Down Goes Brown: 10 things we’ve learned so far in the NHL

The Vegas Golden Knights became the first expansion team in NHL history to start their season 3-0, and after the win, both they and the Arizona Coyotes gave a salute to the fans in Vegas.

• Will Leafs go 82-0-0 or just 81-0-1?
• Vegas doesn’t look like an expansion team
• Will the real Penguins please stand up?

The NHL regular season is now one week old, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve got everything figured out.

I mean, it’s been a week. That’s plenty of time. The next 80 games or so shouldn’t bring many surprises, so we can pretty much pencil in the final standings, ride out the last few months and start looking forward to the playoffs.

Or maybe not. On the off chance that we don’t quite have it all sorted out quite yet, it might be worth a moment to take stock of where we are after week one. Here are 10 things we’ve learned so far, and how likely they are to continue to be true.

What we learned: The Golden Knights don’t look like an expansion team at all.

Nobody expected the Knights to be all that competitive this year, especially when they unveiled their expansion-draft strategy of “take all the defencemen and then figure it out later.” But through their first week of meaningful action, they’re a perfect 3-0-0, and have even shown up near the top of some power rankings.

Sure, those three wins have included one against a beleaguered backup goalie and two against the Coyotes, who are the beleaguered backup goalie of NHL teams. Still, wins are wins.

Will it continue? That depends what the “it” is here. Can they continue to exceed expectations? Sure. They’re the first expansion team of the parity-infested salary-cap era, so it shouldn’t shock anyone if they’re more competitive than we thought.

But do they make the playoffs? Sorry, Vegas. Some long shots are just too far-fetched, and this might be one of them. It still seems as if the most likely outcome here is that the Knights will be selling by mid-season, and will be better in the long-term for having done so.

What we learned: The Canadiens can’t score.

Through four games, they’ve scored four goals, which ties them with Alex Ovechkin for most goals scored in games involving the Canadiens. Not surprisingly, it’s added up to just one win, and that one came in a shootout against the Sabres.

Will it continue? It might. They’ll average more than a goal per game, of course, and they’re not going to shoot 2.6 per cent forever. But we knew heading into the season that scoring would be a concern for this team. They had just 226 goals last year, ranking ahead of only Ottawa among Eastern playoff teams. That was before losing Alexander Radulov to Dallas, not to mention Andrei Markov to the KHL.

Marc Bergevin didn’t sit back, trading for Jonathan Drouin and signing Ales Hemsky, so there was room for optimism. But so far, it’s not clicking.

The question here may be how long the Habs get to find their firepower before Bergevin feels the need to do it for them. He took a lot of heat during the summer for not finding experienced help down the middle, and at some point he might have to just go out and pay the price for Matt Duchene, or somebody who looks like him.

We’re not quite there yet, but patience isn’t exactly a virtue Montreal fans are known for.

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What we learned: Everyone else can score.

After years of hovering around the 5.5-goals-per-game mark, the NHL is out of the gate at a little over 6.2. They did it! They fixed the 20-year scoring drought with their innovative new rules on [checks list], uh, faceoff violations.

Will it continue? No. We said the same thing last year at this point. Players are rusty early in the season, and it takes new coaches a little while to drill all the fun out of the rookies. More importantly, teams are getting roughly an extra power play each game as part of a crackdown on stick fouls, and we know how long those usually last. By the end of the month we’ll be back to 5.5, so enjoy it while it lasts.

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Sportsnet Tonight
Sean McIndoe chats Leafs & goal scoring levels in the NHL
Originally aired October 10 2017

What we learned: The Penguins are all over the place.

The two-time champs have pretty much covered the spectrum in their first three games. They lost a tight one to the Blues in overtime, got absolutely embarrassed by the Blackhawks, and then made a statement against the Predators. That’s left them with three points in three games, just in time to welcome their old pals the Capitals tonight.

