Oct 16, 2001
Amazing what winning can do for you. Rob Bryden is no longer worried about moving his Ottawa Senators elsewhere. Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke is reaping the benefits of building a strong, fast team that is always exciting to watch, even in a loss. The Calgary Flames are riding high on the back of Roman Turek, as well as the new acquisitions of Dean McAmmond and Rob Niedermeyer.
The Montreal Canadiens, thought to be out of the playoffs before the season even started, currently occupy first place in the Eastern Conference and are tied for the points lead overall. The Senators are proving that they can get along without superstar Alexei Yashin, and the Edmonton Oilers are also learning how to win without their leading scorer for a handful of seasons, Doug Weight.
The one exception to the rule is the Toronto Maple Leafs. There are holes in the defense, and free agent in waiting goalie Curtis Joseph has done nothing to justify earning Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy money. The forwards, at least the top two lines, are very talented, and captain Mats Sundin is among the league leaders in Plus/Minus. Travis Green was brought in to be a third line centre, but he pales in comparison to Craig Conroy, who is on a roll as the third line centre for the Flames. Rem Murray as well, who centres the third line for the Oilers is having a hot year.
Every Defense needs an anchor, and most Canadian teams have one. Edmonton has captain Jason Smith, who used to be paired with Toronto stalwart Dimitry Yushkevitch when he was in Toronto. Derek Morris, on a bit of a cold streak after missing training camp with a contract dispute is, without question, the number one man on Calgary's defense. Montreal seems to have a leadership by committee, with Patrice Brisebois, Stephan Quintal, and Craig Rivet able to solidify a blue line that is its' strength. Ottawa's blue line is Wade Redden's to command, though hulking Zdeno Chara is making a good name for himself after leading the league in hits for the New York Islanders last year. Out in Vancouver, Ed Jovanovski and Mattias Ohlund lead the charge from the rear.
It has been said so often that it is now cliche, little things win hockey games. Toronto, at least for now is unable to ice a team that does the little things to win. Cory Cross and Dave Manson have not resembled defensemen as much as pylons, to be easily maneuvered around. The loss of Tomas Kaberle, until he can re-negotiate his deal, really hurts the offense of the Toronto blue line that has yet to score a goal.
Edmonton, on the other hand has team depth, and a core of players who do the little things... fast. The Skyreach Centre in Edmonton is well known for having the best ice in the NHL, and of Todd Marchant were ever in an all-star game, he would fly by everyone in the fastest skater and stick-handler categories. On defense, Janne Niinimaa and Eric Brewer are able to use their good ice to make crisp breakout passes, something that seems to trouble the Leafs so far this season. When Tom Poti returns, it should make their play even cleaner.
Montreal will have a third line as good as anybody's in the Eastern Conference, once Doug Gilmour gets game ready. Most likely, Doug Gilmour will centre Chad Kilger on the left wing and Andreas Dackell on the right. Not quite the Dallas Stars' third line of Joe Nieuwendyk between Valeri Kamensky and Pat Verbeek, but one that keep the puck out of its' own net, and score on a somewhat regular basis. Travis Green, Shayne Corson, and Darcy Tucker are gritty, but they aren't offensive enough, yet can shut down a lot of other teams' top lines.
Any comparison of the top two lines of the Canadian teams will show Toronto with an obvious edge. Mats Sundin, Robert Reichel, Alex Mogilny, Mikael Renberg, and Gary Roberts are all averaging a point per game, or more. Yet, the defense and the goaltending is, for now at least sub-par. If the axiom that defense and goaltending wins championships, how about a new banner floating in Calgary's American Airlines Saddledome?
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