While it’s tough to pick three guys who had months that weren’t as good as we hoped, it is still possible.

Daniel Paille:

While he wasn’t alone in failing to compete in the early goings of game one, he’s certainly paid the most for it. Last year he plaid on all four lines and threatened to live up to his first round draft pick pedigree. Last season he led the teams penalty killing efforts to good effect and a solid chunk of ice time. This year he’s been replaced by a third round pick who came into the season with twenty NHL games played and not a single goal.  He clearly hasn’t impressed the coaching staff enough in practice to make Marchand’s stay on the roster temporary.

Patrice Bergeron:

With the preseason he had, including a five point game, and a contract extension one would hope he’d come charging out of the gates. Sadly this was not the case. It took five games for the recently resigned center to get his first point of the season, and after eight he’s got just four points. He’s also third of the four centers on the team in faceoffs. He’s actually under 50% in the faceoff dot for the first time in years. One has to wonder how many more points he’d have if he could win a few more faceoffs.

Tuukka Rask:

Like Paille, he’s been a victim of team play. Unlike Paille he’s gotten the chance to rectify his sloppy first game. Unfortunately for Rask and Bruins fans everywhere, the second game was not better than the first. Two of the goals he let in against the Rangers were rather fluky but the other was one he should have had. His play through two games this season is reminding fans rather pointedly of his post season meltdown against the Flyers. Is this a sophomore slump? Is it just the team playing poorly in front of him? Or was Rask just brought along too quickly? Only time will tell.

Central:

Detroit:

The Grey Red Wings are hands down the oldest team in the NHL. With nine players 35 or older on the roster to start the season one has to wonder if there is enough heat left to make the team viable. I suspect the answer to that is no, certainly they are no longer contenders, but they are savvy enough to expose younger teams like Colorado, Nashville, and Columbus on a regular basis. They are also deep into “cap jail” with less than a million in cap space. Last years 102 points is probably they last time they hit the century mark for a season or two.

Columbus:

This teams position is improved almost without their own efforts. Detroit is older and creakier, Chicago is less deep and in theory sated and exhausted by a championship winning post season. Nashville had their captain and best offensive player smacked around by the oh-so-rugged Evgani Malkin in the preseason and who knows what’s going on in Saint Louis… That said they got back Nikita Filatov and his explosive speed and shot and Steve Mason’s likely looking to build on his reemergence late last season.

Chicago:

With the long discussed post Cup salary dump the BlackHawks are undeniably a much different team than the one who brought the rest of the hockey world to it’s knees. It remains to be seen if they are as capable. They have improved their goaltending by jettisoning Niemi and picking up the still hungry, Turco. And their true core is still largely in tact with Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook all still ready to answer the bell. Sharp, Hossa, Hjalmarsson, the rest will have to see if they can replace the contributions of the traded Sopel, Byfuglien, and Versteeg.

Nashville

This is a make or break year for the Music City. With years of failing to make the playoffs and then being knocked out early, there have to be major changes if the core of the team can’t drag it into at least the second round. This probably means that there will be major off season changes come next June. A forward group that features Flames and Leafs castoff Jamie Lundmark, the always news worthy Sergei Kostitsyn and Jordin Tootoo to support Weber, Suter, Hornquist, and Erat isn’t exactly inspiring. And yet, last season they finished with a strong 100 points. Don’t be surprised by this team, good or bad. They may not have much up front, but they arguably have the best top defensive pairing in the NHL.

Saint Louis

After a legendary run to vault from last place to sixth in the west they fell short of the playoffs last year with play that was mostly mediocre. Not much changed in the off season. Well, except they picked up a goal tender who can just short of win playoff series himself. Jaroslav Halak is probably the single biggest reason to expect this team to make the post season. The biggest reason to expect them to miss out again is their hot and cold running forwards. Brad Boyes went from 33 goals to 14 over the last two seasons, and newly acquired Vladimir Sobotka is capable of playing well enough to make a fierce claim upon a number two center spot on most NHL rosters, and also of making one wonder how he ever got called up. On top of that last season offensive bulwarks MacDonald and Perron were a combined -19 on a team that despite mediocre goaltending managed to score more than it allowed.

Southeast:

Atlanta:

When there’s a post Cup fire sale, there’s always a team that benefits most. Atlanta is that team. They grabbed defenseman Brent Sopel, defenseman turned forward turned defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Eager for in exchange for spare parts and acquired draft picks. That said, the Caps and Panthers had better defense in the division last season, and with the additions to their defense, particularly as both men can skate they have a very good chance of making the playoffs. Alexander Burmistrov’s signing adds yet more spice to the Evander Kane, Little, Bergfors contingent. Anyone who writes this team off for lacking a superstar is probably doomed to fall to them.

