be a good coach, but the cupboard is bare from a defensive standpoint and too many teams in the division are clearly better (Rangers, Penguins, Capitals, Islanders, and Blue Jackets are all significantly better at this exact moment) for the coaching change to have any impact on the Flyers for this season, which makes the timing of the move that much more curious. Personally, I’d be shocked if Holmgren is the one making the selections at the 2014 NHL Draft with the way the ship is taking on water, which will only enhance the widely-held opinion that the Flyers unraveling shouldn’t really be placed at the feet of Laviolette.
You may have heard this elsewhere, but Peter Laviolette’s firing is the earliest in-season firing (3 games) in NHL history. The previous record for shortest firing was 4 games, which happened three times. It also makes Chip Kelly – he of the five games as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles – the longest tenured head coach/manager of Philadelphia’s four major professional sports. How’s that for a city in transition?