The Biggest Question Mark for Every NHL Team

James Onusko@@jonuskoContributor IIIOctober 17, 2013

The Biggest Question Mark for Every NHL Team

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    We are two weeks into the 2013-14 NHL season, and while some answers are emerging, a lot of questions surround each team.

    It is much too early to hit the panic button for those teams that are off to poor starts. Conversely, for those clubs that have come charging out of the gate, it is way too soon to start thinking about long Stanley Cup playoff runs.

    Let's take a look at every NHL club and explore the biggest question mark that they face after the first two weeks of the regular season.

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Anaheim Ducks

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can the Ducks continue to have success despite their woeful special teams?

    While the Ducks have made a splash by winning four of their first five games and breaking out their Mighty Ducks sweaters, heading into Wednesday night's action against the Calgary Flames, their special teams were not very special.

    In fact, the Ducks ranked last in both penalty killing percentage (64.3 percent) and a power-play percentage (4.8 percent).

    While a handful of poor teams have decent special teams numbers—think of the Edmonton Oilers' power-play percentage last season—it is the rare top team that excels without good special teams.

    The Ducks were not a top-10 team in the shortened 2012-13 season in either penalty killing or on the power play (in goals scored for or goals scored against). It will be a challenge for them to remain as a top team in the Pacific Division if they do not improve their special teams play soon.

Boston Bruins

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    Biggest Question Mark: What is going on with future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla?

    The Boston Bruins are off to an average start, with several offensive players experiencing some challenges in the early going.

    For those fans that have followed Jarome Iginla's NHL career, he had some slow starts with the Calgary Flames. While Iginla's effort can almost never be questioned, he has always seemed to take some time to get going and needed the games to take on more meaning to start peaking.

    Iginla has had ample ice time so far this season, logging more minutes than any other Bruin forward. He is also leading the team in shots taken, so with some more puck luck, he's sure to start scoring with his exceptional shot.

    Expect an outburst from Iginla sooner rather later as he continues to familiarize himself with his new Beantown surroundings and linemates.

Buffalo Sabres

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    Biggest Question Mark: Is what we've seen likely to be what we get all year from the Buffalo Sabres?

    The Buffalo Sabres have earned one win in their first eight games and look to be one of, if not the weakest team in the NHL this season. The issue is whether or not this is likely to be the pattern for the rest of the season.

    While the winning percentage is likely to rise, it may not be by a lot. The Sabres have been competitive in a number of games, but they are the lowest-scoring team in the league, scoring just over one goal per game.

    The Sabres do not have a lot of top offensive players outside of Thomas Vanek and Cody Hodgson, so shutting them down is not a huge task for opposing teams. If the team continues to lose at a similar rate, it may even take more of step backward as the rebuild continues.

Calgary Flames

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    Biggest Question Mark: Will the Calgary Flames be able to sustain this early-season success?

    The Calgary Flames, along with the Colorado Avalanche, have been two of the bigger surprises in the early part of the 2013-14 season.

    Led by Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan and captain Mark Giordano, the Flames have managed to score nearly four goals per game so far this year. This is not likely sustainable given the lack of offensive talent on the team.

    In addition, the goaltending has not been very good to date, with neither Karri Ramo nor Joey MacDonald achieving a .900 save percentage yet. While it could be argued that these goalies should see these numbers rise, the numbers will have to rise substantially and quickly unless the team reduces the shots against drastically.

    The Flames are likely better than many had projected, but challenging for a playoff spot will prove difficult for this group.

Carolina Hurricanes

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can the Carolina Hurricanes be a playoff contender with Cam Ward not being the undisputed No. 1 goalie?

    The Carolina Hurricanes are off to a middling start, with many of their team offensive numbers being near the bottom of the pack in the NHL. These numbers should improve, but other areas, particularly Cam Ward's play, needs to improve.

    Cam Ward is one of the better talents in the NHL, but his play to date has been average at best. While his .913 save percentage is not terrible, he has been outplayed by his backup, Anton Khudobin, who has posted both Hurricane wins and has earned a .929 save percentage.

    While Khudobin may emerge as a top goaltender in the years to come, it seems highly unlikely that he is ready to make that jump. Ward's play must improve soon if the Hurricanes hope to be a playoff contender this season.

    With Ward in the mix to be a Team Canada goaltender in Sochi, expect his play to improve dramatically in an effort to earn one of the three berths available.

