By the time the final buzzer sounds on tonight’s games, we’ll officially be four full weeks into the regular season. That feels like a good time to stop and take stock of how things are going. With the key word being “stock”.
Yes, it’s time to have a look around the league and figure out whose stock is rising, and whose is on the decline. Why use a stock metaphor? Because it’s
an easy gimmick for a column a useful way to take the temperature of everything from players to teams to bigger picture storylines. And we’ll open with a surging stock that only recently hit the market.
Stock rising: Youth
We’ll start with the obvious one. The arrival of the next generation of stars has been the opening month’s biggest story, and it’s not especially close.
From Auston Matthews‘ ridiculous opening night to Patrik Laine‘s goal-scoring pace to Connor McDavid‘s nightly highlight reel, the league is being dominated by teenagers to an extent we haven’t seen in decades. Mix in “older” guys like Shayne Gostisbehere, Matt Murray and Jimmy Vesey and you’ve got quite the youth movement sweeping the league.
We’ve seen it before, but it’s rare to see this much talent all appear to be hitting its stride at once. Maybe coaches were inspired by watching Team North America light up the World Cup, or maybe GMs have figured out that entry-level contracts deliver the best value in a cap league. Or maybe it’s a fluke that will correct itself over the rest of the season. But for now, the kids are all right, and it’s been all sorts of fun to watch.
Stock holding steady: The old guard
Normally, when you talk about a new wave of talent taking over a league, the next step is to mention the old guard that’s being pushed out the door. But that’s not really happening in the NHL, at least not yet.
Sidney Crosby is still dominating, tied for the league lead in goals despite missing the first two weeks with a concussion. Alex Ovechkin is right behind him, and Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane show up high on the list of leading scorers. On the blue line, we’ve seen exceptional performances from familiar names like Shea Weber and Brent Burns.
None of those guys are “old” in the “long white beard rocking chair on the porch” Jaromir Jagr sense of the word (although some of those guys are playing well too). But they’re all players who’ve dominated the stats pages and awards shows over the years, and they don’t seem like they’re ready to hand their spots over anytime soon. The league’s young guns are as good as they’ve been in a long time, but if they want the spotlight to themselves, they’re going to have to pry it out of the hands of some veterans who don’t seem eager to give it up.
Stock falling: New starters
The 2015 off-season was the summer of goaltender deals, with plenty of movement on the market as teams sought out new starters. The results were mixed, but there were some notable success stories, with Cam Talbot playing well in Edmonton and Martin Jones taking the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final (where he lost to another new starter, rookie Murray and the Penguins).
So far this season, teams looking for a repeat of those results haven’t been rewarded.
Toronto’s Frederik Andersen and Calgary’s Brian Elliott both got off to slow starts, although Andersen has been better lately. Jake Allen finally took over undisputed starter’s duties in St. Louis after Elliott left, but has had his ups and downs. John Gibson did the same for Andersen in Anaheim and has played well after a shaky start.
Meanwhile, the Jets decision to dump Ondrej Pavelec to the AHL in favour of Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck, widely applauded at the time, hasn’t worked out at all through the season’s first month.
It can take time for a new goaltender to settle in, so we should expect at least a few of these guys to put together solid seasons. But for the most part, the league’s best goalies have all been familiar faces manning the same crease we’re used to seeing them in.
Stock rising: The Metro
We covered this a bit in yesterday’s power rankings, but it’s worth repeating here. The Metro Division is staking an early claim as the league’s best, thanks largely to three teams that are running over the rest of the league.
Maybe that’s not much of a surprise. After all, the Penguins are the defending champs, the Capitals are the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, and the Rangers have made three trips to the conference finals in five years. But it’s still been an impressive performance for the three teams, who’ve combined to go 26-7-3 (with two of those losses coming in games they played against each other).
Stock falling: The Central
The consensus pick for the league’s best division over the last few seasons hasn’t lived up to that reputation so far this year. The Blackhawks have looked great, their early-season penalty kill issues aside. But the Blues and Wild have both been uneven, with each winning just one more game than they’ve lost. And the rest of the division is a mess, with presumed Cup contenders like the Stars and Predators off to terrible starts and the Avalanche and Jets struggling to put together any sort of momentum.
It’s still early, and there’s plenty of time for the standings to start looking more like what we’d expected. But for now, it’s looking like this could at least be the year that the Central fails to send five teams to the post-season for the first time under the new playoff format.
