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First-quarter report cards: Western Conference

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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The West is supposed to be the best, and considering teams there have won nearly twice as many inter-conference games as their East rivals, it might well be. But if many of the teams are exceeding expectations, others are falling short.

Here's a graded look as they hit the schedule's quarter pole.

A teams

Maybe it's time to quit calling Nicklas Lidstrom and the Red Wings old. (AP)  
Maybe it's time to quit calling Nicklas Lidstrom and the Red Wings old. (AP)  
Detroit Red Wings: Still think they're too old? Forget it. This year, the Red Wings just look really refreshed from having a short playoff run for a change. They're playing like it, too -- both at home, where they've been nearly unbeatable, and on the road. Nicklas Lidstrom is still playing like a Hall of Famer at age 40, and the Red Wings are following his lead. They lead the West despite playing fewer games than anyone. Grade: A+

Phoenix Coyotes: No doubt there were cynics who believed the Coyotes enjoyed a perfect storm during last season's great run to the playoffs. Their slow start in Europe didn't change minds, but Phoenix's play lately certainly has to. The Coyotes still don't score very much, and they've missed captain Shane Doan for several games, but they play well defensively and get great goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov. That makes them very good in tight games, which they tend to be in. Too bad their future in Phoenix is still uncertain. Grade: A+

Columbus Blue Jackets: Scott Arniel was the Jackets' second choice for coach last summer, but he has turned Columbus into the NHL's biggest surprise team. Rick Nash's scoring has been carrying the team offensively, although Derick Brassard is having a nice season too, but Columbus has been getting some good goaltending, much of it from backup Mathieu Garon. The key to the Jackets' success has been their great play on the road, a record that has them hot on the heels of Detroit. Grade: A

Los Angeles Kings: A rough Eastern road swing had the Kings skidding around the quarter pole, but that doesn't take away from their excellent play so far. The league's second-youngest team has been nearly unbeatable at home, and until this past week, it was pretty tough on the road, too. Los Angeles has been getting Vezina-quality goaltending from Jonathan Quick; Jack Johnson has made himself the equal of Drew Doughty along the blue line; and Anze Kopitar continues to be the NHL's most underappreciated offensive threat. This team is for real. Grade: A

B teams

Colorado Avalanche: Much like Phoenix, the Avs had plenty of disbelievers following their playoff run last season, and much like Phoenix, they are confounding them. And for the most part, they've done it without valuable goalie Craig Anderson, who has been limited to nine games because of injuries. But backup Peter Budaj has kept the Avs in games, and they are one of the league's most explosive teams, with a Chris Stewart and Matt Duchene leading a high-powered attack. And second-year coach Joe Sacco has them working very hard. Grade: B+

St. Louis Blues: St. Louis might have been the league's best team until early November, when the bottom seemed to fall out on everyone, including goalie Jaroslav Halak. The Blues went 9-1-2 in their first dozen games because Halak was nearly unbeatable even though they had trouble scoring, but lost five in a row after that with their goalie getting shelled in most of them. The Blues and Halak in particular seemed to get back on track around the 20-game mark, but St. Louis still needs more offense. Grade: B

More on first quarter

Vancouver Canucks: There was lots of hype coming out of Vancouver about the Canucks being a serious Stanley Cup contender before the season, but you wouldn't know it from their first quarter. Vancouver has played well at home when Chicago isn't the opponent, but has struggled enough on the road to offset that. The offense is coming almost exclusively from the Sedin twins, the blue line group hasn't lived up to expectations and Roberto Luongo gets more doubters with each passing season. Thing is, the Canucks are a lot better team on paper, and still around first place while they wait for that to translate to the ice. Grade: B-

C teams

Dallas Stars: The situation in Dallas has been a lot more low key than it was in Phoenix last season, but it is just as bad. Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk has his hands tied when it comes to making moves and, in particular, sitting down with Brad Richards to discuss a new contract (the other option, of course, is to move the high-scoring former playoff MVP). But Dallas has come together through all this and is playing surprisingly well, particularly at home, even if no one there seems to notice. Richards is doing himself no harm in his contract year, youngsters Loui Eriksson and James Neal are having big seasons, and the Stars look like they can contend for a playoff spot. Grade: C+

San Jose Sharks: They might have earned a pass for having to start in Europe, but the Sharks haven't shown the kind of urgency or desperation you might expect from a team that has this much talent and this much to prove. San Jose has played well at home, and the numbers the big guns like Thornton, Marleau, Heatley and Boyle have put are impressive. But neither of the goaltenders has taken hold of the starting job, and the Sharks have been prone to inconsistency. It won't take much for this bunch to snap out of it, though. Grade: C

Marty Turco and the defending champ Blackhawks aren't a lock for the playoffs. (AP)  
Marty Turco and the defending champ Blackhawks aren't a lock for the playoffs. (AP)  
Minnesota Wild: The rumor mills had coach Todd Richards on the chopping block before the season started, so naturally Minnesota exacerbated things by dropping the first two games in Europe. Richards got things recalibrated once the team returned to North America, but the Wild have gotten into a pattern of winning a couple, then losing a couple, in essence staying around .500. Niklas Backstrom hasn't been bad in goal, but he isn't getting much offensive support. Then again, goalies in Minnesota rarely do. Grade: C-

Nashville Predators: Sometimes you have to wonder if they have a lifetime supply of smoke and mirrors in Nashville. The Predators are one of the league's chintziest teams, yet they always stay competitive in the playoff race. Of course, they never get very far when they do make it, and this team, which may not have a 20-goal scorer, won't change that, especially with team captain and leader Shea Weber having a subpar season. But give coach Barry Trotz some hard workers and a goalie like Pekka Rinne, and he'll make the Predators a factor somehow. Grade: C-

D teams

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are probably in better shape at the quarter pole than most people expected them to be in the first year of the post-Scott Niedermayer era, and that's because they've been good at home. On the road? Not so much. But Anaheim has stayed around the .500 mark, which at least gives hope of contending for a playoff spot. And the way Jonas Hiller has played in goal, the Ducks could. Grade: D

Chicago Blackhawks: A .500 record at the quarter pole? With this kind of core talent? C'mon. Sure we've heard about the Stanley Cup hangover, and we know the champs had to dump a lot of players because of the salary cap. But the Blackhawks still have elite talent dominating their forward lines and defensive units, and their goaltending was supposed to be better with veteran Marty Turco coming in. But at this point, Chicago isn't even a sure bet to make the playoffs. Grade: D

F teams

Calgary Flames: The delusion that this team is a legitimate contender reached a high point during the preseason when the Flames won all seven games. The regular season is a different animal and it has dissolved quickly, with off-ice issues the center of attention. The most pressing debate is whether to trade franchise face Jarome Iginla in what is rapidly becoming a lost season, although the futures of general manager Darryl Sutter and his brother, coach Brent Sutter, are never far from the surface. Grade: F

Edmonton Oilers: There wasn't much expected of the young and rebuilding Oilers and they've held up their end of the bargain. But they do have some interesting rookies to watch in Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, and they responded to being called out by coach Tom Renney with a win, so the team is learning. That doesn't keep them from losing most of the time right now. Grade: F

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