Chicago Blackhawks

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    Biggest Question Mark: Are the Stanley Cup champions as good as last year?

    The Chicago Blackhawks have begun the season with a little less flash and dance than they displayed for most of the shortened 2012-13 regular season and playoffs.

    They lost two of their first three games and have scored more than three goals in a game just once so far. Their defending has been solid, though, as they have now strung together three straight wins. One area of concern is the poor penalty killing, which ranks 24th in the league at 72.2 percent.

    It is too early to answer definitively their biggest question, but based on their early-season play, the Hawks look like they can be as good as last year's squad.

    They won't be able to match that winning percentage, but as the team gains momentum over the course of the season, don't be surprised if the 'Hawks dominate not only the NHL's weakest teams but the heavyweights as well. The St. Louis rivalry should be in full bloom by the spring.

Colorado Avalanche

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can the Colorado Avalanche maintain their current league-leading goaltending play?

    The Colorado Avalanche are easily the most surprising team in the NHL. They are unbeaten this season and have played well on several nights.

    The key to their success so far has been their goals against. They have averaged just one goal against in their first six contests.

    They are also getting exceptional play from nearly all of the their young forwards, with Matt Duchene's all-around play being particularly great.

    The goaltending has been the story, though, as the Avs have faced a lot of shots this year. The team is giving up over 35 shots per game, but with a team save percentage over .970, the Avs have been been able to get away with some patchy defensive work.

    Expect Colorado to fall back to the pack both statistically and in the standings, as this goaltending excellence cannot continue at this pace.

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Biggest Question Mark: Do the Columbus Blue Jackets have enough firepower to compete in the Metropolitan Division?

    The Columbus Blue Jackets had a strong finish to their season in 2012-13 but have not been great to start this season.

    This hasn't been as big an issue as it might have been, though, as no one in the division, outside of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is off to a very good start.

    Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky has played well and seems well on his way to another very good season. The Jackets have not scored many goals, and two of their top four scorers are defensemen.

    Because this might be the weakest division in hockey, as long as some of the depth players like R.J. Umberger, Ryan Johansen and Artem Anisimov pick it up, the Jackets should be fine.

Dallas Stars

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    Biggest Question Mark: If Kari Lehtonen misses a substantial number of games, can the Dallas Stars be successful?

    The Dallas Stars are a young team with a lot of offensive potential. Where they have struggled is giving up shots and quality scoring chances.

    Because they've had one of the better goalies in the game in Kari Lehtonen, some of this has been masked. However, with Lehtonen on injured reserve, it will be challenging for the Stars to be successful.

    Lehtonen has had ongoing groin issues, but the hope is this will not be a long-term issue. While the Stars are likely to continue to score, if they continue with their negative team shot differential, they will be challenged to win games.

Detroit Red Wings

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    Biggest Question Mark: Will the Detroit Red Wings be able to maintain their current dominance over Eastern Conference teams?

    The shift to the Eastern Conference by the Detroit Red Wings has been viewed as a double-edged sword by many. While the travel burden will be lessened substantially, the high-flying Eastern Conference has two more teams now than the Western Conference.

    The Red Wings have played some very good hockey and have five wins and just one loss against Eastern Conference teams. 

    The Wings have had balanced scoring, and their stars are playing very well. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg lead the team in scoring. The club has also received superior goaltending, with Jonas Gustavsson posting an exceptional .955 save percentage.

    The team save percentage is likely to slip, but if the Wings continues to play this well, expect them to cause fits for their Eastern Conference opponents.

Edmonton Oilers

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    Biggest Question Mark: Do the Edmonton Oilers need to make a goaltending change?

    The Edmonton Oilers, despite their horrible record, have been outplayed badly only once. The Vancouver Canucks thoroughly dominated them in the Oilers' second game.

    As has been well documented, the biggest issue they have had is in net. While Jason Labarbera has not been good, Devan Dubnyk has been downright awful.

    He has looked uncomfortable and lacking in confidence in every single outing. Dubnyk had a great year last year, in that the Oilers played woeful team defense on most nights, yet Dubnyk posted a save percentage of .921.

    While it would be irresponsible of general manager Craig MacTavish to not explore goaltending options, Dubnyk should be afforded the opportunity to turn this around.

    He's been a loyal soldier for his entire NHL career and deserves the chance to demonstrate the skills he has shown in the past.

