Archive for September 2012

30 Teams in 30 Stories

Sweet Music City

There's actually been something to cheer about in Nashville this season.
Unbeknownst to Nashivlle Predators fans, there actually is hockey played after the regular season.
Fans are getting a 101 course on this information in the wake of news that their team may actually make the post-season. Until recently, the Predtoars fans were only left with 'wild rumours' of playoff action. The WCHL Cup was long thought to be a piece of fiction, a tale from long ago of a prized possession long since swallowed up by time in a similar fashion to how San Jose Sharks General Manager Kurt Fulmore swallows... er, nevermind.
"We can't believe it. There's actually more hockey? Since when," questioned long-time Predators fan Ima Not Egirl, herself a long-time puck bunny. Considering the Predators haven't exactly been lighting things up very often in their history in the WCHL, she's had her share of 'consoling' to do over the years.

Even the ice girls are getting into it this year.
But here the Predators are, making big moves and even bigger strides up the standings. One season after finishing second last in the WCHL, the Predators sit fifth in the Western Conference and a full eight points ahead of ninth seeded Vancouver Canucks, with two games in hand.
"We like where we are at, but we still have work to do," acknowledged General Manager Trent Allen in his second season on the job. "To steal a line from Patrick Matthews (Pittsburgh Penguins GM) I've got a few holes to fill."
While Allen wouldn't go into what those holes were, the likely goal is to add another centre to the mix who is capable of playing on the top two lines. Alexander Steen and Lars Eller are currently holding down those two spots and Allen has expressed his desire in the past to move Steen to the wing while trying to move Eller to the third line where there is less pressure.
"Much like Ottawa Senators GM Noel Harrison, we spent most of last year trying to shore up a backend that was getting scored on repeatedly. I think we have done a great job there, but now we have to work harder at finding ways to score. Maybe we'll ask (Philadelphia Flyers GM) Doug (Van Strephen) about that, he's always trying to figure out how to score."
Oddly enough, the Predators are sitting just 28th in the lague on the penalty kill, something which has been a big issue for the PRedators dating back to before Allen even arrived.
"That's been the one big issue we've had," noted Allen. "That's an area I pledged would be the first to improve and right now it's looking like the last place that needs improvement. It will get better."
Overall though, things are going great in Nashville considering where they were a year ago. Leading that charge has been a quartet of players brought in after last season ended.
"We have to credit Mike Green, Alexander Steen, Patric Hornqvist and Roberto Luongo a lot for our turn around," noted Allen.
Patric Hornqvist nd Mike Green are two big reasons for the turnaround of the Nashville Predators this season.
Indeed. Green sits second on the team in scoring with 45 points in 51 games, placing him fifth amongst WCHL blueliners. Steen and Hornqvist meanwhile, both acquired early in the season in a deal with the Boston Bruins, have combined for 35 goals and 77 points in 39 games being acquired, while Luongo has played all 40 games for Nashville since being picked up from the Carolina Hurricanes just prior to the Steen and Hornqvist deal, dramatically stabilizing things between the pipes for the Predators.
"We are sort of going through a rebuild or a retooling here with a focus on youth, but we needs veterans and leaders too and that's what these guys bring to us," noted Allen. "You can't just play with a bunch of young guys all the time. Ask Ryan (McClanahan, Colorado Avalanche GM).
Keeping it up in Nashville won't be easy, but so far, this season has been nothing but music to the ears of many fans. With nothing left to lose on a season already deemed a success, expect Nashville to be a darkhorse contender to at least make some noise come the playoffs, assuming they can hold on to make it that far.
"We'll do some damage. We'll show everyone that we can play with the big boys," said Luongo.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Long live Les Habitants