Florida:

Well, they drafted well, but they still gave up a solid fourth line center and penalty killer in Greg Campbell, and former 30 goal scoring Nathan Horton. On top of this they lost hit machine Dennis Siedenberg, and shot blocking maestro Jordan Leopold. Their supposedly notable acquisitions include, Marty Reasoner, Chris Higgins, and the redoubtable Denis Wideman, sounds like a roster made for the lottery. Almost certainly the worst team in the NHL as their roster stands.

Tampa Bay

A lot of this teams fortunes depend on three people. One, Vincent Lecavelier. Can he return to the form that had him earning mention as one of the top players in the NHL? And can Mike Smith and Dan Ellis put together a backstop to a shaky defense and make the team a playoff contender? If the answer is yes, to each question their climb out of the basement might be quick enough to save us yet another season of the “Vinny to Montreal” rumors we all know and love, and possibly even spare us a fresh round of “relocate the sunbelt teams to Canada”, I’m slotting them into third in the division.

Carolina:

With the injury buy already gnawing the bones of the Canes roster, its tough to see how this already thin team can make any positive moves this year. Staal will be again expected to throw the team, and hockey in the entire state on his shoulders and carry them to the playoffs. With a defense that has to rely on Joe Corvo for name recognition, and probably the ceiling for it’s quality its doubtful the Canes can combine that and an offense that starts, and nearly stops with Staal to do anything worthwhile in front of the enigmatic and mercurial Cam Ward.

Washington:

The Capitals are largely unchanged from last season. Ovechkin being named captain probably counts as the biggest change from the start of last season to this one. Knowledgeable Capitals fans probably watched the playoffs and off season in horror as GM George McFee did squat to implement a defense worthy of the name. Sure the front office can point to youngsters Alzner and Carlson and call it improvement via draft and development, but this is a bill of goods unrivaled in the NHL this season. Well, except maybe for Backstrom being named a top ten star in the NHL.

More to come: The four other divisions, and how the top and bottom of the NHL will look.

Assuming the Boston Bruins really are actively shopping the Ottawa native, there are probably a finite number of teams he’d be willing to go to who might want him in return. It’s a safe bet that the Pens, Wings, and Flyers aren’t holding open any spots on their dance card for him. The Oilers, Panthers, Stars, Lightning are all out for a number of reasons. It’s highly doubtful the Bruins would be willing to trade him within the division unless they could get more goal scoring help on wing, or possibly more leadership.

So let’s look at some places that might want Savard for the long haul.

Atlanta has the lures of familiarity with the city, and great weather. They also have a dynamic young roster without a great deal of depth at center. The team is far more balanced than it was when he left several years ago, and has one of the better defensive corps in the division.  They have the #8 pick as well which if Boston simply wishes to reload and get younger, larger and more aggressive as they’ve stated for years might be a great place to snatch Niederreiter or some other catch. On the negative side, the Thrashers have an ownership group that lacks cohesion, and is (perpetually) rumored to want to sell.  They are probably also a good defensive defenseman away from a playoff appearance.

Calgary has the lure of familiarity, a familiar face in premier power forward Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. To compliment him there is emerging star Rene Bourque, one of the NHL’s ten best defensemen in Jay Bouwmeester, and top tier tender Miikka Kiprusoff, all hungry to hoist the Cup.  Any trade with the Flames will almost certainly require the Bruins to take back some, and possibly a lot of salary as the Flames are over $53 million with just 18 players signed. There is also the question of how willing the Flames management would be to put the teams future in the hands of two aging stars with high salaries.

Columbus while in the minds of hockey purists (or fat heads) this place is a backwater, their average home head count was only about a hundred below the New Jersey Devils. With Rick Nash, RJ “the Capitals Defense will sink them” Umberger, Nikita Filatov (The Russian Phil Kessel?) and others just looking for a top tier center Savard would have the opportunity not only at a Cup or two, but possibly of having his jersey retired their if he plays out his contract with a cup win or two. Sure it’d be easier to get ones number retired in a newer market than in a place like Montreal or Boston, but a retired jersey is not something most athletes can claim.