Florida Panthers

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can Florida Panther fans expect this yo-yo start to the season to continue this season?

    The Florida Panthers have looked very good for short stretches this year. Rookie Aleksander Barkov has looked like a seasoned pro on many shifts.

    The Panthers have some good young talent, particularly up front, but fans will have to expect there to be a lot of growing pains with this group.

    If the Panthers have any hope to be competitive in a lot of games, they are going to need exceptional goaltending. With Tim Thomas just returning from injury, he's going to have to be at the top of his game unless Jacob Markstrom can really turn it up.

    Don't expect the Panthers' negative shot differential to change much in the foreseeable future, so the ups and downs are likely to continue.

Los Angeles Kings

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    Biggest Question Mark: Do the Los Angeles Kings need to be concerned about Jonathan Quick's start?

    The Los Angeles Kings are one of the best teams in the NHL. They are big, fast, skilled and outshoot their opponents on a regular basis.

    They have had a mediocre start to the season, and some of this is due to the poor play of one of the top netminders in the game in Jonathan Quick.

    Quick has not been sharp despite not facing a lot of shots and the Kings still playing a tight brand of defense in front of him. His goals-against average is approaching 3.00 and his save percentage is a pedestrian .896. 

    There does not appear to be anything fundamentally wrong with Quick; he just seems to take time to round into shape. His start last season wasn't very good, either. It's a long season, so expect Quick to bounce back well.

Minnesota Wild

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    Biggest Question Mark: Are the Minnesota Wild capable of making the leap to being a great team?

    There is no question that the Minnesota Wild have turned a corner as an organization and are a good hockey club. They have dominated their opponents in many games this season by playing disciplined hockey and scoring timely goals.

    They have struggled against other upper-tier teams, though, and that has to change if they want to be a Stanley Cup contender. It is a good step to be able to beat lesser opponents regularly, but the Wild have to play their best hockey when it matters most.

    Their goaltending will be better in the coming weeks. Their team save percentage is under .900 and can't possibly stay that low.

    The Wild have the tools to become a better team, but they have to be firing on all cylinders to be truly great. Challenging the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks will depend on it.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can P.K. Subban continue to be Montreal's leading scorer?

    The Canadiens began the season with two losses in the first three games but have followed that up with three consecutive wins.

    Peter Budaj and Carey Price have been lights out in goal, but P.K. Subban has been the best Canadien.

    Subban is leading the team in points and has played some excellent hockey, particularly in the offensive zone. While he doesn't always face the toughest competition, he is nearly unstoppable when he has the puck and is motivated.

    The Norris Trophy winner has picked up right where left off last season with eight points in the Habs' first six games. There is a possibility that Subban could continue to be the team's leading scorer given the new level of play that he has achieved consistently.

Nashville Predators

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    Biggest Question Mark: Do the Nashville Predators have the offensive weapons to be competitive this season?

    The Nashville Predators have a very good defense core, a great defensive system under head coach Barry Trotz and solid goaltending despite some spotty play from Pekka Rinne.

    In Seth Jones, the Predators have one of the best young defenders in the game. The question facing the Predators is, can they score goals? So far, the answer is no, as the club has scored just 2.17 goals per game. 

    While the dynamic defense is going to help in this regard, there is simply not much offensive talent on this team.

    The Predators are in a very good division, and unless they make a trade for some additional offensive talent, it will be very challenging for them to score enough goals to earn a playoff spot.

New Jersey Devils

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    Biggest Question Mark: Are the New Jersey Devils really this bad?

    To write that the Devils are off to a slow start would be an understatement. They have yet to win a game, and while they have been in every game except for two, the Devs have not looked good for long stretches of games.

    Their goaltending has been disappointing, and this was expected to be an area of strength. This element will improve as Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur form one of the better duos in the game.

    The issue for the Devils will be scoring goals. They are not generating a lot of shots, and their differential is giving up almost four shots more per game than they take. If their team Corsi number doesn't improve, the Devils will be challenged to win on most nights.

    The Devils are better than their record, but it remains to be seen if they can challenge for a playoff spot this season.

New York Islanders

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can the New York Islanders start to win the close games?

    The Islanders have been in a number of tight games to start the season and have come out on the wrong end of several of these games.

    The team has been producing offensively, and its power play has been pretty effective, clicking at a rate better than 20 percent.

    The Islanders are a young team, though, and they need to learn what it takes to win these close games in the third period. The shootout losses are not worth critiquing at this stage of the season with such a small sample size.

