Down Goes Brown: Six stories primed for opening-week overreaction

Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine downplay their manufactured rivalry at every turn, but with their head-to-head matchups turning into track meets it means their games remain must-see viewing.

The NHL regular season opens tonight, and fans around the hockey world will be glued to their screens watching the action unfold. We’ve got four games to look forward to today, eight more tomorrow, and by the end of the weekend we’ll have seen every team at least once.

And through it all, you’ll be constantly reminded: Don’t panic. Don’t overreact. It’s early, it’s a long season, and you can’t go leaping to conclusions based on a game or two. Just enjoy the games, but don’t put too much stock in every shift.

Well, forget all of that. We’re hockey fans. Overreacting is what we do. We’ve got all season to settle into big-picture mode, but right now we’ve been starved for meaningful hockey for months, and we’re not about to let stuff like “common sense” get in the way of freaking out over every little thing that happens.

That said, it’s always best to have a plan. So here are a half-dozen stories that may or may not unfold over the first few games of the NHL season, and your guide to overreacting to them as much as possible.

What could happen: Auston Matthews and/or Patrik Laine are held off the board tonight in Winnipeg.

What it would mean: The dreaded sophomore slump has claimed another victim.

Laine and Matthews are both pretty good — that’s the sort of high-level analysis you won’t get anywhere else. But the question here isn’t “Are they good?” It’s “How good can they be in their second year in the league?”

Both players are facing high expectations — Laine’s been listed as a possible 50-goal scorer, and Matthews is showing up on some early-season Hart Trophy–contender lists. While that’s a lot to expect from a second-year player, it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable for a pair of guys who look like they’ll be special talents. But the old sports cliché about second-year players taking a step back looms large here, especially among Toronto and Winnipeg fans who aren’t exactly used to all this optimism.

Or maybe not: The sophomore slump actually doesn’t show up all that much through hockey history, at least as far as truly elite talent goes. There’s Teemu Selanne’s 51-goal drop, but that’s an obvious outlier. Generally speaking, a forward who’s good enough to light it up as a rookie almost always put up even better numbers in year two.

So relax, Toronto and Winnipeg fans. Even if last year’s two best rookies put up a goose egg tonight, they’ll almost certainly be fine. (Just as long as they score a hat trick in game two.)

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Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup
Is Matthews versus Laine a rivalry?
Originally aired October 04 2017

What could happen: The Capitals fill the net against the Senators tomorrow night.

What it would mean: The Senators’ blue line can’t survive without Marc Methot, not to mention Erik Karlsson and his papier-maché ankle.

It doesn’t sound like Karlsson will be out for quite as long as originally feared, but he’s still expected to miss some time. With Methot already gone, losing Karlsson for even a week or two could prove costly for a Senators team that most pundits don’t seem to think has much room for error; no other star in the entire league is his team’s best player by as wide a margin.

With all that going on, the schedule doesn’t give them much of a break by serving up last season’s third-highest scoring team. The Capitals have question marks of their own, but the talent up front remains undeniable, and it’s not hard to imagine them coming into Ottawa and lightning it up.

If so, Senators fans can spend a few days wringing their hands over the state of the blue line (and maybe even 36-year-old Craig Anderson‘s new extension). And if that’s followed up by shaky performances against relative lightweights Detroit and Vancouver, it’s full-blown panic time.

Or maybe not: Getting shelled without Karlsson really would be a reason for concern in Ottawa, but at least we know he’s coming back. The bigger concern would be if he doesn’t look 100 per cent once he returns, or (far worse) gets hurt again. Until then, we can assume that he’ll miss a few games and then resume his Norris-candidate ways.

But while we’re here, Thursday’s Sens/Caps game can work both ways. Given the state of Ottawa’s defence, if the Capitals don’t run up the score, we get to wonder whether they’ve taken a bigger step back than we thought. After the way last season ended, they should come out of the gate fired up and ready to prove themselves. If they don’t — or even if Anderson just stands on his head to shut them down — then overanxious Caps fans can take it as a clear sign that they’re running up the white flag.

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What could happen: A player who signed a big contract in the off-season starts slowly.

What it would mean: The 2017 off-season gives us plenty candidates to choose from here, including Leon Draisaitl, Carey Price, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ryan Johansen. They all looked great last year when they were playing for new contracts. But if they struggle early, well, clearly they’ve let that security get to their heads, right?

Or maybe not: First of all, no, Connor McDavid doesn’t fit into this category, even though he signed the richest contract of anyone. We’re having some fun with irrational overreactions here, but even we have our limits. If McDavid gets held pointless for all of October, it’s only because he’s being nice enough to give the rest of the Art Ross field a head start.

The rest of these guys should probably get the same benefit of the doubt, but in a hard cap league fans are always going to worry about big-dollar deals. Draisaitl will probably be under the biggest microscope, although Kuznetsov will get his share too. And we can also toss in big-money old guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

For an added bonus, don’t forget to also worry about any player who didn’t sign a big extension but could have. Does Jacob Trouba seem angry to you? Is William Nylander looking pouty? Did John Tavares just gaze wistfully at the out-of-town scoreboard? Clearly, they’re all halfway out the door.