Is Montreal Cup bound, or will they have to wait until next year? The answer could come in the regular season oddly enough.
In a season filled with so much potential, the Montreal Canadians are fulfilling that potential - and yet they still might be watching the playoffs from their living rooms.
Such is the fate of Eastern Conference teams this year, where a pack of 15 teams was almost immediately reduced to nine, all fighting hard for a playoff spot.
Nine teams have a winning percentage of .620 or higher, including the Canadians, with eight of those teams actually at .660 or higher. Of note, only two teams in the Western Conference -the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames- even have winning percentages high enough to crack the top eight in the East.
So, while on one hand Montreal fans must be proud of their teams success, the other hand is to busy seeing its nails getting chewed down to nothing as this game of musical chairs will eventually end with one team sitting out the playoffs looking in.
Right now that one team is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who despite a record of 30-14-6, sit ninth in the conference. Montreal sits eighth, but is tied with Pittsburgh and in fact the only thing giving Montreal the edge right now is the fact they have one more regulation win than the Penguins.
Complicating matters are the Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning. Both teams figured to be in tough to make the playoffs this year, yet not only is one of those teams virtually guaranteed a spot, theya re both hanging around with the powers of the Eastern Conference. At one point, the Lightning led the entire conference for a healthy stretch of time.
"With the way we've been playing, we shouldn't have to worry about making the playoffs, but here we are," said Canadians netminder Jonathan Quick. "We're working hard to stay with the pack, but it's tough when you win a game then look up at the scoreboard and see everyone else did too."

It's been the Jonathan Quick highlight reel show in Montreal this year.
This wouldn't be a problem in the Western Conference. If Montreal was in the West, they'd have a hold of third spot in the conference and a likely home playoff seed for the opening round.
Sitting seventh in goals for and second in goals against, the Canadiens have rattled off a strong resume for a playoff berth. Possessing the league's best penalty killing unit at 89.04 per cent isn't hurting matters either.
"There's still time to spereate ourselves a bit more here," noted forward Brenden Morrow, a mid-season acquisition from the Colorado Avalanche. "We have 32 games left on the schedule and if we keep winning, we'll be ok. But we have to keep winning."

Brenden Morrow hasn't been able to light it up the way Montreal had hoped after he came over from Colorado.
To do so, Montreal would benefit from a scoring boost from morrow. Brought in to help anchor the second line, Morrow has amassed just 11 points in 31 games so far as a Canadians player.
That seems to be the lone problem for Montreal though, and the all-star caliber netminding from Quick has made their games easier. Already sporting a 29-12-6 record, Quick also holds a .906 save percentage, third best in the league.
While Montreal may appear to not need any moves to be made, they are rumoured to be shopping defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, whose hefty $6.5 million salry makes him a large burden on the salary cap. Whether Montreal can find a taker is another issue.

Is Montreal really trying to move Christian Ehrhoff?
In the meantime, trades or not, Montreal is in great position to make a meaningful cup run in Le Belle Province for the first time in yeas. Only question left to answer is, can they make the playoffs in the first place?

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Going Hog Wild

It's been a cause for celebration for Minnesota this year.
It's been a bounce back season for the Minnesota Wild, as efforts under General Manager Alex Tanev to revitalize the once sagging fortunes of the club have begun to pay off.
The Wild sit sixth in the Western Conference, just one point behind the Nashville Predators. For a club many figured was one more year away from a post-season berth, the Wild are looking in good shape to be ahead of the trend in that regard, sitting 11 points ahead of the ninth seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.
"It's been a good season for us, but it's not over yet," said defenseman Dion Phanuef, who is tied for the team lead in points with 40. "We've worked hard to get here, now it's time to complete the job."
Indeed. While Minnesota is well entrenched in a post-season slot, they are also only one game over .500 on the season, meaning a smll stumble could cost them big in the playoff race.

