NHL: The Friday Five For 25 January

TAKING THE SPOTLIGHT: The play of the Blackhawks has put the rest of the NHL on notice

BY JEFF ANGUS

My weekly hockey roundup continues, and now that the NHL has returned, my focus will of course be on that instead of European hockey or the AHL. A lot has happened over the past seven days in the NHL – injuries, surprise performances, rookies standing out, and much, much more.

Read on to find out my thoughts on five stories that have dominated headlines over the past week.

5. THE BLACKHAWKS SOAR
Chicago Blackhawks to Win the Stanley Cup +700
Chicago has been hands down the best team in the NHL through the first four games of the season. And a major reason for that has been the play of two players – Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. This is the best Hossa has looked in over three years, and Kane looks ready to contend for a scoring title. The two players capped off an impressive first week with a dominant shift that led to the overtime winner in Dallas on Thursday night.

If Chicago can get steady goaltending from Corey Crawford and/or Ray Emery, the rest of the Western Conference is in trouble. Checking center Dave Bolland has shown he has the offense to play a top six role. Now that he is centering the second line, Chicago doesn’t really have any weaknesses on their roster. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are once again anchoring the defense, and Nick Leddy has emerged as a very good top four defenseman as well (Minnesota must be kicking themselves for moving him in exchange for Cam Barker a few years ago).

4. THE ROBERTO LUONGO TRADE SAGA
Vancouver Canucks at Anaheim Ducks (-138, 5.5)
A week into the season and the Luongo trade speculation has yet to die down even just a bit. With every passing day, it seems that more and more teams show interest in acquiring Vancouver’s former starting goaltender. Toronto has received inconsistent goaltending from Ben Scrivens this season. Devan Dubnyk has been solid for the Oilers, save for the meltdown against San Jose. Corey Crawford has been good for Chicago. Florida’s goaltending has been a bit suspect. There will come a point in time where one of those teams (or perhaps a mystery contender) will step up their offer for Luongo, and that is what Mike Gillis is waiting for.

The question is, how long does he wait? Cory Schneider is a great goalie and is Vancouver’s starter, but he needs to have a bit of leash. With Luongo behind him, he knows that even with one bad start he is going to be sitting the next night.

3. NOT LOOKING LIKE ROOKIES
I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised by the caliber of play from many rookies around the league. After all, all NHL rookies spent the lockout playing hockey somewhere, whether it was in Europe, the AHL, or in major junior. Nail Yakupov and Vladimir Tarasenko have gone from dominating the KHL to doing the same in the NHL. Dougie Hamilton has gone from a top pairing OHL defenseman to a top pairing NHL defenseman. And Swiss scoring sensation Damien Brunner has gone from lighting the lamp in Switzerland to doing the same in Detroit. These rookies have the benefit of not being as rusty as many of their veteran counterparts, who spent the majority of the lockout off the ice and in the gym (or the bar).

Do you think Yakupov is enjoying his time in the NHL?

2. SENS-ATIONAL PLAY IN OTTAWA
Ottawa Senators at Tampa Bay Lightning (-150, 5.5)

The Senators are doing a great job of proving that last season’s surprise playoff appearance was no fluke. They have gotten off to a quick 3-0 start backed by Craig Anderson, who has been sensational in between the pipes. Anderson is one of the best goalies in the league when he is on his game, and he has quieted any rumblings of a goalie controversy in Ottawa… for now. Swedish rookie Robin Lehner believes he is ready to be an NHL starter, and if his play in the AHL this season is any indication, he is. Ottawa has a bit of a logjam at the position though, as Ben Bishop is currently serving as Anderson’s back up.

Ottawa has been led by Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza, much like they were a season ago. Defenseman Marc Methot, who was acquired from Columbus last summer, has transitioned seamlessly to Ottawa’s top pairing alongside Karlsson. Karlsson’s old partner Filip Kuba is now in Florida and many were wondering if Methot would be able to serve as an adequate replacement. The early answer is a resounding yes. Swedish rookie Jakob Silfverberg has looked to be anything but. He is playing with a lot of confidence, and is averaging over 16 minutes of ice time per contest.

1. INJURIES
Just as many expected, injuries have already begun to play a huge role in the 2013 NHL season. Colorado has lost winger Steve Downie for the rest of the season. Los Angeles will be without Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene for a while. The Flyers are without Scott Hartnell for a few months after he broke his foot. Detroit’s defensive depth is already being tested, as both Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo are out with injuries.

While these injuries are tough to overcome, they also lead to larger opportunities for young players. The Flyers are hoping that Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn can step up in Hartnell’s absence. Detroit is hoping that young defensemen Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl can play top four minutes until their veteran defensemen return.

The injuries will only continue to mount in a season that started late and features a very condensed schedule. The team that emerges with the Stanley Cup in a few months may not be the best on paper, but you can bet it will be among the healthiest.