NHL: The Friday Five for 8 February

ON AGELESS WINGS: Senior Statesmen Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne have been major contributors to the Ducks strong  start to the season

BY JEFF ANGUS

In today’s instalment of the Friday Five, I take a look at the dominant Chicago Blackhawks, the surprising Anaheim Ducks, whether Ryan Nugent Hopkins needs to worry about a recurring shoulder injury, and more.

5. BLACKHAWKS MAKING IT LOOK EASY
Chicago Blackhawks to win Western Conference +280
The Chicago Blackhawks continue to be the class of the NHL. They are getting solid goaltending from both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. Their defense is a great balance of skill, mobility, and size/toughness. And up front, they have a handful of players that are routinely making opposing defenses look silly (not many other teams can say that). Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane are each legitimate superstar forwards. Patrick Sharp isn’t far behind, either.

And after the big four, Chicago is getting contributions from rookie Brandon Saad, gritty center Dave Bolland, and depth forwards like Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Shaw. Kane and Hossa in particular have been absolutely dominant, and I don’t think there is a team in the league that is looking forward to facing the Blackhawks right now.

Through 11 games, Chicago has let to lose a regulation game (9-0-2). And Kane isn’t playing this season with a mouth guard hanging out the side of his mouth all of the time. Coincidence?

4. ALEX SEMIN THRIVING IN CAROLINA
Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Fylers (-150, 5.5)
After struggling in his final year with the Capitals, Semin was looking for a fresh start last summer. He has found it in Carolina, where his solid start to the season has flown under the radar. Semin has seven points in nine games (only two goals), but he is creating a ton of scoring chances and has looked great alongside Eric Staal on the top scoring unit. He is also playing a ton, averaging 21:32 per contest.

Semin’s ice time dwindled down over his final three years there, and he played less than 17 minutes a night under Dale Hunter in 2011-12. His career shooting percentage is 14, and he is only scoring in five percent of the shots he has taken thus far in 2013. Expect the goals to start going in with a bit more regularity.

Raleigh is a good fit for Semin, who is from a very small town in Russia. He is never comfortable with media attention or being in the limelight, and he can fly well under the radar in Carolina, where the Staal brothers and Jeff Skinner attract most of the attention.

3. BRUCE BOUDREAU HAS THE DUCKS FLYING
Anaheim Ducks at Dallas Stars (-120, 5)
Put your hands up if you had the Anaheim Ducks pegged for a 7-1-1 record after nine games? No hands? I thought so. Boudreau has the surprising Ducks playing great hockey at both ends of the ice. He is getting contributions from his top six forwards, the free agent signings on the back end are fitting in (Sheldon Souray offensively and Bryan Allen defensively), and 30-year-old rookie goaltender Viktor Fasth has been a revelation in the early going, winning his first four career NHL starts. Not to mention the inspired performances of seasoned veterans Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne.

The Ducks currently lead the NHL with a 1.83 goals for/against ratio at even strength – their hot start is no fluke. Now they just need to figure out a way to get Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to sign new contracts before they become free agents this summer…

2. BOTTOM’S UP IN WASHINGTON
Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals (-138, 5.5) 
The fall from the top for the Capitals could be an excellent case study in how to screw up a professional hockey franchise. I’ll give you the Coles Notes version:

  • Washington builds a dynamic offensive club capable of outscoring anybody. In 2008-09 the Capitals average 3.27 goals for per game, good enough for third in the NHL.
  • The next season, the Capitals win a league-high 54 games, and they average an incredible 3.82 goals per game. However, they run into a white-hot Jaroslav Halak in the postseason, and lose a hard-fought series to the surprising Montreal Canadiens.
  • Instead of accepting the fact they ran into a hot goalie, the Capitals decide to radically change their playing style to more of a two-way, tighter-checking team.
  • The early returns are OK – in 2010-11, they win 48 games, but their goals for output drops to only 2.67 per game. And last season the Capitals won only 42 games, and they averaged only 2.66 goals per game.

Not only did the organizational shift not work, but it made little sense. Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Semin all struggled (and continue to struggle) to change their games – if you own a Ferrari, why would you drive it like a Honda? Washington didn’t have the players necessary to play the style that GM George McPhee wanted, so he tried to get his players to all change how they play. And as we continue to see, that is easier said than done (especially with two coaching changes in 18 months).

This seems oh so long, long ago:

1. THE NUGE’S SHOULDER
Edmonton Oilers at Detroit Red Wings (-175, 5.5)
Is anyone in Edmonton worried about Ryan Nugent Hopkins’ recurring shoulder issue? It came up at the World Juniors during a physical, but he decided to play. Is it something he has been playing with for a few years, like Taylor Hall and his torn labrum (which he had fixed last year). I can see why Edmonton wouldn’t want Nugent-Hopkins to get the surgery right now, as the timetable for a recovery is four-to-six months, but are they doing any long-term damage by not addressing what is developing into a chronic issue? He may not have a labrum tear like Hall did, but if he doesn’t correct whatever problem he is suffering from, it is probably headed in that direction.

Edmonton claims that they have his shoulder issue “under control.” How reassuring.

Taylor Hall had his left shoulder surgically repaired last April. Ales Hemsky had his right shoulder repaired in 2010-11, which was just one year after he had the left one dealt with. Shawn Horcoff, too, has had to have work done on a shoulder.

But, for now, the Oilers are going to use an off-ice program designed to strengthen the area in the hopes that Nugent-Hopkins can continue playing.

He will get four days off between games by the time the puck is dropped in Detroit and next week — the Oilers have a three-day gap between games. That’s another stretch that has been targeted as a point where the 19-year-old will concentrate on more off-ice work.