Vanilla Ice wannabe Dion Phaneuf and sheep-lover Mikhail Grabovski are two key cogs for the Minnesota Wild.
"We have to keep our foot down on the gas peddle. We can't let up, there are plenty fo teams hunting us down," said centre Mikhail Grabovski who leads the team with 17 goals.
To do that, the Wild do have some areas to shore up. Offense is one, as Phanuef and fellow blueliner Shane O'Brien lead the club with 40 points. While such production from the backend is desired, it's rarely a good omen to have your top two scorers patrolling your blueline.
While some players, such as Richard Zednik and Robbie Schremp have stepped forward and exceeded expectations, others need to start pulling their weight. This includes star forward Milan Hejduk, who has scored just seven goals and 20 points in 51 games this year.

The Wild are left wondering what has happened to Steve Downie and Milan Hejduk, as the duo have combd for just 15 goals and 32 points so far this season.
Others who have stumbled include Steve Downie, with 12 points in 51 games, and Raffi Torres, who has just one point on the season and has been reduced to a fourth line role.
"It's tough, but only I can dig myself out of this hole," noted Torres.
The bright spots have been primarily limited to the defense and in net, where Antti Niemi has been solid. Backup Johan Hedberg has once again excelled in a reserve role, though he hasn't been called on much.

Antti Niemi has been solid for the Wild so far this season.
While in-season trades are always the easiest to do or most effective way to improve your squad, one thing Minnesota would likely be wise to correct is their penalty taking. Minnsota ranks 25th in the league in penalty minutes, taking nearly two minutes more per game than the league average. A few less minutes in the box would certainly improve things elsewhere.
Given that, it's not a surprise to hear that Downie is reportedly being shopped in trade talks by the Wild. Coupled with his weak offensive numbers, Downie also ranks fourth on the Wild in penalty minutes, despite playing significantly less minutes than the players above him on that list. It could be addition by subtraction for Downie, who has often been referred to as a selfish player who puts himself ahead of his team.
Whatever is going on with Downie or any other possible trades, Tanev is keeping quiet.
"We're looking to see what's out there, but for now I have nothing to report," said Tanev. "If the right deal comes along, we might make a move. If not, then we'll stick with what we have."
And why not? It's working so far for the Wild, who could be heading back to the post-season for the first time in a while if they can keep things rolling for another 31 games.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Kings of the Hill

The Kings simply look magnificent, awesome, awe-inspiring, and breathtaking during their cup victory in Season 6. Can they duplicate that feat again this year?
In a surprising twist of fortunes, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves sitting atop the Western Conference as the league enters the second half of the season.
While some of the credit for that likely falls to the usual heavyweights in the conference, such as the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, all having somewhat poor seasons this year -especially in the case of Colorado- the Kings themselves also deserve a large degree of credit as well.
Their .647 winning percentage actually ranks Los Angeles third in the conference, just behind Calgary (.670) and San Jose (.652) but the Kings have earned 66 points so far this year and are on pace to finish the season with 106 points. One heck of a positive result for a team that was viewed as being over the hill by many before the season began.
"We may be older than most teams, but we aren't decreped," said elder statesman Brian Rolston who, along with Martin Straka, is one of two 40-year-olds on the team. "We can still play in this league and our record shows that.

