Let's be honest here. The most surprising early-season development in the NHL has to be the play of Columbus goalie Pascal Leclaire.

Is there anyone who would have guessed he would have five shutouts already? Or even five the entire season?

Ken Hitchcock doesn't seem to have much of a fan club, and yet his Blue Jackets were off to their best start in history, thanks to Leclaire's 1.12 goals-against average and .957 save average entering Friday night's play.

Hey, goalies can buy teams time.

Leclaire, echoing others in Columbus, said Hitchcock's emphasis on defensive play was the backbone of the team's success.

"Big time," he said. "I think that's our main concern in Columbus. . . . If you play well defensively, you'll have chances on turnovers and stuff like that.

"So guys have really bought into it. And we've seemed to find a way to win by doing this. And we trust the system a lot. And when we do what he tells us to do, we're usually in pretty good shape. . . . Everyone is having a good time."

Where have we heard this line before: "It's everybody just buying into the system and believing in Hitch's game plan."

Who said that? Rick Nash.

How many times did we hear that from players when Hitchcock coached the Flyers?

"The guys are getting more mature and understanding that you need to trust the system," Nash said. "I don't know what the issue was last year. It seems like we're buying in, and it works."

Any system works when your goalie is playing as well as Leclaire.

"I'm a day-to-day guy," Leclaire said. "Whatever happens in the past is done. . . . I live in the present. Everybody has been bothering me with the shutouts and everything. . . . After a while, I get sick of it, because I keep hearing the same thing. . . .

"That's the way I am. Whenever I have a bad game, a good game, like 10 minutes after the game, I'm usually done with it. So it doesn't matter if I'm good or bad."

Prudential Center

ESPN's Barry Melrose apologized to fans for remarks he made about the Devils' new arena - er, the people of Newark, actually. Yes, it's a "beautiful new building," he said on TV. "Don't go outside if you have a wallet or anything else, because the area around the arena is just horrible."

The mayor and some members of the City Council called Melrose on the carpet.

"I was trying to be funny and I'm sorry it didn't come through that way," Melrose said. "No excuse. When I talk, I don't want to offend anybody. I love hockey and I want Newark to be a success. I certainly never wanted to hurt the feelings of the people of Newark or the people of New Jersey. There was no malice on my part."

Melrose has yet to be at the arena. We have been. It's still a work in progress inside, where carpeting, painting and dust cleanup have not occurred. It's comfortable, with decent sight lines. The concourse is huge, with a nice variety of concessions.

As for outside, the parking is $25 everywhere, and many lots won't accept credit cards. Cash only. That's ridiculous. The walk from the arena to the train station is well-lit and has a heavy police presence. We saw kids skateboarding after the game.

Hall of Fame

Al MacInnis will be going into the Hockey Hall of Fame this week. He told a story recently about how he developed that renowned slapshot that won so many all-star contests as the hardest shot in the league. MacInnis grew up on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, a fishing area. He took a job at age 9 at the local ice rink.

"I used to go help them close up at nighttime and walk around and collect all the pucks that went over the boards and over the glass," he recalled. "By the end of the hockey season, I probably had 75 to 100 pucks. If it wasn't a beach day in my hometown, I used to just shoot pucks all day long.

"I can remember spending hours out there just shooting pucks off a sheet of plywood off my dad's barn. I was just doing it for pastime and never thinking that it would end up the way it did."

Hall II

Ron Francis is going into the Hall, as well. He says his entire career changed when he was traded from Hartford to Pittsburgh. He would win two Stanley Cups with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins.

"It was a crazy time for us," Francis said. "We had just had our first child a few weeks earlier. And I had been there almost 10 years. I think anybody will tell you, I don't think you really go looking for a trade.

"When I got the call, I was kind of, you know, a little bit surprised and disappointed, obviously. We went to Pittsburgh where three months later we ended up winning the Stanley Cup."

The Cup years in Pittsburgh, and thereafter, established Francis' reputation as a leader for the remainder of his career.

"We all, individually, benefited from that sort of notoriety," he said.

Jones' hit

Patrice Bergeron has spoken. Again. He held a news conference last week to give advice to the Flyers' Randy Jones, who was suspended for two games for hitting him from behind.

"If you see a number, if you see the back of a player, just don't hit," Bergeron said. "We need to realize and think about the consequences when you go for a hit like that. Hitting is part of the game, but not from behind. Throughout the league, as players, we need to respect each other a little bit more. I think something maybe needs to be done."

Here's some free advice to Bergeron: Never go into the corner not expecting to be hit; and never bend over to expose your head and neck when you do.

Help the kids

Fans attending tomorrow night's Islanders-Flyers game at the Wachovia Center are encouraged to bring donations of new or gently used hockey equipment. The equipment will be donated to participants in the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.

Contact staff writer Tim Panaccio at 215-854-2847 or tpanaccio@phillynews.com.