Phil Kessel has yet to score a goal for the Maple Leafs, which has led to suggestions it's time to consider trading him. (Getty Images)
The NHL season is barely two weeks old, but several teams are already struggling to keep up.
Ordinarily, a slow start within the opening two weeks isn’t cause for alarm. Given this season’s lockout-shortened schedule, however, an early slump could have serious consequences for a team's playoff hopes.
A sluggish start also leads to rumblings about possible trades. Here's a look at several Eastern Conference teams that will appear more frequently in the rumor mill if they don't reverse their fortunes.
Florida Panthers (1-5-0). The Panthers had a stellar season-opener, a 5-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, but have since dropped five straight while being outscored 23-5.
Injuries to center Stephen Weiss, who’s seen his name linked to several rumors, and right winger Kris Versteeg haven't helped, but the lack of production elsewhere is more troubling.
Florida was linked for months to Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, but offensive depth is currently a greater concern. Bolstering that depth, however, would prove costly, as teams would be searching for a return like blue-chip prospect center Nick Bjugstad for anything of substance.
Washington Capitals (1-4-1). It was expected new coach Adam Oates would return the Capitals to a more offensive style, designed to benefit scorers like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Instead, Ovechkin (two points) and Backstrom (three) have struggled through their first six games and the Capitals were outscored 22-13. Concerns over their lack of production have some observers wondering if GM George McPhee will start searching for more scoring.
Prior to the Capitals 3-2 win over Buffalo Sunday, McPhee claimed he's not looking for help and wasn't shopping anybody. He can be patient with his club, but if this funk drags into mid-February, he will face increased pressure to shake things up.
Philadelphia Flyers (2-5-0). A rash of injuries to key players (Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere, Andrej Meszaros) and a slow start by others (Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier) have the usually dominant Flyers near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
That's generated speculation GM Paul Holmgren will pull the trigger on a major deal to acquire a scorer. Holmgren has a reputation as a “wheeler-dealer,” but he's not in a position of strength here. Landing a scoring forward could cost him Couturier or promising Brayden Schenn.
At least no one's blaming goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov for the Flyers early woes. Despite a 2-4 record in six games, he's been stellar (2.19 GAA, .924 SP) and among the few bright spots.
Buffalo Sabres (2-3-1). After opening this season with victories over the Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs, the Sabres dropped four straight (0-3-1). Their recent 4-3 OT loss to the Leafs prompted Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News to voice concern over their defensive play.
The Sabres also aren’t getting much offense beyond Thomas Vanek (10 points) and Jason Pominville (nine). Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford have only three points each, though their performance is improving, as most of those points have come in the past two games.
If the Sabres defensive play fails to improve over the next couple of weeks, GM Darcy Regier will be forced to shop for help or risk missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
Toronto Maple Leafs (3-3-0). Why single out the Maple Leafs, who have a .500 record, and not the star-studded New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have similar records? Most observers believe the Rangers and Penguins have the talent to overcome their slow starts, while lack of depth makes the Leafs fodder for trade speculation.
Depending on how Toronto performs on any given night, there seems to be a different trade suggestion. Some believe the team needs an experienced goaltender. Some feel Phil Kessel should be dealt. Others believe management should find him a playmaking center.
Considering the Leafs seven-season absence from the playoffs, fans and pundits are understandably concerned about the club's prospects of ending that drought. Until Toronto strings together a few wins, expect it to remain a fixture in the rumor mill.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.
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