Early-season surprises in the NHL

Ryan Miller could be on the move this season, but it's unclear where he'll land. Bill Wippert/NHLI/Getty Images

Who are the most underrated and overrated players in the NHL this season? What would it take to land Thomas Vanek? Should the Penguins make a run at Ryan Miller? All this and more in the Friday mailbag this week. And remember, if you want to send in your question on anything hockey-related, send it in here, and you may find it published in a future column.

Who is the most surprising team to you this season? Obviously the Sharks, Leafs and Avalanche are up there with their great records, but the Coyotes and Hurricanes are also putting up solid numbers. And what about teams like the Rangers who are failing to meet expectations? Or is it Michigan State who lost two last weekend to UMass?

Greg, Amherst, Mass.

Greg, we're going to act like that last question wasn't included, although all of a sudden I have a reason to root for Maine in the next four games.

Let's break this down into two groups: Positive surprises and negative surprises. On the positive side, there's nothing more surprising than the start of the Colorado Avalanche. It's not just that they won eight of the first nine games they played; it's their goal differential in those games, which is plus-16. Before the season, you could have convinced me that Colorado would start hot and I would have assumed it was only on the backs of the high-end forwards. Instead, the Avalanche have allowed just 12 goals. By comparison, the Oilers have allowed 43. It's remarkable.

On the negative side, I'm going with the Flyers. I'm in the camp that believes the Rangers are going to emerge from a slow start that has been filled with a grueling schedule and injuries. The Flyers have just been bad, full stop. On an individual level, it's surprising that Claude Giroux has played nine games and hasn't scored a goal. His longest drought last season was seven games.

Who do you have on your all-NHL most underrated team? What about overrated?

Ananth, Cupertino, Calif.

Hey Ananth, I think you've now reached "Friend of the Mailbag" status. Good question, and I'll answer this reflecting performance thus far this season.

Most underrated team:

F - Alexander Steen, Blues

F - Frans Nielsen, Islanders

F - Jamie Benn, Stars

D - Travis Hamonic, Islanders

D - Mark Giordano, Flames

G - Ben Bishop, Lightning

Most overrated team:

F - Jarome Iginla, Bruins

F - Stephen Weiss, Red Wings

F - Claude Giroux, Flyers

D - Alex Goligoski, Stars

D - Michael Del Zotto, Rangers

G - Ondrej Pavelec, Jets

What do you think of the viability of a "strike" system being put in place in the league? After so many suspensions, you're thrown out of the league. The way suspensions are being passed out this season, I imagine a lot of guys would think twice before making that next borderline play.

Garnet Fox, Edmonton, Alberta

I like where your mind is, although I'm not sure how realistic your suggested change is. Under Brendan Shanahan, the league has upped its aggressiveness in suspension length, and I think there's still room for growth there. As for viability, I'm not sure it would fly from the NHLPA perspective. You're still talking about the livelihood of these players and, as we've seen, they'll fight hard to protect the jobs and income of those players repeatedly committing infractions.

To me, the change can't just come from the league and rule implementation. Teams need to have conversations with their repeat offenders and let them know that it won't be tolerated. We saw the impact that had on Matt Cooke in Pittsburgh. Ideally, it'd be great if Buffalo didn't employ a guy like John Scott in the first place, but the Flames apparently think it's necessary to win games. Not sure it's working out.

Two years was not enough. When will Cleveland get another shot? Dan Gilbert would be a natural choice as owner.

Chris, Chicago

Chris, I honestly never hear Cleveland mentioned as a realistic expansion candidate. Sure, two years isn't a lot of time but, boy, those attendance numbers in two seasons with the Barons were pretty bad. According to this Hockeydb.com graph, they drew average crowds of 6,194 in 1976-77 and 5,676 in 1977-78. Even at their worst, attendance-wise, the Thrashers at least drew 13,469 per game before moving to Winnipeg. That's more than double the Cleveland number in the first season.