Stock rising: The UFA class of 2017
Getting excited about an upcoming free agency class is always a bit of a fool’s game. Year after year, we salivate over all the talent that will be available on July 1, only to watch as players sign extensions and the market dries up.
But that could be changing. Last year’s UFA class was reasonably deep, even if it didn’t include any true superstars once Stamkos bailed at the last moment. This year’s class doesn’t project to be as deep, but without any major extensions coming down in the season’s first month, it could at least be interesting.
You can start in San Jose, where Burns is putting up another dominant year. He’ll almost certainly re-sign well before the off-season, so we won’t get our hopes up there. But that won’t leave much room for teammates Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, and neither may want to take a hometown discount given their up-and-down history with the team.
Another top defenceman who seems more likely to hit the market is Kevin Shattenkirk, who’ll only be 28 when the off-season arrives. There could be a pair of good goaltenders available, with Ben Bishop and Ryan Miller both looking like good candidates to reach the market, perhaps joined by Steve Mason or Brian Elliott.
Veterans like Jarome Iginla and Patrick Sharp are on expiring deals. And then there are this year’s one-year gambles that aren’t eligible for extensions quite yet; players like Thomas Vanek and Alexander Radulov have started strong and could see their price rise.
Stock falling: Offside reviews
Do we still have this rule? After popping up frequently last season and briefly becoming the dominant story of the playoffs, offside reviews have largely faded into the background.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any reviews, or that nobody is complaining about the rule. The Sharks were mad about losing a goal recently, and the Lightning were unhappy when their challenge of a Bruins goal was deemed inconclusive.
But for the most part, fans have been able to get through days or even weeks at a time without having to think about the offside review rule. That’s good, and it’s how the system was supposed to work in the first place. Here’s hoping it keeps up.
(By the way, apologies in advance to whichever team is going to lose a game because of a review in the next few days now that I’ve jinxed it.)
Stock rising: Trading
Through the first four weeks of the season, the NHL has seen infinitely more trading than it has in recent years. Literally.
Granted, that’s not exactly a tough bar to clear. Last year, we didn’t see our first trade until five weeks into the season, and didn’t get any deals involving actual NHL players until mid-December. Two years ago, the first trade didn’t come until the season’s fifth week.
But this year, the league’s opening month trade market soared all the way from zero deals to… one. It wasn’t much of a blockbuster, with the Senators trading a fifth-round pick for backup goalie Mike Condon, but in today’s NHL we’ll take what we can get.
More importantly, various situations around the league seem to be pointing towards an active trade market. Dallas still needs to fix its goaltending. The Rangers are stocked with forwards, but need help on the blue line. The Lightning need to figure out what to do with Bishop, the Penguins need to do the same with Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak reportedly wants out. Disappointing teams like the Predators and Bruins are feeling the pressure to shake things up. And of course, yesterday’s Jacob Trouba signing doesn’t mean we won’t see a trade there eventually.
Add it all up, and it’s possible that the league’s GMs are going to need to get out of their comfort zones and start making some deals. Recent history has shown that the truly meaningful trades don’t start happening until after the holiday freeze, but this year, that might be too late for some teams. And sometimes, one or two big deals can get the dominos falling throughout the league.
It may all be wishful thinking; maybe we’ll just get two more months of timid GMs mumbling about how the salary cap makes their jobs too hard. But the lay of the land suggests that somebody somewhere is going to need to make a move soon.
Stock falling: Firing
We made it through the season’s first month without anyone losing their jobs. That doesn’t seem like it should be especially newsworthy, but it’s not unusual for NHL teams to move quickly when it comes to pink slips. Last year’s first firing came just seven games in. In 2013, it took only three.
But so far this year, everyone has been safe. That may be partially due to things still settling down after a busy off-season. Meanwhile, early-season hot seat candidates like Michel Therrien and Alain Vigneault are off to strong starts, and John Tortorella seems to have at least steadied things in Columbus after a shaky first week.
That doesn’t mean we’ll have to wait long. The hot seat rumour mill has featured names like Paul Maurice, Jack Capuano and Claude Julien. And then there’s Willie Desjardins, who may be hanging by a thread in Vancouver and might not even make it back from this road trip if the Canucks can’t turn things around.
But for now, we’re headed into the season’s second month without anyone hitting the unemployment line. If you’re behind an NHL bench, you’ll enjoy it while you can. Most coaches are only one bad losing streak away from seeing their stock crash completely.