Down Goes Brown: 5 early struggles and why not to panic yet

Don Cherry tells Dean Blundell & Co. that the Oilers turnaround is mostly due to the play of Cam Talbot, also hopes Freddie Anderson can have a similar turnaround for the Maple Leafs, but still misses James Reimer.

Don’t panic.

It’s a phrase worth keeping in mind as you make your way through life. It’s calming, and helps keep things in perspective. Somebody should put it on the cover of a book someday.

And “don’t panic” is especially good advice when it comes to an NHL season that’s still just three weeks old. Every team in the league has over 70 games left to play, which is plenty of time to fix any flaws that may have emerged over the season’s first few matchups.

That said, we could all use a reminder every now and then. So today, let’s look at five situations around the league that have been a cause for concern, and why it might not be time to panic quite yet.

The team: Chicago Blackhawks

The panic: Their penalty killing is the worst.

Literally. It might be the worst we’ve ever seen. Through nine games, the Blackhawks are killing penalties at a rate of just 53 per cent. They’d been at just 50 per cent before Sunday night’s performance against the Kings, the first game all season that the Hawks hadn’t allowed a power-play goal. Granted, they only went 2-for-2, but hey, baby steps.

But wait: We’ll start with the obvious, which is that there’s simply no way the Blackhawks’ penalty kill can continue to this bad. They’ve quite literally been historically bad, or at least as far back into history as our numbers can go. There’s simply no way that a team that employs guys like Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa can be that bad over the long haul.

But while it’s tempting to just say “small sample size” and move on, the Blackhawks struggled last year too, ranking 22nd in the league. That’s a big drop from the strong PK that was a big part of their championship runs as recently as 2013 and 2015. Something is going on here, and a special teams unit doesn’t have to be historically bad to derail a season.

So what’s happening? That’s a question that seems to have stumped most observers. There doesn’t appear to have been any kind of strategic shift, nor have we seen any key penalty killers leave the team. A breakdown of some of the early goals against revealed that many were coming from right on the doorstep, but didn’t reveal any obvious tactical issues.

One area that does stand out is the goaltending; Corey Crawford is posting a short-handed save percentage of just .683, compared to a career average of .861. That doesn’t necessarily tell us a ton, since we know that a goalie’s penalty-kill save percentage is heavily influenced by how the team plays in front of him. But a nearly 200-point drop is hard to ignore, and it suggests that there may be something to the whole sample size argument.

The other good news is that the Blackhawks have one of the league’s best coach-GM combos, so you’d have to figure that they find a way to make whatever changes need to be made. In the meantime, Chicago has still managed to win five of nine. That’s not great, but it’s good enough to keep them in the Central Division picture. You’ll probably take that when a big part of your game has been historically bad.


The team: Dallas Stars

The panic: The goaltending looks shaky … again.

We all know the story of last year’s Stars. They were the most exciting team in hockey, leading the league in goals scored while also giving up more than any other playoff team. The goaltending tandem of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen was uneven, combining for a very pedestrian .906 save percentage.

They found a way to make it work during the season, finishing with the best record in the West, but eventually dropped a seven-game series to the Blues in which they gave up 20 goals in their four losses.

That performance led many to assume that Jim Nill would address the issue over the off-season, but that move never came. Eight games into this season, both Niemi and Lehtonen are sitting at .900 or worse. And so far, the Stars aren’t managing to win in spite of their goaltending, sitting at 3-4-1 and on the outside of the Western playoff picture.


But wait: If you need to go looking for a goaltender, this is the season to do it. The upcoming expansion draft should shake at least a few decent goalies onto the market as the season goes on and teams figure out who has a long-term future and who might be Vegas bait. And making a deal fit under the salary cap also gets easier as the season wears on. Nill’s biggest challenge in the off-season may have been Niemi and Lehtonen’s contracts, both of which run through the end of next season.

The further along we get, the less of an albatross those deals might become if they were to be included in a deal.

So even if the Stars end up deciding that they absolutely need an upgrade in goal, they should be able to find a way to do it. And their odds will get better the longer they wait. They just need to stay in the race long enough to avoid a scenario where they have no choice but to take what they can get. And with Central powerhouses like the Predators and Blackhawks looking vulnerable, time might be on the Stars’ side.


The team: Various

The panic: That big money UFA signing isn’t working out.

We could run down a lengthy list here. Loui Eriksson doesn’t have a goal yet in Vancouver. Andrew Ladd has just a single assist for the Islanders. Mikkel Boedker has one point for the Sharks, as does Dale Weise for the Flyers. Alex Goligoski has been hit and miss in Arizona, and Keith Yandle has struggled at times in Florida. And while David Backes got off to a strong start in Boston, he’s already missed time due to injury.


But wait: It’s one thing to overreact to eight or nine games over the course of a season; it seems even more ridiculous to do it for a multi-year contract. Most of these guys have strong track records, and it shouldn’t be too surprising to see the occasional veteran needing a bit of time to find his groove with a new team.

