Adjusting to Success

D'Arcy McGrath

October 17th, 2001

Just when does a good start morph into a good team?

When do fans and followers stop expecting that big nasty other foot to drop, and just accept success as a new visitor in town?

When does the media across the continent begin to take a look at a down trodden team with different eyes, giving credit to players and coaches for altering a team's success and beginning a new chapter?

Likely not yet.

The Calgary Flames have burst out of the gate with a solid 4-1-0-1 record leaving many a fan and pundit with mouths a gape.

And ... they're not alone.

Similar starts from the Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders, and Montreal Canadiens have managed to set the NHL, it's writers, and every web site's power rankings on their collective ear, reeling to make sense of a NHL world flipped upside down.

The sheer number of teams in the "feel good story" mix acts as an excellent tonic for runaway expectations, and setting oneself up for a the inevitable and likely painful fall. Suspect success across the board makes the whole event seem surreal.

No one expects the four teams mentioned to be where they currently sit when the dust settles in April.

Chances are at least two of these teams, and possibly three, will still manage to find a way to miss the playoffs, turning their great start into just a mere footnote in a season gone very, very wrong.

Or ... perhaps they won't.

Every bad team becomes good sometime. The Philadelphia Flyers missed the playoffs for six straight years before jumping to contender status for the last six.

The Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs four successive seasons before making the post season each of the past five.

For one or more of these "bad" teams, their time might be now.

The question is who and why?

Smoke or Substance

An off-season riddled with player transactions is sure to see an adjustment period for many teams. A camp that succeeds in familiarizing players with their new teammates, and line combinations can go a long way to catching teams off guard in early October.

A good schedule doesn't hurt either.

The New York Islanders started the season with four straight road wins. The team gained confidence in their new personnel by besting a pair of weak Florida teams and the struggling Penguins before surprising the Devils in Jersey. Since then they've dropped an overtime game at home to the Hasek led Wings. The recipe? Confidence early against weaker or struggling opponents leading to success against tougher opponents.

Both the Canadiens and Flames relied on goaltending to get off to a good start, moved on to besting weak opponents, and finally surprised some more formidable foes with a mix of confidence and stellar defensive play.

Without Jeff Hackett standing on his head in Ottawa to start the season, the Canadiens could easily be 1-4-1 instead of 4-1-1.

Similarly Roman Turek's opening night performance gave the Flames a momentum building win over the Oilers, but would the start have been as strong had they dropped that provincial battle to kick off their season? With a city and an organization used to seeing face plants out of the gate, winning the first provides benefits impossible to measure.

Special Teams

NHL crackdowns on clutching and grabbing were supposed to bring the skill back to the forefront.

Without being shackled one would suspect high budget teams laced with stars, to begin to dominate the league leaving the smaller market clubs blown out on a nightly basis.

To this point this hasn't been the case.

Coaching has a larger say in outcomes today than likely any other era in the league's history.

A sound five on five system with above average special teams can even the playing field, propelling perennial also-rans up the standings.

High budget teams expect to win, and to this point have had less discipline, putting their squads short more often than they should.

Most of the league's early season surprise teams have exceptional records in both special team categories.

The Islanders have the league's number one powerplay, and the fifth rated penalty kill.

The Canadians have the NHL's top kill team, and the sixth best powerplay.

Minnesota? The third best powerplay and the 14th rated penalty kill.

The Flames stand out with the worst special teams in this group, sitting 8th and 15th respectively - in the top half but not dominant on either side of the puck. In a sense the Flames are getting more done five on five than when someone is cooling their heals in the sin bin.

Only six teams in the National Hockey League have positive differentials in goals for both even strength and special teams play; a sign that these teams are firing on all cylinders.

These teams include the Flames, Islanders, Canadiens, Wings, Bruins, and Hurricanes, yet they haven't all had the same level of success.

Who Will Last?

Can this fairy tale last? It's impossible to say.

The Flames, Habs and Wild are relying on great goaltending to get the job done. Should the great goaltending run out, so to will their playoff chances - but who's to say that it will? Many teams have had solid goaltending for entire seasons, and it just might be a weak sister's turn to receive similar success.

In the meantime little credit will be given to these teams in the early going. Their preceding seasons suggest failure is imminently just around the corner, with that other shoe, mentioned above, poised and ready to stomp.

A funny thing happens with starts though; the longer they go on the bigger impact they have on a regular season record.

Six games is only six games, but eight is basically 1/10 of a team's schedule; before long a month is gone and the teams are flipping the calendar to November.

A sustained start can be the difference when time runs out in April.

Winning is infectious, the longer the bug stays the more drastic the change in expectations and fortune.

All bad teams evolve at some point, each of these four clubs are hoping that point is now.