By Lyle Richardson
Entering last weekend, the question being asked by Toronto Maple Leafs fans was, “Why can’t Phil Kessel score?”
Coming off a career-best 37-goal, 82-point performance last season, expectations were high for Kessel this year. In a shortened 48-game NHL schedule, he wasn't going to post the same numbers as last season, but Leafs fans hoped for at least a point-per game pace.
Yet in his first nine games, Kessel managed only four points and didn’t score his first goal until his 11th game, potting the winner in the Leafs’ 3-2 win last Thursday over the Winnipeg Jets.
His lack of production led some Toronto pundits to suggest the Leafs should shop the 25-year-old right winger.
One reason for Kessel’s slow start was he didn’t play overseas during the recent NHL lockout, so it took him some time to round back into form. Another was losing linemate Joffrey Lupul only three games into the season to a broken forearm.
Hoping to bolster the Leafs’ scoring, head coach Randy Carlyle recently placed left wing James van Riemsdyk on Kessel’s line. The two quickly gelled, as Kessel followed up his game-winning goal against the Jets with a goal and two assists as the Leafs crushed the Montreal Canadiens 6-0 on Saturday.
It appears Kessel has overcome his early season offensive woes. If so, forget about the Leafs trading him. Their playoff hopes are better with Kessel than without him.
Hawks are red-hot
The Chicago Blackhawks wasted little time establishing early dominance upon the Western Conference. Their 10-0-2 record is not only tops in the league, but leaves them the only team undefeated in regulation time.
One reason for their strong start is several key players entered this season with something to prove.
Patrick Kane is off to his best start in four years, his 19 points ranking second overall in the NHL scoring race. After making headlines for his off-ice antics last year, Kane has gained a measure of maturity on and off the ice this season.
Goaltender Corey Crawford is having a bounce-back performance, putting an end to calls for Blackhawks management to shop for a more experienced starter.
Marian Hossa is on a point-per-game pace, showing no lingering effects from the concussion he suffered during the 2012 playoffs.
The Hawks are also buoyed by their depth in promising young talent. Forwards Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger are rounding into NHL players, while defenceman Nick Leddy has proven himself a reliable second-pairing defenseman.
For the first time since their 2010 Stanley Cup championship, the Blackhawks look like legitimate Cup contenders again.
The Buffalo Sabres are off to a shaky start (5-7-1), but a sole bright spot is the performance of winger Thomas Vanek, who has surprised the hockey world by becoming the NHL's leading scorer.
Vanek’s 11 goals and 23 points in only 11 games placed him above such notables as Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. He’s currently on pace for a 43-goal, 90-point season.
It remains to be seen, however, how long Vanek can maintain that clip. Though talented, he has a reputation as a streaky scorer, and it’s assumed his production will eventually cool.
Vanek could have some additional motivation to sustain his performance over the remainder of the season. If he wins the scoring title, he would become the first Austrian player in NHL history to achieve that honour.
When this season began, it seemed only a matter of time until the Vancouver Canucks traded goaltender Roberto Luongo.
After all, Luongo and the Canucks had agreed last summer to part ways, provided a deal could be found to their mutual satisfaction. Even throughout the NHL lockout, speculation had Luongo headed to Florida, Toronto, Chicago and Edmonton.
A quarter of the way into this season, however, not only is Luongo still with the Canucks, he’s continues to split the goaltending duties with his heir apparent, Cory Schneider. Indeed, Luongo’s performance is one reason the Canucks are among the top teams in the Western Conference.
Vancouver pundits have tried to play up a “goaltending controversy” angle, but the truth is, Luongo and Schneider get along well and have accepted the current situation.
GM Mike Gillis has received enquires about Luongo, but he’s unwilling to move him unless he gets an offer of a second-line center, another promising forward, and a first- or second-round draft pick.
That asking price is high, but given the circumstances, Gillis can afford to remain patient. If he doesn’t get an offer to his liking this season, he’ll retain Luongo and try to move him again in the off-season.
Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer
with The Hockey News and runs the
website Spector’s Hockey. His column
will appear in The Guardian
throughout the NHL hockey season.