However, there is some reason to be nervous on at least a few of these signings. For one, history tells us that many of the worst contracts in the league are signed in free agency, so the odds are good that some of these deals are going to end up being busts.

More importantly, most of these contracts are long deals that offer diminishing returns to the teams that signed them. When you give a guy who’s already on the wrong side of 30 a six- or seven-year contract, you’re not expecting to get value for each year of the deal. You’re hoping to get a bargain early on, and then bite the bullet in the later years. That means that the first few years are the most important, and even one bad season can torpedo the chances of a deal being viewed as an overall success.

We said one bad season, not nine bad games, so there’s time for all of these guys. But the clock is already ticking. In the immortal words of Dave Nonis, “I’m not worried about (years) six and seven right now; I’m worried about one.” That contract worked out fine, right?


The team: Toronto Maple Leafs

The panic: Frederik Andersen has had an ugly start to his Maple Leafs career.

Goaltending was a major issue for the Maple Leafs last year, as it has been just about every season since the lockout. Jonathan Bernier struggled badly, and once the team moved on from James Reimer it was apparent that a replacement was needed.

That shoe dropped in late June, when the Leafs traded a first and a second (and Bernier too, eventually) to the Ducks for Andersen. It seemed like a reasonable deal at the time, with Andersen coming off a season in which he and John Gibson won the Jennings. But so far, the new Leaf has had a tough time, posting an .876 save percentage and 3.67 goals-against average through seven games.


But wait: Hey, it’s not like the Maple Leafs have a recent track record of trading for goaltenders who turn out to be busts, so they’re… oh, right.

OK, but even if Andersen is the next Vesa Toskala or Andew Raycroft, it’s not as if the team is stuck with him for too many… what’s that? Five years, you say. Huh.

When you look at it like that, it’s not hard to see why Leafs fans would be feeling a little nervous about Andersen’s early struggles. The suggestion (denied by the team) that they’ve been messing with his playing style certainly doesn’t help. And while seven games isn’t much to go on, it’s hard to deny that Andersen has looked awful at times, leading to fans and media around the league wondering what’s wrong with him.

But the good news is that Andersen may already be showing signs of righting the ship. After hitting rock bottom in a 7-3 loss to the Lightning during which Mike Babcock left him in for all seven goals, Andersen has posted back-to-back solid games, stopping 29 of 31 shots in each. Only one of those efforts translated to a win, but progress is progress.

More importantly we’re dealing with a handful of games. All goalies hit rough patches, Andersen included, and he’s recovered before.

Seeing a new goaltender get lit up over the course of his first few games will always be worrying, especially to a team scarred by a recent history like Toronto’s. But the situation is already looking up. So take a deep breath, Leaf fans. Andersen isn’t Toskala or Raycroft.



The team: Nashville Predators

The panic: They lost the Subban-for-Weber trade and now their team is broken.

You may have heard about it, but the Shea Weber era is going pretty well in Montreal. He’s dominating at both ends, has already eclipsed some of P.K. Subban‘s numbers from last year, and the Canadiens are sitting on top of the league standings. All that talk of Weber being merely an average defenceman or the trade being a disaster for Montreal feels like it was a long time ago. At this point, he’s probably your early Norris frontrunner.

None of which is to say that Subban has been the problem in Nashville. He has five points, and while his possession numbers aren’t good, they’re not a major red flag. With an on-ice PDO of 93.4 across all situations, any perception of Subban struggling would seem to be as much about bad luck as anything.

But Subban has been the least of the Predators’ problems. They’ve been struggling pretty much across the board, with just two wins in eight games and a minus-9 goal differential that ranks as the league’s worst. Pekka Rinne has looked bad, Filip Forsberg hasn’t scored, James Neal isn’t producing, the special teams are a mess, Ryan Johansen has been invisible… you could keep this up through virtually the entire roster.


But wait: This may be the toughest situation on our list, because it’s tough to even narrow down the problem.

Again, we’re not even 10 games into the season, so there’s a lot of time to get back on track. And the Predators are a good team, one that many picked to win the Central. Every team goes through an occasional bad stretch, so maybe this is Nashville’s.

But all that said, this isn’t your garden variety cold streak. The Predators really have looked awful for most of the season, and even more concerning, there’s no obvious reason why.

There aren’t any key injuries that we know of. Apart from Weber, the roster is largely the same as last year’s. They didn’t change coaches, or make any major adjustments to their system. In short, unless Weber really was Superman, there’s no good reason for them to be struggling so badly.

Maybe that’s the good news – if there’s nothing that’s obviously wrong, maybe you just play it out and trust that the positive results will follow. But it’s hard to fix a problem you can’t find. Most years, there’s at least one team that we all assumed would be good that just never gets into gear. Nashville still has time to figure this out, but it has work to do.

In the meantime, Predators fans may want to avoid anyone wearing a No. 6 Habs jersey. No matter how much they may want to high-five you right now.

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