Brian Rolston's had a tought season for the Kings so far.
In fact, Los Angeles is only getting better as the season wears along, going 7-1-2 in the last 10 games to give them a three point cushion on Calgary in the Western Conference.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this success is that the Kings are doing this despite not having Pierre-Marc Bouchard all season. The winger has been embroiled in a bitter contract dispute all season.
Without the offense from Bouchard, the Kings haven't missed a beat, relying on a strong defense to carry them instead. Just like Colorado, the Kings are averaging 2.88 goals per game, which is exactly the same as the league average. Defensively though, Los Angeles sits ninth, allowing just 2.53 goals per game. At times that defense can be downright suffocating though, with netminder Tim Thomas posting six shutouts already this season, good for fifth best in the league and one off the league lead shared by four other netminders.
"I just go out and play my best and try to give the team a chance to win," said Thomas, "and with this crew usually that's been good enough."
Tim Thomas Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins poses with the Vezina Trophy following the 2009 NHL Awards at the Palms Casino Resort on June 18, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Once again, Tim Thomas has been award-caliber in net for the Kings.
Whether or not it will hold up could be a key question, but for it to maintain, the Kings need to shore things up on special teams. Overall, Los Angeles sits 24th on the powerplay and 26th in terms of penalty killing.
It needs to be better for sure, but we're working on that. We also have a lot of leaders on this team, so I expect this to be taken care of sooner rather than later," explained Head Coach Alain Vigneault.
Things would be worse if not for the surprising efforts of defenseman Radek Martinek. Usually known for his defnsive prowess, Martinek has erupted this year with 10 goals and 31 points. Seven of his 10 tallies have come on the powerplay.
Martínek musel bohuzel predcane oznámit konec sezony.
Radek Martinek would play through a broken neck for Los Angeles.
"I'm doing job coach ask of me. It hard but fun, and I will not fail him," said Martinek in broken English.
Castoffs such as Carl Soderberg and Viktor Kozlov have also stepped forward and contributed to the Kings offense, but the team will need more firepower behind their two top centres in Evgeni Malkin and Paul Stastny if they hope to continue to compete.
One such option would be Rolston. While the veteran is no longer counted on as a 30-goal option, scoring just once and adding two assists in 49 games is also well below what the club thought they were getting. Another option may be to sign 2010 first round draft pick Alexander Burmistrov to a contract.

Is Alexander Burmistrov the answer to Los Angeles' offensive needs?
In the meantime, Los Angles will continue to plug along. When once the playoffs were the goal for this season, now those goals have become much higher indeed, and all signs point to this year being a huge success for the Kings. But will they be crowned?

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Wild cat country
David Booth David Booth #10 of the Florida Panthers watches Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers deflect his shot on goal during the first period at Madison Square Garden on January 25, 2011 in New York City.
Florida's been trying to improve, but so far haven't found much traction as they try and move up the standings.
It's been a season of change and renewal for the Florida Panthers. It's also been another season of status quo when it comes to the standings. Despite some moves done under first year General Manager Melvin Chong, the Panthers have not been able to keep up in the surprisingly successful Eastern Conference, sitting 25 points out of a playoff spot with a record of 13-23-9. That's good enough for 13th in the Eastern Conference and 26th overall, though they are tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals for last in the conference.
Part of their lack of success can be traced to extra time play, where Florida is 1-9 in games that are decided in overtime or a shootout.
"We get there and we seem to clam up. We just can't seem to get the puck to the net. And I seem to fight the puck more for some reason. We're great in regulation most of the time, but in overtime, we just seem to come apart," said all-star netminder Pekka Rinne.
Despite the lack of success, Florida has made a significant transition in their state as a team, as deals for forwards Justin Williams and Brad Richards havecome together this year, not to mention Alexander Ovechkin and Blake Wheeler. The Panthers have brought in a lot of hired guns to do some mercenary work.
"We're hoping to keep up with the rest of the East that way," noted Chong. "We feel with Rinne in net and young defensemen like Leddy and Myers on the blueline, we can have the defense in place already, even if it is down the road a year or two. But we needed to enhance the offense and we did that."

Tyler Myers is a big piece of the future for Florida.
In thoery anyways. While the names Florida has brought in look great on paper, they haven't been on the ice. Despite playing a combined 156 games for Florida this season, Ovechkin, Richards, Williams and Wheeler have combined for just 35 goals this season. A former 60-goal scorer, Ovechkin is on pace for just 17 goals this year, and the pairing of Richards and Ovie has so far failed. Overall, Florida ranks 23rd in goal scoring in the WCHL and 25th in goals against. Part of the problem is Florida doesn't shoot the puck enough, sitting 27th in shots at just 21.69 per game while allowing the most shots against in the league at 28.89 per game. Only Chicago has a worse ratio of shots for and against.

