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: A quarter for your thoughts
Well, that didn’t go well for the Canadiens.
Fresh off the embarrassment of becoming the first team in the league to lose to the Coyotes in regulation, the Habs had a chance at instant redemption in a home matchup against the Maple Leafs. Instead, they suffered through a third-period implosion on the way to a 6–0 loss that may have somehow been even more embarrassing.
So now what? The Canadiens are 21 games into their season, and it already feels like the drama around this team is exhausting. They started slow, including a stretch where nobody could score. But they seemed to have turned things around, winning six of eight while scoring five or more four times. They still had ground to make up, but the percentages were evening out and it felt like it was OK to sound the all-clear on any talk of disaster.
Maybe not. The Habs have now lost four of five, sinking back down to five points out of a playoff spot. GM Marc Bergevin is taking all sorts of heat. Max Pacioretty is getting his usual share of the blame. And now there’s even talk that the team could be doing some “soul searching” while considering starting all over with a rebuild. That’s a long-term decision and any problems with this roster didn’t just appear overnight, but it’s amazing how much one rotten week can change the perception of a team.
The Canadiens aren’t the only team being reevaluated right now. Half the teams in the league have now hit the 20-game mark, which means it’s time to do a few important things. First, we can spend the next few days referring to this point in the season as the “quarter pole” just so that the sort of people who enjoy giving lectures on proper horse-racing etymology will have something to do. And second, we can start in with some serious re-evaluation of the teams we may have been wrong about.
Every year, a few teams we thought would be good stumble through the season’s first month while a few teams we’d already written off look like playoff contenders. Those are interesting stories, and we’ve covered plenty of them in this space over the last few weeks. But as we’re constantly reminded, it’s still early, and a small handful of games can’t tell us all that much.
But 20 games is… well, it’s still a relatively small sample, and it’s not unheard of for a team to have a good or bad stretch for a quarter of a season that still turns out to be an outlier. But we’re reaching the point where it’s time to start taking the standings seriously, if only because teams may have built up a cushion or deficit big enough to survive a correction down the line.
So this week, let’s pick three teams that most of us thought would be good and three teams we all assumed would be bad but who aren’t following the script, and ask: Were we wrong? And if so, what does that mean going forward? We’ll tackle the disappointing teams in our Cup section and the surprising teams in our lottery section. For some of them, based on the first 20 games, it may be the last time they get mentioned in those sections this year.
And of course, we’ll also dive into the teams that have been truly good and truly awful in our weekly power rankings. Speaking of which, you’ll never guess who’s sitting in the No. 1 spot in our top five.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Winnipeg Jets (12-4-3, +12 true goals differential*): The Jets make their debut on the strength of a four-game win streak. They’ll be tested this week as they head to Nashville tonight and then onto a three-game California road trip.
The Leafs host the Coyotes tonight, but then it’s a brutal stretch where they’re on the road for 15 of 19 until the new year.
3. Los Angeles Kings (12-7-2, +13): They hit their first serious turbulence of the season with a four-game losing streak, and after dropping last night’s meeting with the Knights their Pacific lead is down to one point.
2. St. Louis Blues (15-5-1, +13): They dropped two straight for only the second time this season, but shrugged it off with back-to-back wins.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (15-3-2, +28): OK, who guessed Tampa for No. 1? [peers out at sea of raised hands] So… everyone. Everyone got this one right. Even with a loss to the Islanders snapping a five-game win streak, the Lightning are still in a tier of their own on top of the league.
*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.
So about those teams that were supposed to be good…
We’ve already covered the Canadiens up above, and we won’t do the Penguins here since we focused on them last week. But that still leaves plenty of candidates. The Bruins, Stars, Wild and Capitals are all looking decidedly mediocre. And Rangers may be stumbling again, dropping two straight after climbing their way back into the playoff race. But we’ll go with three Western teams that came into the season as Cup contenders and haven’t looked like it so far.
The expectation: With Connor McDavid cementing his case as the best player in the world, the Oilers would build on last year’s trip to the second round. Could that mean a trip to the final, or even a Stanley Cup? Plenty of us thought so.
The reality: The Oilers have been a mess, sitting 28th overall and posting one of the worst goal differentials in the league. While McDavid’s putting up strong numbers, his two-way game has come in for some criticism. More importantly, he’s not getting anywhere near enough support from the rest of the roster.
Why the standings might be lying to us: Cam Talbot’s numbers are well under his career average. The Oilers have had excellent numbers and are suffering under the weight of a 97.5 PDO that ranks near the bottom of the league. That all suggests they’ll get better results.
The verdict: The Oilers aren’t this bad, and should start showing it soon. But this is still a flawed roster, and it’s fair to ask some questions about how that happened. And the bigger question is whether they’ve left themselves too much ground to make up.
The expectation: After five straight division titles and with essentially the same core returning, Anaheim was penciled in for another run at top spot in the Pacific. Then they’d lose in the playoffs in heart-breaking fashion, because they’re still the Ducks.
The reality: At the rate they’re going, they may not have to worry about that playoff disappointment.
The verdict: We’re not sure that anyone was really wrong about the Ducks since we can assume they’ll be better when they’re healthy. But that could be a long way away.