Minnesota, a team that seems to have been looking for a good center since they came into the league currently leans heavily on the undervalued services of Mikko Kiovu. The Wild could be in a worse cap position, have a solid goal-tending position, a defense that was hampered by a lack of anyone to do anything with their outlet passes, and sniper Havlat to ride roughshod over defenses on Savard’s wing.

Ottawa, while trading Savard inside the division is probably not on Chiarelli’s top ten list of things to do this off season, if the Senators do indeed trade Spezza, production wise Savard is probably the best available replacement. Coming into last season the two were two or three points apart for the past several seasons, with Savard having spent a great deal more time killing penalties and Spezza having blocked a few more shots in that time. In terms of cap hit, Savard’s is lower and shorter to off set the age difference. Assuming the Senators do part with Spezza, if they don’t bring back a solid defenseman for him, the difference in Cap hits might allow the Senators to retain Volchenkov. For Savard, Ottowa has proven they can play hard against top tier teams, and its his home town. Being on the first team to raise the Cup in your home town isn’t something many men will ever have the chance to do.

While I’m not 100% convinced the Bruins should or will trade Savard, these are currently among the most interesting possibilities.

Five quick thoughts on the action to come.

5) Will any of today’s five games live up to the playoff experience so far? We’ve had sixty plus minutes of balls to the wall action in each game and I don’t know how you top the back and forth flow of goals, hits and high tempo.

4) Will today be the day we see a blowout? Will one of the big guns in New Jersey, Chicago or Pittsburgh take to the ice and take over the game?

3) Does today mark our first visit to double overtime? We’ve had reasonably brief extra periods thus far, could we see a game hit triple overtime?

2) Did Chicago wear themselves down in the regular season or do they still have enough juice to overcome their division rivals?

1) Who’s moving their name to center stage on the post season awards list? Does Doughty dominate on D, will Ilya B or Ilya K be the guy talked about all day?

One certainty:
No sports post season can match the NHL for intensity.

A quick look at the playoff brackets might convince you that you know the answer to the title question. And while it is more than likely there will be fundamental changes to the structure of both the Capaital’s and the Sharks if they get knocked out before the conference finals, you’d be wrong to think they will back slide the furthest.

Boston with all its injuries (Savard, Stuart, Seidenberg) who had that huge drop from missing the Presidents Trophy last year by such a small margin, to clawing their way into sixth this year will be another year older, but will probably enter the season with Hall or Seguin on the roster and possible former first rounders Caron and Colbourne. If all goes well Ryder & Wideman will be wearing someone else’s uniform next year, and the three missing men will be back and contributing their impressive weight.

For the Habs who many (myself included) wrote off as a proof of Gainey’s senility with a roster crowded with Umpaloompa’s and hasbeens, just making the playoffs is something to be proud of. The fact that they started the second season by snapping an eight game post season slide against the powerhouse Capitals is enormous.

The Avalanche, Coyotes and Kings were not expected to make the playoffs and many predicted two of them as lottery bound. With the youth and lack of playoff experience here, despite the heart, hustle and skill they can all wait another season or even two to learn how to win playoff hockey.

Some people will point to the defending champion Penguins and their prom dates the last two years the Wings and say surely they have the most to lose. Nope, as great as the Wings I don’t think they have the depth. They were in 9th place not long ago and have been largely carried by several aging veterans and surprise sensation Jimmy Howard. The Penguins are in part victims of their own success, and partly their leadership failed to replace the shutdown defensive pair that helped propel them to the Cup a year ago. The Penguins still have great core, and the Wings leadership know how to build.

To my mind the Devils have to go out and make it to the Conference finals this year if the sword of Damoclese isn’t to descend on everyone outside the owners office. Like the Sharks the Devils have been almost there for so long, and have added a gun slinger to their lineup. Of all the teams in the east, I suspect only the Flyers will get a sounder scrubbing if they fail.

But the team that has the most to lose isn’t someone who’s been a perennial favorite, isn’t a team with questionable coaching, or prima donnas in the locker room its the Chicago Blackhawks. The team will be a very different beast next year. For next season they have 14 players signed and come up to $57.566 million. They quite literally have nowhere to move. They will start trading as soon as they can, both at the draft and right up to the start of the new season. Being that close to the salary cap something has got to give. If the team on the ice today wants a cup there is literally no “next year”. We could quite possibly see core guys including Kane and Toews moved to make room. Hossa and Sharp are almost certainly gone. If the Black Hawks fail, they don’t just lose a game or a series, they don’t simply let slip a place in history, they give up a team that is good enough to hoist the Cup and shatter the dream of a whole city.