Alexander Ovechkin has been anything but great as a Florida Panther.
Florida though will have to make a decision soon on what they are going to do going forward. Richards and Rinne are slated to be unrestricted free agents this off-season, as is Matt Cooke, who sits third on the team with 11 goals. Wheeler, Leddy and Mark Fayne will all need contract extensions meanwhile, and with the cap not expected to increase between now and next season, Florida may only have approximately $600,000 in wiggle room to get that done.
What potential unrestricted free agents Pekka Rinne and Brad Richards do will have a huge impact on Florida's future.
So do you blow it up and keep it together? On paper, Florida would be wise to keep the pieces in place and try and build around them, but with Rinne likely going to command a $3 million pay increase, it doesn't look like that will be easy to do.
If they do send some salary packing, Tim Connolly looks like a prime target. The $6.5-million man has picked up just 18 points in 36 games for Florida, and that is a lot of money for only average returns. With one more year left on his deal however, he figures to be hard to move.

With a $6.5-million contract, Tim Connolly's bang for the buck might not be enough for Florida.
Expect the team to purge a few defensemen as well, as they are carrying eight on the pro roster already. Additionally, the club is likely to try and make room upfront for Luke Adam, assuming the hot young prospect can sign a contract extension with Florida as well. Adam is currently leading the San Antonio Rampage in scoring and is expected to be ready for prime time duty next season, giving Florida yet another offensive option.

Luke Adam could be in Florida permanently as early as next season.
"If we can keep this core together, we have the ability to build around it," said Chong. "It's just a matter of doing that and not putting ourselves ina huge financial hole in the process."
It will be interesting to see what happens in Florida for sure. With a 1st round pick that is likely to be top 10 in the 2011 draft. Florida has a bright future, assuming they can keep the present intact.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Gushing Oil

The Oilers aim to roar through the second half of the season.
It's been a rough go of things this year for the Edmonton Oilers. Entering the season, Edmonton was brimming with confidence and full of anticipation, aiming for a playoff berth and a strong post-season push.
If they do reach those playoffs, it won't be in the way they expected however. Starting netminder Tomas Vokoun was placed on waivers after posting an absolutely dreadful record of 3-17-4, a goals against average of 4.04 and a save percentage of .843. Even if he were to clear waivers, with numbers like those it's debateable on if the Oklahoma City Barons will want him.

Former all-world goaltender Tomas Vokoun has been "awful" this season, according to General Manager Keith Foster.
"He has been awful this year. Just awful," explained Oilers General Manager Keith Foster. "I don't like o throw a guy under the bus, but he could dramatically improve those numbers and still be considered an underachiever. He has been terrible."
The Oilers are expected to go with a rotation of Christobel Huet and Rick Dipietro the rest of the season. While Huet's save percentage, .872, isn't very good either, he has still managed to post a 12-7-1 record as an Oiler, something that helps bring a sense of confidence.

Oilers fans might be seeing a lot more of Rick Dipietro the rest of the season.
As does the weak Western Conference, which has allowed the Oilers to stay in contention despite their goaltending woes. Entering action on Friday, the Oilers sat 12th but were just five points out of eighth spot and riding a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games.
"We've had some ground to make up for sure, but we fortunately haven't dug ourselves a huge hole," said forward Craig Smith, the lone rookie on the club. "We know if we were in the Eastern Conference, we'd be buried right now, so we need to take advantage of the situation we are in, not cry over lost points."
An additional bonus to the Vokoun move is it will free up $7 million in cap space for the Oilers, if they choose to look for improvements on the trade market. Prior to waiving Vokoun, the Oilers had less than $900,000 in cap space to play with.
"We'll look around and kick some tires, but the team is playing much better lately so we may just ride this out for a bit too," noted Foster. "Sometimes just making a move like this can be enough and you don't need to bring in anyone. Just having confidence in who is between your pipes can help enough."
Expect the club to ride offensive juggernauts Jason Pominville and Patrik Elias if they hope to have a better second half of the season. The duo has combined for 47 goals and 112 points already, making them the backbone of the Oilers offense.
Jason Pominville Jason Pominville #29 of the Buffalo Sabres and Team Alfredsson poses prior to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place on January 29, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Jason Pominville and Patrik Elias have been all-star caliber for the Edmonton Oilers so far this year.
"They've been terrific," said forward olli Jokinen, who sits third in team scoring behind the duo. "Without them, I'd hate to think where we'd be."
Likely vying for the top draft pick in the 2011 WCHL Entry Draft. The Oilers already sit with the leagues worst goals against average at 3.84 goals against per game. That's almost a full goal more than the league average of 2.89. The club also has the 27th ranked penalty kill, yet aren't allowing an obscene amount of shots, ranking 19th in shots allowed per game with 25.78, just slightly ahead of the league average of 25.24.
"It gives us hope," said defenseman Paul Mara, who has a team worse plus/minus ranking of -17. "Once again, I hate to blame all of the issues on Tomas, but when we aren't allowing a lot more shots than the average team, yet we sit dead last in goals against average and are near the bottom on the penalty kill, there has to be a reason for that.
While the offense has been much better this year, it can still get better. Forwards Niklas Hagman and Eric Belanger were expected to contribute in a third line role, yet the pair has combined for just one goal so far this season, despite pulling in a combined $3.8 million.

