NHL TALES OF HALLOWEEN HORROR.
It's that time of year again, folks! A time when ghosts, goblins and
monsters prepare to prowl the land, when the telling of chilling
tales becomes popular.
And like every year at this time, some NHL teams (and their fans)
make the frightening realization that all is not well, when their
game is bedeviled by terrors seemingly beyond their control, where
avenues of escape are limited and the wrong decisions could doom
Given that this season is the first after the long nightmare that was
the recent player lockout, heightened anticipation was the dominant
feeling amongst many fans. The NHL was up and running again, new
rules promised to make the game more exciting, and there were teams
that went into this season with high expectations.
Take the Calgary Flames, 2004 Stanley Cup finalists and Western
Conference champions, whose followers had every reason to be excited
about their club's prospects heading into this season.
The Flames are led by Jarome Iginla, whom The Hockey News itself
dubbed "the best player in the world". They'd also re-signed
goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, whose stellar play made the Flames march
to the Finals possible, to a long-term contract. The Flames also
possessed what many experts and observers (including yours truly)
considered the best blueline corps in the game, and management had
added veteran depth at forward to help Iginla carry the offensive
Best of all for the Flames, they'd done it by spending wisely,
leaving themselves plenty of cap space to not only cover off
potential injuries, but also to perhaps qualify for some revenue
sharing at season's end.
But as the NHL schedule approaches Halloween, Flames fans have been
the victims of cruel tricks and few treats so far.
After 13 games, the Flames have 10 points, sitting 12th overall in
the Western Conference as of this writing.
Iginla leads the team in goals and points, but the former Richard and
Art Ross winner is nowhere to be found in the top forty points list,
and while he's among the top fifty goalscorers, he's done near the
bottom of the list with five goals in 13 games.
At least "Iggy" is leading the team in scoring as expected. He's been
getting inconsistent help from linemates Tony Amonte and Daymond
Langkow while the rest of the Flames forwards have been firing
popguns, particularly on the powerplay.
And with the exception of rookie standout Dion Phaneuf, their
blueline corps hasn't been the dominant force many believe it would
be prior to the start of the season.
Roman Hamrlik sits second in team scoring, but he hasn't been played
as well as hoped. Robyn Regehr has missed most of October with a knee
injury and his absence has hurt them. Jordan Leopold hasn't regained
his strong form from 2003-04, while the rest of the "d" has also been
Kiprusoff got off to a slow start earlier in the month, but
thankfully for the Flames appears to have regained his form in the
All may not be lost for the Flames, of course. "Kipper's" improvement
bodes well for the rest of the season, Iginla is notorious for slow
starts and should catch fire as the season progresses, and Regehr's
return in the next couple of weeks should provide a welcome boost to
the blueline corps.
But this slow start does have more than a few Flames fans worried
that this team which gave them so much hope in that wild spring of
2004 may have been a one-trick pony, one that has turned into a
broken-down nag that may not make it to the post-season, let alone
another miracle run to the Finals.
The woes of the Flames, however, pale in comparison to those of the
Atlanta Thrashers, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins and the
Flames hated provincial rivals, the Edmonton Oilers.
It's one thing for a team to come off a heady, miracle trip to the
Stanley Cup finals and have a slow start. It's another for teams that
build frenetically in the off-season and boosting post-season hopes
only to see them in danger of being dashed early.
The Thrashers, Blackhawks, Penguins and Oilers raised plenty of
eyebrows as well as expectations in the shortened off-season
following the ratification of the new CBA with their player
The Thrashers had added veterans Marian Hossa, Bobby Holik, Peter
Bondra and Greg de Vries. With the mid-month resigning of star Ilya
Kovalchuk and the promising Kari Lehtonen between the pipes, they
were expected to challenge for top spot in the Southeast Division.
The Blackhawks brought in Nikolai Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin, Martin
Lapointe and Jassen Cullimore to boost their previously sagging
defence. With promising young forwards like Tyler Arnason, Kyle
Calder, Tuomo Ruutu and Mark Bell joined by returning veteran Eric
Daze, the 'Hawks finally appeared poised to ice a balanced club that
would bring back the Chicago faithful.
The Oilers made news early in August with their stunning acqusitions
of expensive veterans Chris Pronger and Mike Peca, whose leadership
and experience were to boost the young Oilers roster. Perhaps in no
other NHL city were expectations as high as they were in Edmonton.
Well, perhaps in one other NHL city: Pittsburgh. The long-suffering
fans in the Steel City must've thought Christmas had arrived in July
when their club won the draft lottery and the rights to teen phenom
Sidney Crosby. Team owner and captain Mario Lemieux was coming back
for another season. Best of all, management engaged in a free-agent
spending spree that had never been seen of this financially troubled
Thanks to the new CBA, the Pens were major players in the UFA market,
snapping up Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Sergei Gonchar, and Lyle
Odelein and obtaining Jocelyn Thibault in a trade with Chicago.
Suddenly, this team went from doormat to given serious consideration
by some observers as a potential Cup contender.
