Down Goes Brown: 10 truly frightening 2017–18 NHL starts

NHL insider Doug MacLean joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to discuss Frederik Andersen's 2nd straight tough October, the exact opposite of Mike Smith, who's single-handedly winning games for the Calgary Flames.

It’s Halloween, which means most of us will want to shut off the lights tonight and settle in with a scary movie or two. There’s just something about Oct. 31 that makes you want to shudder in fear while waiting for some hapless character to get hacked to bits.

Then again, you could save yourself some time and skip the movie. If you want a good scare at this time of year, all you need to do is check out the NHL stats page, where some players are off to truly frightening starts.

So today, let’s take a look at 10 of the scariest starts we’re seeing around the league, and whether there’s any hope of ending of their stories ending happily.

Frederik Andersen, Maple Leafs

Through 11 starts, he’s sporting some ugly numbers, including an .896 save percentage and 3.46 goals against. And it’s not like those stats are being thrown off by one or two bad performances. If anything, it’s the opposite, as Andersen has had only five games with a save percentage over .870. And lately, Leafs fans are getting used to seeing him beaten clean on high shots, often barely moving as the puck blows by him.

For a quasi-Cup contender that doesn’t seem to have much confidence in its backups, that’s worrying. Last night’s strong effort in San Jose was a good sign, but there hasn’t been much consistency yet on the year.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The big guy with the goalie mask who makes you feel really nervous every time he’s on the screen.

Odds of a happy ending: We’ve been down this road before with Andersen, who started slowly last year, too. He eventually got back on track, and was one of the league’s better goalies from November on. That was a good reminder that goaltending is voodoo, and that everyone has a bad stretch or two over the course of a season. There’s a good chance that’s the case here, too.

And as rough as Andersen’s start has been, he still has six wins, so it’s not like he’s sinking his team. Still, Leaf fans wouldn’t mind seeing him string together a few solid starts to ease the tension.

Radio_Icon
Radio_Icon
The Jeff Blair Show
Jeff Blair: Let's take it easy Maple Leafs fans
Originally aired October 31 2017

Kris Letang, Penguins

After missing last year’s entire post-season run due to a neck injury that required surgery, Letang’s return to the Penguins’ lineup was supposed to provide a big boost to a team that had lost several depth pieces. He’s put up eight points through 13 games, which isn’t bad. But he’s also a -14 on the year, ranking him dead last in the league. We all know that +/- is a flawed stat that has as much to do with circumstance as actual performance. But an extreme number can still tell you something, and in Letang’s case it’s not anything good.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The good guy who seems to have done something to accidentally trigger an ancient curse.

Odds of a happy ending: In addition to missing a Stanley Cup run due to last year’s neck injury, Letang has also had to battle through multiple concussions, groin problems, various upper- and lower-body injuries, and even a stroke. Now he’s getting pummelled by a stat that’s largely luck-based. Chances are his numbers even out over time, and here’s hoping he can stay healthy this year. But just in case, maybe don’t let him pick your lotto numbers.

Live stream over 300 marquee regular season games, regional matchups for the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs, and the entire 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Max Pacioretty, Canadiens

We have plenty of candidates to choose from in Montreal, where not much has gone right this month. But as always, the spotlight shines brighter on the captain, and Pacioretty is off to a slow start with just four points through 12 games.

He’s certainly not the only forward struggling on a team that ranks 20th in the league in goal-scoring, although a combined 13 goals against the Rangers and Senators has certainly helped boost some totals. Things might be turning around for the Habs, and Pacioretty’s been fine so far. But fine doesn’t always cut it in Montreal, and when Hall of Famers are calling on you to give up your captaincy, you know you’re under pressure to produce.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The smart kid who figures out that this situation is bad before everyone else does, but isn’t sure how to escape.

Odds of a happy ending: Pacioretty might be his own worst enemy when things aren’t going well. He knows what he signed on for when he took the fabled “C,” and you can sense the strain he puts on himself when the team is struggling. In one recent media session, he seemed to be near tears as he referred to himself as “the worst one on the ice.” It’s hard not to feel for the guy and hope he turns it around.

And he probably will. Pacioretty’s been one of the most consistent forwards over the years, scoring between 30 and 39 goals in every non-lockout season since 2011. He should wind up there again this year – as long as everyone in Montreal can stay calm long enough for him to get on track.

Ryan Strome, Oilers

It’s been a tough month for the Strome brothers. In Arizona, Dylan lasted just two scoreless games before being sent to the AHL. But that still leaves him within striking distance of older brother Ryan, who has just three points through ten games for the Oilers after coming over in the off-season in the Jordan Eberle trade.

That move was driven by the salary cap, and nobody was expecting Strome to come in and immediately replace Eberle’s production. But there was some initial optimism that he could come close, especially with early talk that he could be slotted in next to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Instead, he’s on the third line and not producing all that much, while the Oilers are worried about a lack of secondary scoring on the wing. There’s even talk that Strome could be traded.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The new kid in town. It never works out well for the new kid in town.

Odds of a happy ending: Strome is 24, which means he’s young enough that you don’t want to write him off but old enough that you can’t be sure you haven’t already seen his best. He put up 50 points in his first full NHL season, and the Oilers hoped they were getting that sort of player when they pulled the trigger on Eberle. Maybe they were, and if the team were off to a better start then they’d be happy to wait and find out. But with the way things are going in Edmonton right now, patience isn’t really an option. Strome could be a guy who pays a price for that.