Eric Belanger will need to pick up the pace the rest of the season.
But overall, things are looking up. How can they not be when you are just five points away from the playoffs despite going just 1-13-3 in a 17 games stretch?
"Some teams should have buried us a long time ago and they didn't. We'll make them pay for that in the second half," said defenseman Jordan Leopold.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

On a wing and a prayer

Adding to the long list of banners in Joe Louis Arena is a goal of the current Red Wings club.
The Detroit Red Wings find themselves in a rare situation. After years of simply trying to get into the playoffs, Detroit sits fourth in the Western Conference at the mid-way point of the season with 53 points. That's 13 points ahead of ninth placed Dallas Stars. And with a 7-3 record in their last 10 games, the winged wheel doesn't appear to be slowing down at all.
It's a quick turnaround for the Wings. After reaching the WCHL Cup finals and pushing the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins to seven games in Season 12, the Wings have seen a quick decline in their fortunates ever since. Barely making the playoffs the next year, the Wings fell on harder times last year, missing the post-season altogether.
In their first full season under General Manager Will Englesby, who came over midway through last year from the Chicago Blackhawks, the Wings got off to a fast start and haven't looked back since. Riding a surprisingly solid season from veteran netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, the Wings are one of the top surprises of the WCHL at the midway point.

It's been all Nikolai Khabibulin at times in Detroit.
"It's been a total team effort. Some games were get hammered, but most games we find a way to stay close and keep ourselves in the game, then turn it on at the end at nail down the win. It's a rope-a-dope style of play that's worked so far," said Englesby.
On the surface, the Wings don't look overly impressive. A collection of players largely thought to have already seen their better days, the Wings have proven to be the fountain of youth for guys like Khabibulin, Michael Ryder and Danius Zubrus, all of whom are on pace for excellent seasons.
With five shutouts, Khabibulin sits tied for the fifth most shutouts in the league with Miikka Kiprusoff. This despite facing the fourth most shots in the league at 1,067. On average, Khabibulin faces the fifth most shots against per game in the league amongst starting goaltenders.
Zubrus meanwhile is on pace for nearly 70 points, while Ryder has amassed 20 goals in 43 games so far. Needless to say, neither has seen this much production in years, if ever.

