Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
A quick glance at the NHL standings reveals a surprising fact...the Colorado Avalanche are the best team in the Western Conference.
It wasn't that long ago that the Avs were a staple at the top of the conference, but it seemed that the franchise had hit bottom and was destined to rebuild after finishing last in the West last year with 69 points -- the worst season since the franchise moved to Colorado in the mid-1990s. Instead, Colorado has made a quick turnaround in the early-going, and has been beaten just once in regulation through nine games this season.
The biggest difference between the 2008-09 Colorado club and this year's Avalanche is the arrival of goaltender Craig Anderson, who may be just the guy to stabilize a club that has searched desperately for an heir to Patrick Roy's throne for the better part of this decade.
Roy, the Hall of Fame goaltender who led Colorado to a pair of Stanley Cup titles in 1996 and 2001, called it a career after the 2003 playoffs and the Avs haven't made it past the second round of the playoffs since. Even worse, Colorado has been left out of the playoff party in two of the last three seasons, a fact that resulted in the firing of general manager Francois Giguere just one day after the conclusion of the 2008-09 campaign.
Primarily as a result of Craig Anderson's play, the Avs are tops in the Northwest Division and Western Conference standings.
The Avs eventually hired Greg Sherman as their new GM, and he removed Tony Granato as head coach and replaced him with Joe Sacco on June 3. Sherman's biggest move, however, came when he decided to sign Anderson on the first day of free agency.
The signing generated little fanfare when it happened, considering big-name players like Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik were inking lucrative long-term deals, while the Avs and Anderson quietly agreed on a two-year, $3.6 million contract.
It wasn't as if Anderson had been absent from anybody's radar heading into the free-agent market, however, since he did have a strong 2008-09 campaign in Florida despite playing second-fiddle to Tomas Vokoun. Anderson went 15-7-5 with a 2.71 goals-against average and an excellent .924 save percentage in 31 games with the Panthers.
That season may not have convinced everybody that Anderson was ready to be a full-time starter, but Sherman saw enough to assure him of his new backstop's worth. At the time of the signing Sherman said of Anderson, "His overall performance last year was very impressive and he is entering the prime years of his career."
Given Anderson's performance so far as an Av, Sherman may have been right on the money about the 28-year-old goaltender entering his prime. Anderson has started in every game for the Avs this year and recorded a 6-1-2 record along with a 2.06 GAA and .934 save percentage.
Primarily as a result of Anderson's play, the Avs are tops in the Northwest Division and Western Conference with 14 points through nine games.
"He has given us a chance to be in every game and to compete and to win every game," Sacco stated in a recent conference call.
And that is exactly what Colorado starting goaltenders between Roy and Anderson were not capable of doing, giving their team a chance to be in every game. Just look at Peter Budaj, who has yet to see a second of action as Anderson's backup this year. Budaj was awful as the Avs starter last year, posting a 2.86 GAA and .899 save percentage in 56 games, and rarely was the deciding factor in helping his club win. He was, however, the reason for many of Colorado's losses a year ago.
Who knows how long the Avs will be able to stay on top in the Western Conference, but with Anderson in tow the club's playoff chances are looking much brighter than they did prior to the start of the 2009-10 campaign.
Anderson showed signs of brilliance when given a limited amount of starts in Florida and has been even better since becoming the main man in Colorado. The arrival of Roy showed hockey fans in Denver how integral solid goaltending is to winning and Anderson is doing the same thing, albeit with much less pomp and circumstance.
NEW YORK ROOKIES MAKING A BIG SPLASH
John Tavares has been a household name in Canada for quite some time as a result of his sensational play as a junior, and he even made a small dent in the American market when he was selected first overall by the New York Islanders in this past summer's draft. Michael Del Zotto, on the other hand, was known by few folks outside of the realm of hockey pundits and die-hard New York Rangers fans.
Despite the disparity in popularity, both players are currently lighting it up as rookies for their respective New York-area clubs.
Even though he was the top overall pick back in June, many scouts believed Tavares would struggle to produce early on with the Islanders. But the 19-year- old has proved those critics wrong, averaging a point-per-game so far, recording three goals and four assists in his first seven outings. Only Del Zotto, a defenseman, has more points as a rookie this season.
Del Zotto, also 19 years of age, has recorded four goals and five assists in nine contests. Not bad for a guy who was expected by most to spend another season in juniors. That's not a possibility now, as the 20th overall pick in the 2008 draft needed to be returned to his OHL club before skating in his eighth game of the year.
Del Zotto's season has been the more impressive of the two so far, as he has basically willed himself to becoming a key part of a team that has an excellent chance at making the playoffs this year. Tavares, meanwhile, was always going to play for a rebuilding Islanders club after being selected No. 1, and it was also known that he would get plenty of ice time to prove his worth.
It will be interesting to see if the young Del Zotto will be able to handle the grind of a full NHL season, but even if he does wear down, he is way of schedule at this stage of his career.