Every Monday, Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: That’s offensive
Welcome to another season of the Weekend Wrap. Every Monday morning, we’ll take a look at some of the trends and stories emerging from the last few days of NHL action. And we’ll feature top-five and bottom-five power rankings of the league’s best and worst teams, which is always popular except for when your favourite team isn’t in exactly the right place, which is to say that it’s never popular.
Opening weekend certainly gave us plenty of goals to talk about. The Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers shot the lights out in an 8-5 Toronto win, and we got at least nine goals in four other games. In all, 10 teams scored at least five times in a weekend game, and overall scoring rates are about a goal per game higher than they were last season.
It’s not unusual for scoring rates to be up early in the year, as players shake off the rust and learn new systems. We went down this same road last season, when scoring was up early before settling back to normal rates within a few weeks. That will almost certainly happen again here, so we may as well enjoy all the goals while we can.
With apologies to the Chicago Blackhawks and Leafs, nobody’s enjoying the early offence more than Alex Ovechkin. He lit up the Ottawa Senators for a season-opening hat trick on Thursday, then followed that with four more against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. Back-to-back hat tricks to start a season is a feat the league hasn’t seen in a century, ever since it was done back in 1917 by … well, by pretty much everyone. The league was weird back then.
It’s going to be weird now too, if Ovechkin keeps this up. He’s obviously not going to finish the season with 280 goals, and we’re only a few quiet games away from a week’s worth of “What’s gone wrong with Ovechkin?” think pieces. But it’s hard to deny that he looks like a player on a mission this year, and a big rebound from last year’s dip to 33 goals seems likely. If he puts up another week or two like this first one, the “Rocket” Richard race might even be over early.
But was it enough to get the Capitals into top spot in our first power rankings? Let’s head to the next section to find out.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. Edmonton Oilers (1-1-0, +2 true goal differential*) – Turns out you can stop Connor McDavid after all. Or at least the lowly Vancouver Canucks can. Still, we’ll leave the Oilers teetering on the edge of the top five based on their impressive opening-night win over the Calgary Flames (and the lack of other clear-cut candidates).
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (2-0-0, +8) – An 8-5 win over the Rangers? Only a truly wise man could have seen that coming.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (1-1-1, -6) – The Chicago debacle raised eyebrows, but they looked good against the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
2. Washington Capitals (2-0-0, +5) – Two games in, and Ovechkin still has zero assists. Can’t win with selfish players like that, am I right?
1. Chicago Blackhawks (2-0-0, +13) – They didn’t just demolish two opponents to start the season, they demolished a pair of teams who combined for 219 points last year. That’s kind of scary.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL still does even though we’ve all been pointing out that it makes no sense for years.)
If you’re reading this and thinking “Wait, it’s way too early for power rankings”, well … yeah, you’re right. We’ve only got a few games from each team to work with, and as the analytics folks are always so quick to politely remind us, small sample sizes don’t tell us much. So for the first few weeks, we’ll rely more on the pre-season consensus than on the actual results, unless we’re seeing something really extreme.
Will that get us anywhere? Chances are, it will be pretty hit and miss. This time last year, our very first team to top the power rankings was the Penguins, and they ended up winning it all. So that’s good. But our bottom-ranked team was the 0-2-0 Columbus Blue Jackets, who went on to have 108 points.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning were in the top five for the first few weeks even though they’d miss the playoffs, while the legendarily bad Colorado Avalanche didn’t show up in the bottom five at all until Week 4.
So yeah, it’s probably too early. As we’ve covered before, that’s no excuse not to talk to some hockey, and overreacting is what fans do best, so we’ll do what we can. But we won’t get crazy, which is why the two-time defending champs still make our top five despite a lacklustre start. And it’s why we’re not going to put a team like the St. Louis Blues or Los Angeles Kings in the top five based on two wins, let alone a few other undefeated teams we’ll get to in the next section.
But we will put the Leafs in the top five, thanks to their offence steamrolling over what we think are two decent teams in the Winnipeg Jets and Rangers. It’s possible that one or both of those teams could end up being disappointments – the Rangers also lost to the Avs, remember – but for now we’re going to give the Leafs credit for racking up goals, even if their defensive effort on Saturday was lacking. Look, this is my fifth season of doing these rankings, and my first time ever putting the Leafs in the top five. It probably ends up being temporary, but let me have this.
By the way, those two wins left Toronto tied for top spot in the NHL with 15 goals. The other team to hit that mark: top-ranked Chicago, who the Leafs will host the tonight in an early marquee matchup. This being the NHL, we can probably go ahead and pencil in the 1-0 final now.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Rasmus Dahlin highlights and playing with draft lottery simulations.