The play of Danius Zubrus and Michael Ryder has been a key cog in Detroit's success this year.
"It's been clicking well," said Zubrus of his season thus far. Me and my linemates are playing well at both ends of the ice, and it's making things fun so far. Hopefully it continues."
For it to continue, the Wings are likely going to need to spread out the scoring. A second line of Simon Gagne, Jonathan Sim and Paul Gaustad has combined for just 22 goals so far. That's what you get from a line with one player past his prime and two others who never were legitimate scores in the WCHL.
As a result, Detroit sits 21st in goals for this season, and despite their 25-15-3 record, the Wings have actually been outscored 117-119 this season.
The problems certainly aren't on the powerplay, where Detroit ranks fourth best in the league with a 19.56 per cent success rate. Combined with the league's sixth best penalty killing unit, the Wings hold the league's second best combined special teams units, with a total value of 104.7 per cent. Only the Montreal Canadiens are better.
"We've been deadly on the special teams this year. It's been our source of strength," said defenseman Johnny Boychuk who participates heavily on both squads.
If that success could translate to five-on-five play, Detroit would be almost unstoppable.
"We need to find a way to carry that success over to all situations," assessed Englesby. "We've been outscored by 15 goals at even strength. We can't keep doing that and expect to win a lot of games."
In the meantime, the club will continue to look for more help, both from within and from without. Trade options are being explored, but seeing improvement from guys such as Taylor Pyatt, who only has one goal and three points as far, would be a boon.

Less smiles, more goal needed from Taylor Pyatt in Detroit.
If not, the Wings are poised to fall off th rails, and ruin what could be a storybook season in Detroit. 

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Shooting stars

The Stars aren't just number one off the ice like they were last year.
One season after posting one of the worst record in the history of the WCHL, the Dallas Stars find themselves working on getting back into the playoffs. While there have been some questionable moves along the way, the Dallas Stars have overall shown a strong turnaround this season.
That began in the off-season, as veterans Marian Hossa and Rob Scuderi were traded for, while centre Joe Thornton was added via free agency, immediately improving the offense and defense at what were relatively low costs; outside of the salary additions that is.

Marian Hossa's offense hasn't been terrific this year, but it's been a boost to the Stars over last year.
While their contribution results have been mixed, the Stars haven't simply rested on the shoulders of those three players. Instead, a large scale overhaul of the team has them boasting a revamped line up full of expectation and void of any hangovers from last years dispicable season.
"They needed a fresh start here in Dallas, and I don't think it gets much fresher than this," said Thornton. "The change has been good and things are going in the right direction, but we need to get better yet, myself included."

"They needed a fresh start here in Dallas," said Joe Thornton, himself looking for a fresh start after 13 seasons in Boston. While it's been a fresh start indeed for both, both the Stars and Thronton could use some improvement as well.
Indeed they do. After starting the season hot, including breifly holding down third spot in the Western Conference, the Stars have fallen back to earth somewhat. Now sitting ninth in the conference and on a five game losing streak.
"It's been a rough stretch lately, but every team goes thugh these from time to time," acknowledged Hossa. "We just need to get past this and get back to winning, not let this streak define us."
And there is plenty of players who have a winning pedigree in the Stars line up. For instance, there are no fewer than 10 former Clgary Flames players who have suited up for the Dallas Stars this season, and the Flames have been one of the leagues most successful teams the past five seasons in the WCHL. This list includes the teams leading scorer David Clarkson, who has amassed 18 goals and 34 points this year.

David Clarkson's offense this year has been a welcome addition to the Stars.
"We have a veteran core, there's no doubt about it," said Clarkson. "We know how to win, now it's just a matter of getting out there and winning."
To do so the club's going to need some more goals. Despite heavily improving the firepower upfront, Dallas still sits 23rd in the league in goals, and 26th on the powerplay. While more was expected out of Hossa and Thornton, who between them have just 19 goals this season, others need to step up their play as well. Included in that list is Brandon Dubinsky, who in two seperate stints with Carolina this year has scored just once and added four assists in 21 games. Wotjek Wolski meanwhile has just three goals and seven points in 41 games as a Stars this year.
While new additions in Mike Fisher and Nick Foligno should help, the team still likely will need a larger upgrade or more contributions from guys like Wolski, Dubinsky or Andrew Cogliano. A true puckmoving defenceman would also help, with Matt Gilroy being the closest thing to that so far for Dallas.

