The NHL's Winners and Losers of October

Dave LozoNHL National Lead WriterOctober 31, 2013

The NHL's Winners and Losers of October

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    October has had it all during the first month of the NHL season—there have been enough highlight-reel goals and stomach-churning illegal hits to fill an entire season along with teams exceeding expectations and teams off to disappointing starts.

    There are the usual suspects sitting pretty—the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks are looking like contenders—and surprise teams trying to defy the odds—the Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes are off to sizzling starts.

    With a little more than 10 percent of the season in the books, here are some of the winners and losers as we head into November.

     

Winner: Phil Kessel

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    On the first day of October, Phil Kessel signed an eight-year, $64 million contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs. All he has done to justify that payday is become the NHL's second-leading scorer with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 14 games.

    On top of the personal success, his team is leading the Eastern Conference with a 10-4-0 record and 20 points.

    It's tough to find anyone who has had a better October than the 26-year-old American, who is sure to represent Team USA at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

Loser: Buffalo Sabres

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    No matter how you choose to define "loser," the Sabres fit the bill.

    From a standard win-loss standpoint, they are dead-last in the NHL in points percentage.

    From an on-ice standpoint, Patrick Kaleta was hit with a 10-game suspension for a hit to the head of Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson and teammate John Scott received seven games for a hit to the head of Bruins forward Loui Eriksson last week.

    From a front-office standpoint, GM Darcy Regier waved a white flag on the season this week by trading Thomas Vanek to the Islanders for a pair of draft picks and forward Matt Moulson. Goaltender Ryan Miller will very likely be traded at some point as well. 

    If the Sabres don't get it turned around, they could challenge the 1974-75 Washington Capitals for the worst record in NHL history. The Caps finished with 21 points in 80 games that season.

Winner: Fans Who Enjoy Bad Goals

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    If you're lucky, you'll see one, maybe two goals during the course of the NHL season that will make you laugh (or cry if it's your favorite team allowing the goal). But October was loaded with comically bad goals.

    Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick allowed Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh to score from about 160 feet away with Los Angeles on a power play.

    Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier misinterpreted a hybrid icing situation and had a puck bounce off the boards, then his skates and into his net against the Hurricanes.

    The Lightning were less than two minutes from a regulation win against the Blackhawks when defenseman Matt Carle passed a puck to fellow defenseman Radko Gudas, who deflected the puck past goaltender Ben Bishop.

    Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo was victimized by teammate Dan Hamhuis against the Montreal Canadiens. 

    Consider yourself fortunate if you see four goals that bizarre over the rest of the season.

Loser: Claude Giroux

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    Just like Kessel, Claude Giroux signed a massive contract extension before the season. But Giroux hasn't lived up to the eight-year, $66.2 million deal bestowed upon him by the Philadelphia Flyers.

    In 11 games, Giroux has zero goals and six assists, and the Flyers are fighting to stay out of the basement of the Eastern Conference. Giroux had 28 goals and 93 points in 77 games two seasons ago and 13 goals and 48 points in 48 games last season.

    One of the big question marks around the Flyers going into this season was defense and goaltending, but it's been the offense, led by Giroux, that has let the team down. They are ranked 28th in the NHL in goals per game.

Winner: Marc-Andre Fleury

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    The regular season has never been a problem for Marc-Andre Fleury, but the pressure was on for him to produce after his second straight playoff failure with Tomas Vokoun out indefinitely with a blood clot issue.

    Fleury has been outstanding, going 9-2-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. With rookie Jeff Zatkoff as the team's backup, Fleury will likely be asked to shoulder the load throughout the regular season.

    No matter what Fleury does in the regular season, he will be judged on his playoff performance, but he's gotten off on the right foot in 2013-14.

Loser: Alain Vigneault

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    Before he was fired in Vancouver, coach Alain Vigneault enjoyed a pair of Presidents' Trophy seasons and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. There's no way he could have expected this 4-7-0 start when he was hired by the Rangers this summer.

    Vigneault has dealt with an underwhelming offense, injuries to key forwards Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, an extended contract dispute with Derek Stepan, and Vezina-winning goaltender Henrik Lundqvist having struggled and missed time with injury.

    There's probably no coach in the NHL who is happier to see the calendar turn to November.

Winner: John Tortorella

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    The Canucks and Rangers essentially swapped coaches this summer, but John Tortorella has found success in Vancouver while Vigneault has struggled in New York.

    The Canucks are off to a 9-5-1 start despite having to deal with a season-high seven-game road trip. The Canucks are three points back of the Sharks in the loaded Pacific Division and are scoring nearly three goals per game.

    Tortorella said the Canucks would block shots this season, and they rank fourth in the NHL after ranking 27th in that category last year. If Tortorella infuses toughness into this already talented team, a Stanley Cup could be in the Canucks' future.