Sadly, the veteran depth brought in by these clubs only serve as sore
points as these clubs struggled and stumbled through the month of
The Thrashers goaltending woes due to injuries have been well-
documented, but what's been overlooked is the fact this team's
overall defensive game, in a nutshell, sucks.
In Chicago, Khabibulin has yet to play even remotely close to the
form that carried the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup.
Injuries have also taken their toll on young (Ruutu, Calder) and old
(Aucoin, Daze) alike.
The Oilers goaltending problems and lack of scoring punch have also
been well-documented, as well as providing endless fodder for the
trade rumour mill.
But the struggles of the Penguins have been the most newsworthy, with
the sole bright spot the play of Crosby, who has not only led his
team in scoring but is also emerging as an on-ice leader.
Put simply, the Penguins have lacked good goaltending and defence and
have seemingly lacked chemistry, as their sole win in 11 games
These respective horrific starts was not what the fans of these clubs
had envisioned, nor was it expected by their respective front
offices, who must surely be feeling the heat as October turns into
Finally, there are the teams that for years have dominated the NHL
which are finding themselves in the unlikely position of struggling
early for a playoff berth.
The New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers were expected to retain
what has for the last ten seasons been seemingly their rightful place
among the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
The St. Louis Blues, long a dominant force in the West, had lost much
of their offensive punch in recent years, but their goaltending and
defensive depth were expected to keep them in playoff contention.
Instead, this has been a month these teams and their fans would
The Devils blueline was hurt by the twin losses of the Two Scotts
(Niedermayer and Stevens). Worse, their once-vaunted defensive game
struggled under the new NHL rules, as all-star goalie Martin Brodeur
faced more rubber than he's been used to over the years, while the
club's offence sputtered.
They've also been dogged by trade rumours, for when forward Patrik
Elias returns, they'll have to dump salary to make room for him.
Still, the Devils only sit 9th overall in the East, and presently
have 12 points in 11 games. They appear to be rounding back into form
but also faced a scary situation when Brodeur sprained a knee late in
the month, although it's not expected to keep him out of the lineup
for too long.
The Philadelphia Flyers were a team that also made a lot of noise in
the off-season by signing free agents Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher
and Mike Rathje.
Given their already deep roster, the Flyers were being considered by
many to be the "Beasts of the East". Instead, the Flyers have been
scary for the wrong reasons.
Forsberg has played as well as expected and Rathje appears to have
adapted well to the new NHL rules, but Hatcher appears to be
struggling, getting caught flat-footed at times by speedy forwards
freed from obstruction.
The Flyers aren't having trouble scoring, and while their defensive
game needs some adjustment, it should improve over time. The real
worry, however, is between the pipes.
Goalies Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki have not looked sharp, as
their stats to date clearly show. Esche was coming off a strong 2003-
04 season, a solid performance in the 2004 playoffs as well as being
one of the few bright spots for Team USA in the 2004 World Cup of
Niittymaki meanwhile was one of the top goalies in the AHL and a key
reason for the Flyers farm team, the Phantoms, winning the Calder Cup
Expectations were high for these two, as it was believed that
finally, the Flyers had the quality goaltending needed to carry them
to their first championship in over thirty years.
Instead, Esche and Niittymaki have been brutal, struggling to adapt
to the NHL's new offensive minded style. If their play fails to
noticeably improve as the season wears on, they could become the
Flyers achilles heel.
Finally, there's the Blues, who find themselves dead last in the
Western Conference by end October.
The Blues have been, in a word, awful. Nothing has gone right for
them. Perhaps the best example of their woes has been the saga of
Keith Tkachuk, their best scoring winger, who reported to camp
overweight and earned a two-week suspension, and then cracked his
ribs in a recent game after being back for only two.
Given their lack of offensive punch, average goaltending and
struggling defensive game, as well as the uncertainty over the sale
of the franchise, this figures to be a long, miserable year for Blues
Some of you might be wondering why the Washington Capitals and
Columbus Blue Jackets haven't been featured in this compilation. Put
simply, expectations weren't that high for these clubs going into the
season, and since this year's Halloween theme is high expectations
cruelly dashed early, they don't fall into that category.
Now I know some of the fans of these clubs I've singled out are still
optimistic. Some of you may write in to remind me that it's only one
month into the season, that there's plenty of time for the fortunes
of these clubs to turn around.
Indeed, I'd written not two weeks ago that fans of struggling teams
shouldn't work themselves into a panic yet, that it was far too early
in the season to get worked up over a bad start.
I still believe that, but this is Halloween, the scary season, and to
sing "Don't Worry Be Happy" doesn't seem appropriate here when it's
the time of year for fear.
Yes, it's possible most of these clubs could reverse their fortunes,
that these Halloween horror stories could have happy endings by
But it's also possible that their early stumbles could be signs of
real problems ahead, which could mean a season of hope becomes a
nightmarish one best left forgotten.
Happy Halloween, everyone.