Will it continue? The Pens kept their core but lost a big chunk of the depth they rode to last year’s title, so it was fair to expect a step back. That’s especially true early on, as new roles get sorted out and new faces adapt to the team’s system. And a slow first few weeks aren’t anything new in Pittsburgh – last year they lost three of their first six, and the year before that they dropped three straight. Both of those seasons turned out OK.

Still, that Blackhawks’ game has to raise some flags – good teams just don’t lose 10–1. Everyone from Sidney Crosby to Kris Letang to both goaltenders looked awful on the night. They get credit for rebounding against the Predators, and maybe we end up looking back at the Chicago debacle as a weird outlier. But for now at least, some extra skepticism seems warranted.

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What we learned: The teams that were supposed to be bad are all pretty good.

Aside from the Knights, the Avalanche and Red Wings have each won twice, the Devils are 2-0-0, and even the Canucks beat the Oilers. Those were four of the teams that were supposed to be in various stages of a rebuild. Instead, they’re more than holding their own.

Will it continue? Some of these teams will come back to earth quickly – remember, last year the Avs started 3-1-0 and the Canucks were 4-0-0, and they finished with the worst two records in the league. But most years, we do see at least one team that’s been written off before the season even starts turn out to be pretty good. Last year there were three, with the Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs and Oilers all making big strides.

So is there a potential playoff team in this mix? The Devils seem like the best option; they have a more proven goaltender than the Canucks and more young talent than a team like Detroit. The Avalanche seem like they just have too much ground to make up, although if Semyon Varlamov can get back to Vezina-candidate form then nothing’s completely off the table.

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The Jeff Blair Show
Young Devils eager to stack themselves up against Maple Leafs
Originally aired October 11 2017

But yeah, all of last year’s bad teams look good right now. Well, almost all of them…

What we learned: The Sabres are a mess. Again.

This was supposed to be the year. Well, last year was supposed to be the year, but that didn’t happen, so they fired everyone and turned their attention to this year. And yet three games in, they’re winless and have already lost to two teams that missed the playoffs last year.

Will it continue? The Sabres head out on what we usually call the dreaded California road trip, which you’d normally hate to see this early in the season. But maybe this is good timing. They start with the Sharks, another struggling team.

And maybe getting as far away from Buffalo as possible will help right now. This is a smart fan base that understands the plan and isn’t going to overreact to every little rough patch along the way. But if this season turns into yet another write-off, things are going to get ugly. Being dead last in the conference after a week wasn’t part of the plan.

There’s still plenty of time. But the clock may be ticking louder in Buffalo than anywhere else in the league right now.

What we learned: The old Alex Ovechkin is back.

With seven goals through three games, he’s on pace for… [runs the numbers] a lot. And if he does that, the Capitals should be good again, despite most of us assuming they’d respond to yet another playoff disaster by taking a step or two back this year.

Will it continue? We can dial down the hyperbole on Ovechkin’s start just a little after the Lightning held him off the board on Monday. Still, he’s spent most of the early season looking like the old, unstoppable Ovechkin of years past, instead of the veteran version who’s still scary but appears to be picking his spots more often. It’s tempting to latch onto that narrative: Ovechkin’s sick of losing, he’s mad, and he’s going to pack the rest of the team onto his back and drag them to a Cup.

It might even be true. But more so than any other short-term story on our list, this one just doesn’t feel like it matters much right now. The Capitals are always good during the regular season. That’s not the problem. They could run the table for six straight months, and it won’t matter if they don’t make noise in the playoffs. We know it, Caps fans know it and even the players know it.

Wins are better than losses, and a hungry Ovechkin is better than one who looks checked out. But it’s Cup or bust for this franchise, and racking up goals in October doesn’t mean much.

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What we learned: The Kings are back.