    The Islanders do need to shore up their team defense, though, as their shot differential needs to improve.

    If their young players understand the sacrifices needed to win the tight games, including shot-blocking, taking the hit when necessary and making the simple play in the neutral zone, the Isles will be just fine.

New York Rangers

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    Biggest Question Mark: Is the New York Rangers' team defense good enough to see the team improve their current standing?

    The New York Rangers have struggled mightily under new head coach Alain Vigneault. The team has looked lost on a number of shifts, and its defensive play has not been good.

    While the goaltending, particularly from the recently waived Martin Biron, has been bad, the club has been outplayed in most games.

    The Rangers are giving up a lot of shots, and except for one or two games, Henrik Lundqvist has not been providing good goaltending. They have faced some stiff competition, which also hasn't helped his numbers.

    It must be remembered that the team is learning a new defensive system and that this will take some time. Teams are not getting the same practice time that they get in a normal season due to the Olympic break creating a compressed schedule.

    Vigneault is a very good coach, the team has some great defensemen and its defensive play will get better. 

Ottawa Senators

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    Biggest Question Mark: Do the Ottawa Senators have the players to start playing better defensive hockey?

    The Ottawa Senators have been a disciplined, puck-possession team under head coach Paul MacLean...for the most part. To start this season, that has not been the case.

    Some of this has been the schedule, which saw them head on the road and play games in Anaheim and San Jose, where they were thoroughly dominated, especially in the shot department. They also lost to the Los Angeles Kings.

    The Senators have not suddenly become a mediocre team, but they are not a top team yet. They have the players to turn this around, but the commitment to team defense must improve.

    Goaltending has not been a problem in Ottawa, but they do not have a big, dominant team that allows them to outplay the opposition regardless of the matchups. They aren't tiny by any means and need to combine their skilled play with a physical style moving forward.

    Playing at home will allow MacLean to do a better job of line-matching.

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Biggest Question Mark: Is this start to the Philadelphia Flyers' season a microcosm of the entire season?

    It is really challenging to be optimistic about the Philadelphia Flyers' season. However, they will improve in short order, as the offensive games of top players is bound to improve.

    The Flyers' team shooting percentage is barely over five percent, so that will improve soon as well. Claude Giroux has had very little luck around the net and is coming off a major hand injury.

    The team is not in a particularly strong division, so there is reason to believe that the team can turn this around if their offensive stars begin to produce. The Flyers will not challenge for a division title, but they are not an Eastern Conference bottom-feeder, either.

Phoenix Coyotes

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    Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

    Biggest Question Mark: Do the Phoenix Coyotes have enough firepower to challenge their Pacific Division rivals?

    The Phoenix Coyotes have had a good start under head coach Dave Tippett. The schedule has been quite favourable, as they have faced some weaker Eastern Conference teams to begin the 2013-14 season.  

    The Coyotes don't have a lot of star power, although they have one of the best young defensemen in the game in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Desert Dogs do not have the elite players that the other top teams have in the very good Pacific Division.

    The club has defied the odds before, but given the fact that it has been outshot in its games as a whole against relatively weak opposition, it seems unlikely that the team will be able to challenge its California rivals.

Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can Marc-Andre Fleury provide excellent goaltending that the team needs to be a top team?

    The Pittsburgh Penguins continue to play an exciting brand of hockey. Their recent game with the Edmonton Oilers featured some highly skilled offensive play from a number of players. Sidney Crosby had one of his best games of the year against the Oilers and could have had at least three or four more points.

    The Penguins have had superior goaltending from Fleury so far, but huge questions remain following his terrible playoff performances for several years now. The Penguins do not have a proven second netminder with the injury to Tomas Vokoun, so Fleury needs to carry the load for the time being.

    While the regular season does not seem to be a problem for Fleury, it will be very risky to look for him to lead them into the playoffs next spring.

    There is a lot of time between now and then, and if Fleury can play his way onto Team Canada for the Olympics, he might restore his confidence before heading into the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks

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    Biggest Question Mark: Are the San Jose Sharks the best team in the NHL?

    The San Jose Sharks have had a fantastic start to the season. They have been outshooting teams by nearly 20 shots per game and have had the best single-game performance this year from young Tomas Hertl.

    Outside of taking more than 40 shots per contest, the Sharks do not have any other real spikes in their numbers. Their team shooting percentage, just over 11 percent, may drop, but if their shot totals continue, it won't be a significant issue.

