Many clubs in pro hockey can claim 'Best Team' title

Jan 29, 2013 3:07 AM

The best team in the National Hockey League? Based on the early results, several clubs can assert the claim.

Chicago is really brewing with a 6-0-0 mark following an 8th straight 1-goal game against arch-rival Detroit. It’s the best start since the founding of the franchise in 1926. By the way, the original owner of the Blackhawks was a coffee tycoon back in the Roaring 20’s, hence the brewing reference.

San Jose, a team with a ton of question marks entering the season, is 5-0-0, including a weekend slugfest triumph over Vancouver. The Sharks also are off to their best start ever.

Meanwhile, Boston and New Jersey are running strong at 3-0-1, while St. Louis and Tampa Bay are 4-1-0 out of the blocks.

Our pick for the best team – at least for now – is the Sharks, and for more reasons than just the on-ice team itself.

Although a major disappointment in Stanley Cup Playoffs play for more than a decade, San Jose tweaked its personality this offseason, gaining quick results.

Go back to the final week of the regular season last April, when the Sharks played a home-and-home series against the Los Angeles Kings. Although the Sharks won both times, L.A. beat them up and carried that style throughout their Cup run.

It also showed opponents how to beat San Jose in the playoffs, which St. Louis accomplished. So Sharks management made the team tougher, both on the ice and on the bench.

On defense, the acquisition of Brad Stuart – originally a Sharks draft selection – from Detroit has taken a ton of pressure off Dan Boyle and gives San Jose a pair of solid defensive lines in front of goalie Antti Niemi.

With Niemi, San Jose holds the edge over the Hawks, despite a fast start by their goalie Corey Crawford…but will it last? History says it won’t.

When handicapping, I also look at goaltending and defense first. For the general public, their eyes are bright following the record start by Patrick Marleau.

The left-winger opened the year with two goals in each of the Sharks’ first four games. The feat was accomplished just one other time, in the NHL’s first season as a pro league in 1917-18 by Hall of Famer Cy Denneny of the original Ottawa Senators.

Marleau, better known as a passer, has nine goals in five games. Joining him are C Joe Thornton and RW Joe Pavelski on the league’s highest-scoring line.

Plus, the team “fields” players on the second and third lines – Logan Couture, Martin Havlat, Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus, among others – which can also find the back of the net. In addition, the Sharks recently signed free agent Scott Gomez, who was bought out by Montreal. Gomez adds a ton of experience, but won’t be needed to carry the scoring load.

There are also other intangibles, starting with associate coach Larry Robinson. The Hall of Fame defenseman can find his name on the Stanley Cup several times as a player, head coach and assistant coach. If Robinson speaks, you listen to the former Conn Smythe Trophy recipient.

Another San Jose advantage is the intraconference schedule.

While Chicago is marred in a division that saw four teams earn 100 or more points last season (only five in the Western Conference did so in 2011-12), the Pacific Division may have slipped a notch.

Anaheim has trouble on the defensive end, forcing them to seek help in 30-year-old rookie goalie Viktor Fasth, the three-time Swedish Elite League goalie of the year (just like the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist – that’s pretty good company). After allowing an early, nervous goal, Fasth bounced back to capture his debut last Saturday in a shootout win over Nashville.

Phoenix is hurting on offense, then goalie Mike Smith got hurt. And L.A. is reverting back to last season when they couldn’t score, while C Anze Kopitar may need to play in a knee brace for the balance of the shortened season.

Plus, San Jose is in the middle of a nine-game stretch without leaving California. So this is a team to look toward until a big Midwest trip starting Feb. 11. The six-game trip includes a pair of stops (non-consecutive) in Chicago, so mark down your hockey calendar.

Notepad

Philadelphia Flyers: Except for a 7-goal effort at Florida, the Flyers have just six goals in five other games. This is a good team to go against before the line adjusts.

New Jersey Devils: Another good team, record-wise, to start betting against, the Devils’ early victories were against some goal-scoring hampered sides in the Flyers, Capitals and the N.Y. Islanders, then they blew a weekend game at Montreal.

Winnipeg Jets: Good at home, yet improving on the road. And despite the travel schedule, a weak Southeast Division (no playoffs for Washington), the Jets could contend for the final playoff berth.

Contact Nick at [email protected].

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