Approaching the quarter-pole

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

As Wall St. and Bay St. try to forget their fourth quarter results, let's examine some of the rise and fall experienced in the NHL's first 20-game segment.

Same as the old boss?

Entering this week, the bottom six teams in the Eastern Conference are the six that changed head coaches in the off-season.

Barry Melrose even managed to get fired, though whether he or Tampa Bay's maverick ownership were out of touch with today's league is talk show fodder.

Ron Wilson's Maple Leafs are among that half-dozen, no huge surprise, but who would have thought the team that supposedly had one top-six forward would be leading the six in goals, while a slumping Vesa Toskala would put them last in goals against?

It's the opposite story in the West, where new San Jose boss Todd McLellan replaced Wilson and reached the 20-game mark with a league-best 16-3-1 record. But McLellan is getting tired of hearing that he's only replicating the system of his old team, the Detroit Red Wings.

Told that Nashville coach Barry Trotz had referred to San Jose as "the Wings -- super-sized", McLellan said: "We're the Sharks. Do we do some things similar to Detroit? Absolutely. But so do the Chicago Blackhawks and so do a lot of teams right now. It's the way the game is going."

As for other new coaches in the West, Joel Quenneville took a 1-2-1 Hawks team from the fired Denis Savard and won nine of the next 15, while Colorado (Tony Granato) and Los Angeles (Terry Murray) are treading water like their Eastern brethren.

ON-ICE SAFETY

Head shots/hits from behind is great debate at present, but good luck getting consensus on the topic from the league, the general managers, the players and the medical profession. This is a sport that has played at a zillion miles an hour, on a 200-by-85-foot surface, with star players who range in height from 5-foot-7 to 6-foot-9.

KID STUFF

With most picking the Lightning's Steve Stamkos or any of the very top 2008 draft picks for the Calder, lesser lights Kris Versteeg and Derick Brassard are leading in points, Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski is tops in goals and names such as Jakub Voracek, Blake Wheeler and goalie Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers are dotting the leaderboard.

ECONOMIC GLOOM

The auto industry's woes are expected to further bleed Red Wings' attendance and general pessimism about the job outlook will dent the NHL's non-traditional markets, especially clubs who already have struggled on the ice.

Despite league claims to the contrary, attendance is on the wane in many cities, amid talk that the players will have to give up the part of their salary being held in escrow to make up the league's revenue shortfall.

A drop in the salary cap likely would follow in the next couple of years.

There is May 18 deadline for the players to decide to re-open the CBA.

HISTORY REPEATING?

If Brian Burke has a sense of history, he'll take the Toronto job on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Punch Imlach consolidating his power as GM/coach and heralding four Stanley Cups for the Leafs in the next nine years.

FLASH POINTS

Among those running out of rope are:

1. Carolina Hurricanes' coach Peter Laviolette.

2. One of Dallas Stars' co-GMs Brett Hull and Les Jackson.

3. Wade Belak, the ex-Leaf on waivers in Florida.

4. Sabres' all flash, no finish winger Maxim Afinogenov ... Boston Bruins bruiser Milan Lukic has 13 points in 21 games, 48 penalty minutes and is a plus nine. "I take pride in bringing the word 'bad' back to the Bruins," he said ... Coach Craig Hartsburg said this recently about the floundering Senators, who play host to the Leafs on Thursday: "We're like the turtle in the shell, poking our heads out to see if there's a game going on" ... One of the knocks against the New York Rangers of late is seven short-handed goals against, the league's worst.


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