5. Arizona Coyotes (0-1-1, -2) – The early schedule seemed to set them up for a good start, but they’re winless through two. They’ve got the Vegas Golden Knights and Detroit Red Wings up next, so there’s an early chance to turn this around.
4. Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, +2) – Not too shabby a start for the Knights, who became the first expansion team in 50 years to debut with back-to-back wins. We’ll need to see it for more than a week before we drop them all the way out of the bottom five, though. More on them below.
3. Buffalo Sabres (0-1-1, -3) – You figure this one won’t last long; the Sabres just have too much talent not to make a stride forward this season. So no panic yet. But if they lose to the New Jersey Devils today before heading out for the dreaded California road trip? Maybe we panic then, yeah.
2. Winnipeg Jets (0-2-0, -8) – This one won’t last either, but the Jets’ start has been outright ugly. And now they get McDavid and the Oilers tonight.
1. Colorado Avalanche (1-1-0, -1) – When you’re coming off a 48-point season, you need more than one win to move out of the bottom spot. But so far they’ve looked competitive.
If the top five was tricky, the bottom five is a mess. The list of 0-2-0 teams includes pre-season quasi-contenders like the Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks and Predators. We’re not going to put any of those teams on the list quite yet, although we may not be that far off.
Meanwhile, the teams we all expected to be bad actually had a pretty decent first week. The Avalanche picked up a win in their opener, which doesn’t guarantee anything – they started last year with three wins in their first four, remember – but has to serve as a small confidence boost for a team that could use it. The Canucks are 1-for-1. And the Devils split a pair of games.
And then there are two teams that just about everyone had pegged for the bottom of the standings: The Golden Knights and the Red Wings. On paper, they’re two of the league’s weakest teams, and both should probably be more focused on building for the future than in winning much right now. But after opening weekend, each is sitting at a perfect 2-0-0.
There are a handful off caveats here, beyond the obvious “it’s still early”. Both teams had reason to come out of the gate at their best, with the Knights playing their first games in franchise history and the Red Wings opening a new arena on Thursday. And neither has faced an especially formidable schedule; Detroit picked up a win against an Ottawa team that’s missing Erik Karlsson, while neither Vegas opponent made the playoffs last year. And the Knights were especially lucky on Friday, when they seemed headed towards a 1-0 loss against the Stars before a third-period exit by Ben Bishop brought in Kari Lehtonen and sparked a comeback.
Still, a win is a win. And both teams have a shot at staying hot. Detroit’s next two games are against winless teams, as they head out west to visit Dallas and Arizona. The Knights get the Coyotes too, in what’s sure to be an emotional first-ever home game tomorrow night, after which they’re off until Friday.
And that Friday opponent? None other than the Red Wings. Maybe it will be a battle of the league’s last two undefeated teams. Heck, we’re already off to a weird start, so we may as well embrace it.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Tampa’s J.T. Brown became the first NHL player to join in the widespread acts of athlete protest seen in the NFL and elsewhere, as he raised a fist during the U.S. anthem on Saturday. He explained his reasoning here.
• Washington’s Nathan Walker became the first Australian to play in the NHL on Saturday, and he marked the occasion by getting credit for a goal. He also took an awkward call from the Australian prime minister.
• The Florida Panthers have apparently locked up 23-year-old defenceman Michael Matheson on an eight-year extension that will carry a cap hit just south of $5 million. Not bad for a guy with just one full season under his belt.
• That didn’t take long: The Senators have called up top prospect Thomas Chabot.
• We got our first official trade of the regular season on Friday, although it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. The Leafs got Calvin Pickard from the Knights for a pick and an AHLer; Pickard will report to the Marlies for now.
• Ian Cole took slapshot to the face and will be out indefinitely. He also posted a photo of it, which I strongly advise you not to click. Seriously, don’t. You clicked, didn’t you? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
• Weird stat: Even though most teams are just two games into their schedule, every team in the Eastern Conference already has at least a point. There are four pointless teams in the West, three of which are from the Central.
• After eking out a shootout win over the Sabres in their opener, the Canadiens dropped a pair over the weekend and are already talking about having passengers. This week brings visits from the league’s two highest-scoring teams, Chicago and Toronto.
• The Kings are 2-0-0 and their opponents have only managed one goal. Well, two, if you count this Melker Karlsson effort.
• Finally, Jaromir Jagr hasn’t made his Flames debut yet – that should come this week. That’s given the Travelling Jagrs some extra time to nail down a new member, and you have to hand it to them: The guy they auditioned on Saturday is a dead ringer.