It would also be hard to justify putting a hockey team two hours away from Columbus, when you don't even have a second Toronto team yet. I love the idea of Dan Gilbert as owner, though; I'm with you there.

Marc-Andre Fleury looks good so far, but no one around here really trusts him in the playoffs. Could the Penguins acquire Ryan Miller for a package similar to what they got Iginla for (first round pick and two prospects)? And then, what to do with Fleury, assuming we want to re-sign Miller long-term? Is there any potential for an offseason Fleury-for-Nail Yakupov swap, even though the Pens' top six is stacked?

Joe, Pittsburgh

Hey Joe, I feel a little bit for Fleury -- who has been really good this season -- because nobody wants to be impressed with his success since it's happening during the regular season. Through eight games, he's at 7-1-0 with a .930 save percentage. He hasn't finished with a regular-season save percentage over .920 since 2007-08, so if he keeps it up, it's a significant improvement for him, even if you have playoff trust issues.

That said, if I'm Penguins GM Ray Shero, I'm lining up playoff insurance, and Ryan Miller is certainly at the top of the list. You have to be careful if you're the Penguins, though, because they sent a lot of futures away at the deadline last season, including a first-round pick, a second-round pick, a conditional second-rounder, a fifth-round pick and three prospects. You can't do that every season. You need those young players coming up and replenishing roster spots with entry-level deals.

If it works under the salary cap, I'd look hard at Miller, but only do it without moving a first-rounder. That may be easier said than done. As for spinning Fleury into Yakupov, that's not happening. Let's say the Penguins trade for Miller and then decide to extend his contract; why would the Oilers trade an incredibly skilled young forward for Pittsburgh's backup goalie entering the final year of a contract that pays him $5 million? That part doesn't add up.

The San Jose Sharks have been great so far, but with Patrick Marleau and Jumbo Joe Thornton aging, I fear more and more each season that San Jose's window of opportunity for a Cup is closing. Are the Sharks for real this season?

Neil, Bay Area, Calif.

Hey Neil, I asked Joe Pavelski a similar question earlier this week. Basically, I asked him what's going to prevent this season's Sharks from falling off a cliff like last season's group did. Here's what he said: "I really don't know what the answer was for it last year. We're scoring in different ways this year, we have a lot of lines contribute. That needs to continue... we know what kind of effort it's taken us to get to this point in the first eight games. It's a lot of work."

I wrote about it earlier this week in the blog, but I'm a believer in the Sharks this season. Here's a few reasons why:

1. They play a faster game. They're committed to moving the puck up and down the ice at a quicker pace than they did in the past. And they have the personnel to do it, which wasn't always the case in the past.

2. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has developed into a legit top-pairing defenseman and may be one of the most underrated defensemen in the league. I probably should revise my underrated list above to include him. As Larry Robinson mentioned in the blog, he's completely comfortable sending out Vlasic and Justin Braun against any forward group in the league.

3. The deeper forward group means scoring comes from players besides Marleau and Logan Couture. It started with the move of Brent Burns to forward, and continued with Tomas Hertl's emergence. That's almost an entire new line that didn't exist a season ago. San Jose now has three legitimate lines anchored by high-end centers.

Crazy trade idea: Red Wings-Sabres. Kyle Quincey and Tomas Tatar for Thomas Vanek.

Bob, Darnestown, Md.

There are a couple reasons why this one wouldn't work. For one, I think Vanek fetches at least what the Flames got for Iginla, and probably more. Ideally for Buffalo, you're talking first-round pick, roster player and high-end prospect. I don't think Quincey has any value to the Sabres, since he'll be an unrestricted free agent after this season. So take him out of the equation. That leaves Tatar, a talented young player, but not enough to fetch Vanek on his own. He'd have to be a part of a much bigger package.

Also, the Red Wings are currently up against the cap, and Vanek comes with a cap hit of over $7 million. According to CapGeek.com, the Red Wings have space to add about $1.3 million in salary at the trade deadline, which doesn't even come close to squeezing in Vanek.