    The Sharks have been able to integrate some young and talented players onto their roster, and Antti Niemi has had a stellar start to the season.

    There is every reason to believe that the Sharks are the best team in the league following their dominant performance against the St. Louis Blues.  

St. Louis Blues

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    Biggest Question Mark: Are the St. Louis Blues goaltenders good enough to lead the team to a division title?

    The St. Louis Blues have an excellent hockey team. They are well-coached and have one of the biggest and most skilled teams in the league.

    Despite these attributes, they were soundly defeated by the San Jose Sharks this past week, and their goaltending remains a question mark in some ways. The team save percentage, despite having an excellent defense corps and team defense, is only .910.

    Both Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have played well in the past, but neither goalie has helped lead their team to a championship.

    They should get that opportunity to do so this year, as the Blues have one of the most talented teams in the league. Their biggest challenge might be to defeat their division rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can the Tampa Bay Lightning keep up with the top Atlantic Division teams?

    The Tampa Bay Lightning have scored a lot of goals to start the season. Their only losses have been to two of the better teams in the Eastern Conference—the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins.

    In the Boston loss, the Lightning actually outplayed the Bruins for much of the game. The Lightning have not had a positive shot differential to date, but if any team has enough skill to overcome this over the long haul, it's the Bolts.

    Superstars Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos are playing all-world hockey right now, and both have proven they can sustain this all year. The Lightning have also had good goaltending, which will need to continue if the Lightning are to make next spring's playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Biggest Question Mark: Can the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to lead the Atlantic Division?

    The Toronto Maple Leafs are off to a strong start with six wins in the first seven games. The Leafs have created all kinds of scoring chances, and their goaltending tandem has played very well. The team save percentage is at .934, but that number will be challenging to sustain.

    Because the team has had such a flair for scoring big goals, this has masked the underlying reality that it's being badly outplayed and outshot in many games. The Leafs have managed to produce almost 29 shots per game but have given up an average of 34.6 shots to opposing teams.

    The Leafs have a young defense group that continues to mature.

    Their commitment to team defense has to improve if they hope to stay atop the division standings in the coming months. Randy Carlyle will not accept anything less than much better defensive play.

Vancouver Canucks

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    Biggest Question Mark: Do the Vancouver Canucks have enough scoring depth?

    The Canucks are off to an uneven start. They have looked dominant at times, but against top competition, they have not fared very well.

    Their goaltending has not been even average so far, but even more concerning is the lack of scoring depth. Henrik and Daniel Sedin continue to be elite scorers, but after that, the other forwards have struggled to register points.

    The Canucks have some dynamic defenseman, but they lack forwards that can consistently put the puck in the net. Ryan Kesler has the potential to do so, but he has yet to break out this year.

    There are some promising prospects in the system, but the Canucks may have to look to make a trade or two to get some depth scoring.

Washington Capitals

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    Biggest Question Mark: Are the Washington Capital goaltenders up to the task?

    The Capitals have been a roller coaster of a team so far. Despite a strong finish to last season, they seem to be lost at times under head coach Adam Oates.

    The team is producing enough offensive chances with its top offensive players, especially Alex Ovechkin, playing well. But the Caps' team defense has not been good. 

    Their goaltending has also been suspect, with neither Braden Holtby nor Michal Neuvirth putting up good numbers. Both goalies are under .900 in terms of save percentage and have to be better if the Capitals are going to win some games.

    Holtby has shown that he can be a top goalie. If the team can cut down on their shots against, the Capitals' fortunes should change.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Biggest Question Mark: Are the Winnipeg Jets better than a middle-of-the-pack team?

    The Winnipeg Jets can look like one of the better teams in the league at times, but later in the same period, they can be awful. It's a similar scenario to the 20-goal scorer who looks wonderful when he gets a hat trick but then disappears for 10 or 15 games.

    The Jets have some excellent young talent at all positions, but they cannot seem to get it all working together in one direction.

    The talent is there to challenge for the third spot in the Central Division, but until they commit to playing tighter defensively in their own zone, they will not be successful against the best teams in the league.

    The team statistics are mostly in the 15th– to 18th–place slots and are destined to stay there unless they can reduce their shots against by at least two or three per game.

    The team must adhere to Claude Noel's defensive system for entire games rather than intermittently if it hopes to be anything but average.


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