The expectation: They’d contend for the Central title and probably a Stanley Cup, just like they do every year. Sure, they were missing Marian Hossa and Niklas Hjalmarsson, but they’re the Blackhawks. They always figure it out.
The reality: With 10 wins in 20 games, the Hawks are barely clinging to a wild-card spot.
Why the standings might be lying to us: If anything, the numbers might be flattering Chicago. Their plus-8 goal differential is entirely due to that season-opening 10–1 win over the Penguins, and they’re struggling to put up wins despite getting some of the league’s best goaltending from Corey Crawford.
The verdict: Nobody should be counting out the Hawks — we’ve learned that lesson well over the years. But after two straight years of first-round exits, it’s getting harder to view them as legitimate Cup contenders anymore.
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. Montreal Canadiens (8-11-2, -24): Here’s the latest installment in the long-running series, “Max Pacioretty tries to explain what’s gone wrong.”
4. Colorado Avalanche (9-8-1, -1): So far they’ve been great at home and shaky on the road. If they can get through this week, there’s a five-game homestand waiting around the corner.
3. Florida Panthers (7-11-2, -11): Those California back-to-backs are killers. They gave the Ducks a game last night, but came away from the weekend 0-for-2.
2. Buffalo Sabres (5-11-4, -24): Make it five straight losses for the second time on the year.
1. Arizona Coyotes (4-15-3, -31): We have a win streak! That’s two straight for the Coyotes on their trip through Eastern Canada, with Matthews and the Leafs up tonight.
When it comes to being wrong, we have plenty of teams to pick from at this end of the league, too. The Avalanche have gone from laughingstock to fringe wild-card contender, while the Red Wings seem to have missed the memo about this being the year they bottom out and start over. But we’ll go with three teams that went into the year as contenders for the top lottery odds, and haven’t been playing along.
The expectation: The Devils were coming off a 70-point season that saw them finish dead last in the East. They’re a young team, one boosted by the draft-lottery win that brought Nico Hischier to town, so it felt like they’d already hit rock bottom and were ready to climb. A playoff spot felt like a long shot in a loaded Metro, but maybe they could at least get into the race.
The reality: They jumped out to a 3-0-0 start and haven’t slowed much since. A quarter of the way in, they’re tied for first place in the Metro.
Why the standings might be lying to us: At 5-on-5, the Devils are sporting a PDO of 102.3, which ranks fourth in the league. Maybe you can buy the save percentage side of that equation — last year aside, Cory Schneider has been one of the league’s better goalies for years — but that 9.5 per cent seems high for this roster.
The verdict: The Devils are young and fast in a league where those two characteristics are becoming more important. They’re going to be far better than last year, and better than we thought. But a division-title contender at the end of the year? Let’s list that as doubtful.
The expectation: They’re an expansion team. The league gave them a better draft setup than most teams of the past, so the odds were that they weren’t going to look like the 1974–75 Caps or 1992–93 Senators, but they’d be bad.
The reality: They won their first game, won an emotional home opener, and then just kept winning. By the end of their first homestand, they were 8-1-0 and the talk of the hockey world.
Why the standings might be lying to us: The Knights started with an almost impossibly easy schedule, one clearly designed to make sure they picked up some early wins. Since the end of that homestand, they’ve gone just 4-5-1, and are giving up a lot of goals. Granted, they’re also down to their fifth-string goaltender, so the fact that they’re winning any games at all is still impressive. And they looked awfully good beating the Kings last night:
The verdict: More so than any team we’re looking at today, we just can’t be sure what the Knights are quite yet. Even once the goaltenders get healthy, it’s hard to see them finishing the season as anything but an average team. Still, that’s pretty good for an expansion franchise. And in a weak Pacific, it could actually be enough to contend for a playoff spot.
The expectation: With the Canucks finally seeming to embrace a rebuild, dead last didn’t seem out of the question. It didn’t necessarily seem like it would be a bad thing either.
The reality: They’re not setting the league on fire, but at 9-8-3 they’re hanging in the playoff picture.
Why the standings might be lying to us: Nothing really stands out. You probably figure that Brock Boeser doesn’t keep scoring a point-a-game as a 20-year-old, but you’d also think the Sedins will pick up the pace at some point.
The verdict: The Canucks sure don’t look like a last-place team, or anything all that close to it. That may not be good news if you’re a Vancouver fan who was dreaming of Rasmus Dahlin, but it’s a solid sign for the young core being built.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• We had some old-school bad blood between the Leafs and Habs, and as usual Nazem Kadri was in the middle of it:
• Matthew Tkachuk missed Saturday’s win over the Flyers after being handed a one-game suspension for his role in that line brawl with the Red Wings. For his part, Detroit’s Luke Witkowski got the automatic 10 games for returning to the ice, and will not appeal.
• It had been a quiet season so far for the Department of Player Safety, with only one game worth of suspensions handed out before this week. But they’re busy now, with Radko Gudas getting a 10-game ban for this vicious slash and Austin Watson getting two for this hit from behind.
• The Flames looking sharp as they head to tonight’s meeting with Washington.
• The league has announced the details for the 2019 Winter Classic, which as per league bylaws will be focused on the Blackhawks.
• Finally, this is an important piece on Kevin Bieksa and the legacy of Rick Rypien.