We’re a little more than a quarter of the way through this shortened NHL season, and, besides the Chicago Blackhawks (who have yet to lose a game in regulation), no truly dominant teams have emerged. However, many individual performances thusfar have been outstanding. Here are five players to watch who have gotten off to strong starts:
Craig Anderson, G, Ottawa Senators – Since joining Ottawa towards the end of the 2010-11 season, Anderson has been a solid goalkeeper, with a Goals Against Average of less than 2.5. This season, however, Anderson has been nothing short of spectacular, leading the league in save percentage and trailing only Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo in GAA. He has made himself a legitimate contender for the Vezina Trophy and is perhaps the biggest reason why the Senators are in playoff contention in the East. However, with the likely season-ending injury to Erik Karlsson, last year’s Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman, Anderson’s job will only get more difficult from here on out. He’ll have to continue his stellar play to give Ottawa a chance to make the postseason.
David Clarkson, RW, New Jersey Devils – Clarkson’s 30-goal season in 2011-12 was seen by many as a fluke, but he has continued his hot play, becoming the leading scorer on the team that has set the pace so far in the East. He has also improved his passing game, dishing out six assists in 13 games after having only 16 all of last season. New Jersey will need all the offense that Clarkson can offer; the Devils are a team that plays almost exclusively in close games (the fourth fewest total goals per game), and in what is perhaps the most competitive division in the league. He is an opportunistic scorer, with five power play goals to his name already, and his chemistry with Patrik Elias is ever-growing. Expect the Atlantic to be a slugfest between the Devils, Penguins, and Rangers the rest of the way, and a race that David Clarkson could be a huge part of.
Thomas Vanek, LW, Buffalo Sabres – The Sabres have gotten off to a terrible start in 2013. They give up the fourth-most goals per game, have the fifth-worst power play percentage, and allow nearly 34 shots per game. The lone bright spot thusfar has been the play of Thomas Vanek, who leads the NHL with 11 goals and 23 total points. Since his breakout campaign in 2006-07, he hasn’t scored more than 73 points in a season, but he’s finally begun to live up to his high draft selection and big contract. It’s a pace that he’s unlikely to keep up (his points-per-game total would be, at 1.77, in a class with players like Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr if maintained for the entire season), but as the only real option on Buffalo, he could continue to get opportunities even if the Sabres continue to sink to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider, G, Vancouver Canucks – After getting benched midway through the Canucks’ first-round playoff collapse against Kings last season, trade rumors surrounded Luongo. He had been stellar, if inconsistently so, the year before during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals, but a healthy Cory Schneider was seen as the death knell for Luongo’s time in Vancouver. Then, the offseason came and went, Luongo stayed, and the two goalies began splitting time and shutting down opponents. The Canucks allow the third-fewest goals per game and Luongo has the best goals against average and second-best save percentage. After allowing five goals to the Ducks in their season opener, Schnieder has improved, giving up just eight goals in his last five appearances. Both men seem to be fine with the timeshare, and if they each continue to play well, the Canucks could position themselves for another deep playoff run.