After winning Cups in 2012 and 2014, the Kings have stumbled to just a single playoff win in the three seasons since. That led to this summer’s firing of Dean Lombardi and Darryl Sutter, with new GM Rob Blake and coach John Stevens vowing to break the team out of its low-scoring, defence-first ways.

Most of us were skeptical, especially since the new regime didn’t really do much to alter the roster. But two games into the season, the Kings are 2-0-0 and looking a lot like their old selves.

Will it continue? The part about being their old selves is the interesting thing here – despite all the talk about opening up the offence, the Kings won their first two games based largely on Jonathan Quick‘s goaltending. If anything, the defence has looked looser while the offence is generating about the same number of chances (while converting at a slightly better rate). The penalty kill has been perfect, while the power play hasn’t done anything. And their possession game has been right around 50 per cent, which isn’t bad considering they’ve been leading for most of their games.

Add it all up and… well, you’ve got two games to work with. It’s fair to say that reports of the Kings’ imminent demise may have been premature, but the same could be said for any talk of the team transforming into an offensive force. So far, they’re still the Kings.

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What we learned: The Central is confusing.

For years, it was considered the league’s best division. It ceded that title to the Metro last year, and for the first time under the new format it didn’t send the maximum five teams to the playoffs. But it was still very good, producing the Western Cup finalist, and with the Predators on the rise, and the Stars and Jets looking to get back into the playoff race, most expected it to be even better this season.

Instead, the surprising Blues are dominating and the Hawks have looked good, but the rest of the division’s contenders are off to slow starts. The Wild came out of the gate with a pair of losses to non-playoff teams, the Jets have just one win in three, and the Stars and Predators finally picked up their first wins last night.

Will it continue? The Central should be fine. The Stars’ first two losses get an asterisk since they came from Kari Lehtonen instead of Ben Bishop, who returned to the lineup last night. The Wild and Predators should get back on track too, and if the Hawks and Blues are going to be better than expected that adds up to solid field even if the Avalanche fade again.

That leaves a tough road ahead for the Jets, who need to pass at least one (and probably two) of those five good teams to make the playoffs.

Winnipeg fans are hoping we’re wrong here and the division really does crumble; that just makes their path back to the post-season all that much easier. But for now, that still seems like wishful thinking.

What we learned: The Maple Leafs are going 82-0-0 during the season and then winning 16 straight playoff games to capture the Stanley Cup.

Will it continue? Of course not. They’ll eventually run into injuries and cold streaks and hot goalies and everything else that good teams see over the course of a season. Let’s pencil them in for 81-0-1 instead.

OK, we’re exaggerating, although it probably doesn’t feel like it if you’re a fan of one of the other 30 teams and are already sick of the Maple Leafs hype. They were getting plenty of love as a sneaky Cup contender pick in the off-season; now that they’re filling the net at will during a 3-0-0 start, it feels like the Cup engraving is already halfway done.

So let’s make everyone feel better by stating the obvious: No, it won’t continue. The Leafs will get cold, and they will get hurt, and they’ll have plenty of nights when they can’t compensate for a shaky defensive effort by just scoring a bunch of rapid-fire goals. Even in winning their first three, the Leafs have looked like a flawed team for stretches. Eventually it will start costing them games, Mike Babcock will start strangling guys, Leafs fans will panic and everything will all go back to normal.

The thing is, it’s starting to feel like “normal” has changed in Toronto. It used to mean last place, lots of excuses and looking ahead to the trade deadline. Now it feels more like making it back to the playoffs is the bare minimum for this team. Maybe even winning a round once they’re there. And if you get that far, hey, you never know what can happen.

Should the Leafs be some sort of Stanley Cup favourite? Not yet, no. But are they starting to look like a team that’s good enough to ride a few nice matchups and lucky breaks to a deep run? Maybe, yeah.

But all that’s a long way away. We’re still only a week into the season, remember. We’re just guessing right now, and we can’t know anything for sure. It’s too early to start handing out the trophies quite yet.

(Check back in a week for that.)