The Sedin Twins, Canucks

The Canucks have been a pleasant early-season surprise, posting a respectable 6-3-2 record and looking like they might belong in the Western playoff conversation. But they’re doing it without all that much scoring from the Sedins, who’ve combined for just two goals and eight points on the year.

If the season were a horror movie, they’d be: The twins. Every good horror movie needs a set of twins.

Odds of a happy ending: In a way, the Sedins’ slow start has been good news for Vancouver, since it shows the team can win without their franchise players leading the way. Whether they want to admit it or not, the Canucks are rebuilding, so having guys like Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser lead the way is important. As for the Sedins, they’re not the players they once were, but they’ll get on track eventually.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blue Jackets

Dubois arrived on the NHL scene with some controversy, when the Blue Jackets surprised many of us by taking him with the third-overall pick in last year’s draft instead of consensus choice Jesse Puljujarvi. It’s far too early to pass judgement on that choice, but Dubois isn’t exactly out to a fast start. He was sent back to junior last season, and this year he has just one point in his first 12 NHL games. That came in his very first game, so it’s been a double-digit cold streak for the rookie.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The kid who you’re pretty sure will be fine because he’s too young to have anything really bad happen to him.

Odds of a happy ending: Strong. Dubois is 19 years old and just learning the NHL game. More importantly, the Blue Jackets are off to a decent start, so they don’t need him to produce right away. John Tortorella isn’t exactly a guy who’s known for having a ton of patience with young players (or anyone else), but so far nobody’s pushing the kid too hard. He’s even had a chance to move up the lineup to replace the injured Cam Atkinson. Nothing’s guaranteed when it comes to prospects, but Dubois should be fine.

The Hockey PDOcast with Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

Sam Bennett, Flames

Through 12 games, the former fourth-overall pick has yet to record a point. That’s not great.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The guy who makes friends with the ancient undead zombie.

Odds of a happy ending: Like Dubois, Bennett is young enough to deserve some benefit of the doubt. But this isn’t some struggling rookie – he’s 21 and has two full seasons under his belt. Ideally, you’d want to see some progress in his offensive numbers by now. Instead, they’re trending downward.

Bennett’s struggles are especially frustrating given the success we’ve seen from some of the forwards taken after him in 2014, like Nikolaj Ehlers, William Nylander and Dylan Larkin. Flames fans were hoping this would be the breakout year, and it isn’t happening.

That doesn’t mean you give up on the kid. And the Flames are working to find a fit for him, including shifting him from centre to wing. But at some point, this could turn into one of those situations where a change of scenery starts looking like the answer, and trade rumours are beginning to trickle in. Nobody should be writing Bennett off as a solid NHL player yet, but you wonder if it’s going to happen in Calgary of elsewhere.

Pretty much all of the Arizona Coyotes

If you’re employed by the Coyotes organization and you’re not Clayton Keller, you’re probably having a nightmare start to the season. They finally got their first win of the season last night in Philadelphia, but still needed overtime after blowing a two-goal lead in the final minute.

That snapped a string of 11 straight losses, which tied the legendarily bad 1943-44 Rangers for the longest losing streak to start a season. In a league with this much parity, that shouldn’t even be possible.

If the season were a horror movie, they’d be: All the victims who are already dead and buried before the opening credits have even run.

Odds of a happy ending: Barring some sort of historic turnaround, pretty much zero; even with last night’s two points, they’re already nine back of a playoff spot, and it’s not even November. They’ll string a few wins together, to be sure, and some of their young players will do things that create some momentary optimism. But this team wanted to be in the playoffs this year, and they didn’t even make it out of the first scene.

Fantasy Hockey Pool
Play the Sportsnet Fantasy Hockey Pool for your chance to score big with over $22,000 worth of prizes to be awarded!

Rick Nash, Rangers

Much like the Canadiens, we could pick from any number of Rangers – including their coach. But we’ll go with Nash, the $7.8-million cap hit winger who’s managed just two goals and three points on the year so far.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The guy you’re pretty sure you remember seeing in this exact same role in other movies.

Odds of a happy ending: Doesn’t it seem like we go through this with Nash a lot? It feels like every season or so he goes through a stretch where he doesn’t score even though he seems to be otherwise playing fine. Typically, it happens in the playoffs, so maybe he’s mixing it up this year. Either way, he’s a streaky player – just like every scorer – and sometimes the puck just isn’t going in.

In other words, expect him to get back to normal soon. Just remember that Nash is 33 years old, and his days of scoring 40 goals or 60+ points are over. “Normal” is now going to be closer to 15 or 20 goals and 40 points. That may not be worth the cap hit, but the Rangers will have to settle for it.

Brent Burns, Sharks

It’s not often that you’d point to a defenceman and complain about a lack of goal-scoring. But the reigning Norris winner is coming off a 29-goal season, and he hasn’t found the net yet this year through 11 games.

If the season were a horror movie, he’d be: The creature that makes you think you may have accidentally chosen a sci-fi movie instead.

Odds of a happy ending: Whenever a goal-scorer goes cold, the first thing you want to look at is their shot rate. If that’s dropping, too, there may be a problem. But in Burns’s case, he’s averaging 4.6 shots/game, which is even better than the 3.9 he posted last year and the 4.3 he had during a 27-goal 2015-16 season. His 5v5 shot-attempts rate is also on track. That suggests that we’re just seeing some bad shooting luck that should even out over time. The slump means Burns will probably fall short of his usual goal-scoring numbers this year, but not by all that much.