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The Big Show
Chris Johnston on Karlsson, Tavares, and more
Originally aired September 28 2017

What could happen: One of the (many) goaltenders that switched teams struggles in his debut.

What it would mean: Their team screwed up the biggest decision of their summer and their season is ruined.

This one’s pretty much guaranteed to happen somewhere — the sheer number of goalies with new homes makes it all but inevitable. There was so much goaltending churn this off-season that five guys just ended up rotating teams, and that’s not even counting names like Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Of course, not all situations are created equal, and the pressure is much higher for some than others. Bishop needs to be good for the Stars to have a chance at regaining their Cup-contender status, so any struggles will trigger alarm bells. Fleury for the expansion Knights? Not so much. And for what it’s worth, those two goalies will probably face each other in their season openers on Friday.

In terms of tonight, the biggest spotlight probably shines on Mike Smith, as his Flames head to Edmonton to face the Oilers. The Battle of Alberta is always a good source of drama, and a strong performance by Smith would silence some doubters. Of course, the Oilers are pretty good, and McDavid and friends could give their provincial rivals something to worry about with a few early goals.

Smith’s home debut could come on Saturday against the Jets, who have a new goalie of their own in Steve Mason. His former team sees action tonight when the Flyers are in San Jose, which should mark the debut of Brian Elliott. Antti Raanta draws a tough matchup for his first game as an undisputed starter, when the Coyotes visit the Ducks tomorrow. And Scott Darling could have the longest wait of all; his Hurricanes don’t open their season until Saturday against the Wild.

The odds are good that at least a few of those guys will struggle early on. And with the exception of the Jets and maybe Flyers, none of their new teams really have much of a backup plan.

Or maybe not: Goalies are streaky and we all know that overreacting to a few bad games is a sucker’s play. This stuff tends to work itself out over time, even for goalies on new teams. Frederik Andersen looked shaky for the Leafs last October, then got back on track for the rest of the year. Then again, guys like Jaroslav Halak and Semyon Varlamov struggled too, and their seasons went off the rails.

Something that may be worth mentioning: Smith, Darling, Mason and Elliott each posted a .900 save percentage or worse over their teams’ first 10 games last year. All of them recovered to some extent, but none had what you’d call a strong season.

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What could happen: The new offside rule actually leads to more challenges.

What it would mean: While we were all enjoying the parade of pre-season penalties for slashing and faceoff violations, the league slipped in a new rule that could have a much bigger impact. An offside challenge that doesn’t result in the goal being overturned will now result in a minor penalty instead of simply costing a team its timeout.

It’s a good change — there’s no reason to treat a failed offside challenge any differently than an incorrect stick measurement, which has always been a delay-of-game penalty — and it seems designed to reduce the number of game-stalling challenges. But it comes with a wrinkle: Now that the timeout has been removed from the equation, there’s no longer any sort of limit on how many challenges a coach can try.

In theory, that could result in more challenges. Based on standard penalty-kill rates, a coach would typically only have to feel like he had a one in five or six chance of being right to make a challenge worthwhile. That would change depending on game situation, since not all goals are equally important, but a coach who went strictly by the numbers would end up challenging just about anything that’s even close.

If some coach spends opening night launching multiple challenges, you might be able to hear the heads banging off desks at league headquarters.

Or maybe not: Let’s just say that the chances are good that we don’t have to worry much about that one. Coaches don’t make decisions purely by the numbers, in hockey or anywhere else. If they did, they’d pull goalies earlier, bunt far less, and go for it on fourth down way more. But they don’t, because they know where the blame will point if they go against tradition and it doesn’t work out.

Can you imagine some coach watching his team give up two or three power-play goals because he kept challenging offside calls, then patiently explaining to his GM that he ran the numbers and it was worth the risk based on expected value? We may see a few early-season challenges as coaches pick and prod at the new rule, but once that starts turning into additional goals against we can probably expect the fad to die out quickly.

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On Point
Matt Duchene keeps his distance inside Avalanche locker room
Originally aired September 20 2017

What could happen: Matt Duchene has a big game in New York.

What it would mean: The never-ending trade saga has finally lit a fire under him, he’s going to have a great season, and Joe Sakic is a genius.

Given how sure we all were that he was getting traded this summer, it’s going to feel a little bit awkward when the Avalanche kick off their season at MSG and Duchene is still in the lineup. The schedule-maker may have done him a small favor, as the Avs start the season with three straight on the road before finally getting their home opener a week from tonight. That gives Duchene time to get off to the sort of strong start that would ease any bad feelings in Colorado, not to mention give the team’s fans a rare boost of optimism. Or else.

Or maybe not: Duchene’s early-season play will be one of those Rorschach test stories where you’ll be able to see whatever you want to see. If he starts off strong, that could mean that the Avs should hold onto him — or that they finally have a chance to sell high. If he struggles (like he did down the stretch last year), that might mean that Sakic has to keep playing it patient — or that he has to make a move now before the market completely collapses.

The recent history of early-season trades is pretty sparse, with teams almost always sticking it out with what they have for the first few months. That suggests Duchene might have to grin and bear it in Colorado for a while. But this has been a situation where nothing ever seems to go as expected, so it’s possible that Duchene’s first few games could have an impact, especially if he gets off to a hot start.

(Just make sure someone tells him not to celebrate too much.)