More offense from Wojtek Wolski would be a big assist to the Stars.
If Dallas can get some more balanced scoring, things could rebound quickly for the Stars. And unlike last year, they won't need the stars to align to make the playoffs this time around.

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30 Teams in 30 Stories

Not so Blue anymore

There's been ctual cause to celebrate in Columbus since General Manager Serge Niles took over.
It's been a rough go of things in the WCHL for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Much like their NHL counterpart, they haven't been met with much success over their life in the league.
But under the new regime headed by Serge Niles, that has begun to change. The Blue Jackets recorded their first ever post-season berth last year and are hanging around in the hunt for another playoff spot this year as well.
As of press time, the Blue Jackets sat in eighth spot in the Western Conference, tied with the ninth place Dallas Stars and just one point behind th two-time defnding WCHL Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche.
"It's been a slow but positive build for us, and we are pleased with the results," said Niles. "We are sticking to the game plan, which can be a bit difficult seeing where we are in the standings, but it will pay off in the long run. We have confidence in that."
That plan is to build around a young but veteran core which includes the likes of Jason Spezza, Claude Giroux and Brent Seabrook. Of the 23 players on the Blue Jackets roster, only six are over the age of 30. Of that group, only Vaclav Prospal and Bryce Salvador play big roles, and Prospal is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 05:  Vaclav Prospal #22 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates after he scored on Thomas Greiss #1 of the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion at San Jose on January 5, 2012 in San Jose, California.  <br /><br /><span class="help">(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)</span>
Vaclav Prospal celebrates a goal against the San Jose Sharks.
"We know that we are a good team right now, but we have the chance to be a really good team down the road, and we can do it together," said veteran centre Jarrett Stoll. "That's something you don't see much of in this league. I would know, I've been in and out of Carolina more often than a long-haul truck driver."
That young core is leading the charge for the Blue Jackets as well, with Giroux, Spezza and Seabrook ranking one, two, three in team coring. Seabrook could be a Norris Trophy contender, with 32 points in 38 games this season while logging 23:22 a game. Surprising contributions from Marcel Goc meanwhile -10 goals and 27 points in 38 games- has helped to make the Blue Jackets not just a one line team.

Brent Seabrook might have a Norris Trophy nod coming his way if he keeps up his impressive play.
They'll need those contributions to continue, but more will be needed. Stoll has amassed just 11 points and is a team worst -14 while pulling in $6 million this season -the third highest pay cheque on the team- while in net, the tandem of Josh Harding and Semyon Varlamov has been dreadful. Varlamov has been the default number one, getting the job without earning it apparently after thus far posting a .867 save percentage. Harding's number is only slightly better, at .874. While both goalies have great potential, something needs to translate to tangible results for the Blue Jackets to make much group up between themselves and the cup favorites.

Semyon Varlamov and Josh Harding need to get going in net for Columbus.
Goaltending aside, the Blue Jackets are likely going to need to further expand their offense in order to compete in the Western Conference. While farm hands like Dwight King and the newly signed Marek Hrivik do offer some potential, odds are the Blue Jackets are going to need to look outside the fold to find that help. Thus far though, Columbus has been fairly quiet on the trade front, electing to see how the current group plays first before making any moves.
Improving their penalty killing would do wonders for the Blue Jackets, as they rank 29th in the league and are one of just two teams (the other being the Vancouver Canucks) with a penalty kill rate of less than 80 per cent. That though would likely change dramatically if a solid performance in net could be gained from Varlamov or Harding. To highlight just how bad the goaltending has been this year, Columbus sits second in the WCHL for shots against, allowing just 22.45 shots per game, yet they rank 21st in the league in goals against.
"Words can't describe how much better we'd be if Varlamov or Harding stepped up and played to their abilities," testified Niles. "We may have to look elsewhere if things don't improve, but for now they have my full vote of confidence in our net. I know they have the ability, both of them, to be number one netminders in this league, it's just a matter of confidence and translating skill into success. Hopefully that happens soon."

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