Loser: Edmonton Oilers

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    The 2013-14 Oilers had a new coach in Dallas Eakins and a renewed hope of their first playoff trip since 2006. Instead, the Oilers are in the Western Conference basement and allowing the most goals in the NHL.

    They've been without key pieces Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall for varying periods of time due to injury, while Devan Dubnyk has been uneven in net while being victimized by a porous defense.

    Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner are back in the lineup, and the Oilers were forced to play a league-high nine road games in October. Perhaps as the schedule becomes more favorable, the Oilers will find themselves in the win column more often.

    It's not as dire as it is in Buffalo, but Edmonton is running out of time to turn things around.

Winner: Josh Harding

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    Last season was a nightmare for Wild goaltender Josh Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during the lockout then missed 33 games during the season as he battled the illness. An injury to starter Niklas Backstrom forced Harding into action during the postseason, where he lost four of five games against the top-seeded and eventual champion Blackhawks in the first round.

    This season, he's been magnificent in place of the injured Backstrom, going 5-2-1 with a 1.00 GAA and .953 save percentage. The 6-4-3 Wild have needed every bit of that goaltending, as they have scored just 2.31 goals per game this season.

    Backstrom is healthy again, but the Wild have been kept afloat thanks largely to Harding.

Loser: Attendance in Phoenix

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    The Glendale City Council approved new ownership this summer, but it hasn't resulted in increased attendance at Jobing.com Arena for the Phoenix Coyotes.

    The good news for the team is that it's 5-0-1 at home and 8-3-1 overall, but that record hasn't done anything for them at the box office. Entering their game Thursday against the Nashville Predators, the Coyotes are last in attendance at 12,436 per game and capacity percentage at 72.6 percent. That includes a pair of matchups against division rivals Edmonton and Los Angeles.

    If the winning continues, the fans could still come out in greater numbers, but if they don't, it could be a problem in Phoenix.

Winner: The Players' Emergency Assistance Fund

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    When an NHL player is fined and/or suspended, the lost salary goes into the the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund. In October, Brendan Shanahan did his part in keeping that fund flush with money, as the NHL suspended or fined 12 players, including John Scott on Thursday.

    The total lost salary among those 12 players totaled $608,732.04. That doesn't include the $269,230.80 that Leafs forward David Clarkson had to forfeit in September for leaving the bench during an altercation in the preseason.

    In all, the NHL has fined players about $900,000 this season.

Loser: Peter Laviolette

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    The only coach to be sacked so far this season was Peter Laviolette, who was shown the door in Philadelphia after just three games.

    In a way, though, he could be considered a winner—the Flyers are 3-5-0 under new coach Craig Berube, a sign that perhaps it wasn't the Stanley Cup-winning coach that was the problem. Laviolette took the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 after the team finished with 88 points in the regular season.

    Laviolette has taken three teams to the postseason—the Islanders, Hurricanes and Flyers. Should another coach get fired between now and the end of the season, he could be a candidate to fill that position.

Winner: Rookies

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    Since Evgeni Malkin won the Calder Trophy as a rookie with the Penguins in 2006-07 by posting 85 points in 78 games, only one first-year player has eclipsed the eclipsed the 70-point mark in a season.

    It's early, but a pair of rookies are showing they could be embarking on special seasons.

    Sharks forward Tomas Hertl has eight goals and 11 points in 13 games, and Flames forward Sean Monahan has six goals and 10 points in 12 games. That puts them on pace for 69 and 68 points, respectively. How Hertl and Monahan handle the rigors of an 82-game NHL season will determine if they will be the first 70-point rookies since Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks in 2007-08.

Loser: The Eastern Conference

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    With realignment, the Eastern Conference was supposed to cease being the punching bag for the Western Conference. The Red Wings, a perennial playoff team, and the Blue Jackets, a team that narrowly missed the postseason in 2013, were coming East while the lowly Jets were being shipped West.

    Instead of there being more balance, the West is beating up on the East more than ever. In 81 games, the West is 54-21-8 against the East for 116 points, while the East is 29-45-9 against the West for 67 points.

    There are only four teams in the East with winning records against the West—the Maple Leafs, Lightning, Canadiens and Penguins. The Metropolitan Division is a cumulative 10-22-6 against the West.

Winner: Hybrid Icing

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    The NHL instituted a new rule for 2013-14 known as hybrid icing, and so far, it's gone off without a hitch.

    Instead of players racing to touch the puck, icing is now determined by which player is the first to reach one of the two face-off dots in the offensive zones. October came and went without a player suffering a catastrophic injury by crashing into the boards, and while there have been some groans about who exactly won that race to the dot, no games have been unfairly decided by a blown call.

    It's about as perfect a start as the NHL could've wanted for the new rule.