Halftime Sports

On Thin Ice: NHL Early Season Reactions

November 8, 2017

Photo: Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times

One month into the NHL season, there have been plenty of surprises. Hot starts and losing streaks have unsuspecting teams at the top of the standings and perceived contenders in the basement. It is still early enough for the standings to change (last year at this time, Nashville was in last place in the Central Division and Colorado was a .500 team), so this small sample size needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But, that won’t stop me from trying to glean some sense from the season so far.

Vegas is actually good

The Golden Knights are perhaps the single biggest surprise of the young season. Vegas has exceeded all expectations, winning eight of their first first nine and sitting in second place in the Pacific Division with a record of 9-4-1. Not only that, but they have done it without star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been on injured reserve since October 13 with a concussion.

In fact, the Knights have done it without any consistency in net. After Fleury came Malcolm Subban, who started three games before going on injured reserve himself with a lower body injury. Then it was Oscar Dansk’s turn, but he also only lasted three games. Now they are relying on Maxime Lagace, their fourth goalie of the season, who is playing with no real backup. But after their success so far, they could probably start an actual knight in plate mail and have him spin a shutout.

In worse news, the team seems to have lost Vadim Shipachyov, who has likely returned to Russia and the KHL after Vegas did not give him the playing time he deserved and even had him in the minor leagues. They are also showing signs of slowing, losing four of their last five, and perhaps are losing some of the momentum they had coming out of the gate.

The Knights still have low expectations for the season, but if they can stop this skid they could very well be a surprise playoff team. And if they get in, with a goalie like Fleury, anything can happen.

And so are the Devils

The Devils were bottom feeders last year. They scored the number one overall pick in the draft lottery and selected Nico Hischier. After such an abysmal season, no one would have guessed that the Devils would be sitting atop the stacked Metropolitan Division, but that is exactly where they are. They have the second most points in the Eastern Conference (19), have only lost four games out of their first 13, and are 9-3-1.

Hischier and Will Butcher, last year’s NCAA Men’s Hockey player of the year, have led the youth movement pushing this team forward, while goalie Cory Schneider has a solid .916 save percentage.

This early season surge has come as a surprise, with wins against Ottawa, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. But the true test will be down the stretch, as they continue to face the Capitals, Penguins, and Rangers in their division. They have the scoring ability, with at least four goals in eight of their 13 games, but they will need to keep up that pace, and Cory Schneider will need to let in even fewer goals. It will be an uphill battle, but a much more exciting one than expected.

The Lightning are lighting it up

The best team in the NHL thus far is the Tampa Bay Lightning. They sit atop the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with 24 points and a record of 11-2-2. They have scored the second most goals of any team in the league (59) and have the league leader in goals, Nikita Kucherov (14), and assists, Steven Stamkos (18). Those two are first and second in points in the league with 23 and 25 respectively.

On defense, Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman is logging almost 26 minutes of ice-time per game, and has a goal and ten assists. Expect those totals to go up, as he is only shooting at three percent. The blue line also features rookie acquisition Mikhail Sergachev, who has netted four goals and seven assists. Defensively they have played well enough, sitting at 13th in the league in goals allowed, with Andrei Vasilevskiy playing solidly in net. 

They do not need to be the best defense in the league, because they will score more goals than most. These early games are just a preview of the kind of team the Lightning will be all season long.

Canadiens worst in the East

The inHabitants of Montreal are calling for the heads of Claude Julien and Carey Price, and it is only 15 games into the season. After Vegas’s strong start, the faltering Canadiens are the league’s biggest surprise.

The Habs are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a disappointing record of 6-8-1. This comes after Carey Price, who has been one of the best goalies on the planet, signed an eight year, $84 million contract during of the offseason. Price has not lived up to the lofty expectations that come with his contract, giving up 3.77 goals per game and only stopping 87.7 percent of shots faced. That is not all his fault, the defense has played  poorly, and trading away top prospect Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay has not helped.

This is not a triumphant return for Claude Julien, who took the reigns for the Habs in the middle of last season for the first time since 2006. And in the Bell Centre, there is no room for error. With only eight points from captain Max Pacioretty, the team’s main scoring line has plenty of room for improvement, and, unless Price lost his mojo, he will play better (especially if the defense starts to play better in front of him). But if the turn around does not start soon, Julien’s return to the Canadiens will be cut short.

Oilers struggling to score (and win games)

This offseason the Oilers dished out huge contracts to two of the best offensive players in the league – eight years and $100 million for Connor McDavid (the largest contract in NHL history) and eight years and $68 million to Leon Draisaitl. But, after 13 games, the Oilers are dead last in goals for, only scoring 30, and sit second to last in the Western Conference with a record of 4-8-1.

Connor McDavid is supposed to be the second coming of Wayne Gretzky; he scored 100 points last season. What is wrong? A big culprit is goalie Cam Talbot, who is allowing 3.2 goals per game, almost an extra goal per game over last season. Also, it looks like the Oilers are losing the the trade for Ryan Strome, who has five points versus Jordan Eberle’s eleven for the Islanders.

Compared to the Canadiens, the Oilers are better equipped to recover. They can score plenty of goals, and Cam Talbot is capable of stopping just as many. If these struggles continue for the next month, then it might be time to panic. But for now, the Oilers have just gotten off to a sluggish start, and once they shake the rust off they will be firing on all cylinders.

Additional thoughts

  • The Los Angeles Kings have one of the best defense in the NHL, only letting in 31 goals in 14 games, the second best of any team. Jonathan Quick is in Stanley Cup form, and defenseman Drew Doughty has lead a physical team to the top the Western Conference with the St. Louis Blues.
  • Colorado does not stink. Hard to believe, but they are third in the Central Division, a year removed from one of the worst seasons in NHL history. Perhaps the Matt Duchene trade will not happen after all.
  • What’s that? Duchene to the Senators? Well, nevermind then. Looks like the Avs are uncomfortable with the whole winning thing.
  • Taking the Avalanches place as the worst team in the league is the Arizona Coyotes. They have won two games. Two. Out of 16 tries. They did not get their first win until their 11th game of the season. Still, they have more goals than 10 other teams. Not that that matters for much when they allow more than anyone else.
  • The kids are alright in Toronto, as Auston Matthews returns after winning the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year, and already has 10 goals in 16 games. The addition of Patrick Marleau from San Jose, who is almost twice as old as Matthews, added experience to the team, and his ten points so far show that age and a change of scenery will likely not slow him down.

Noah Telerski
Noah Telerski is a senior in the college studying government and economics and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Voice. He enjoys playing his guitar, talking about New Hampshire, and wearing Hawaiian shirts on Fridays.

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