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: Sens of urgency
So it’s probably time to talk about the Senators again.
The first time we led with Ottawa, it was two weeks into the season and they’d just rolled through western Canada, looking an awful lot like a team that was picking up where last year’s conference finalist had left off. A few weeks later, they were bringing in reinforcements, pulling off a blockbuster three-way deal for Matt Duchene. Both times, optimism was the word of the day in Ottawa.
Today, not so much. The Senators followed the Duchene trade with a trip to Sweden, where they swept two against the Avalanche. But since returning to North America, they’ve been a disaster, losing six straight and picking up just a single point in the process. It’s their worst stretch by far of the Guy Boucher era, and it’s dropped them into the ranks of the Eastern Conference also-rans, nestled in between the Hurricanes and Flyers. Today, the Sens are sitting three points out of an Atlantic playoff spot, and six back of a wild-card berth.
Even worse, the Duchene trade seems to have thrown a wrench into the offence, which hasn’t scored more than twice during the losing streak after scoring three or more in seven of eight games before the deal. And Duchene himself certainly hasn’t helped the cause, contributing just a single point since arriving while posting an ugly -10 rating.
The good news is that Duchene is coming off his best game as a Senator, which came during Saturday’s loss to the Islanders. He had a power-play goal late in the game, and didn’t post a minus rating for the first time (he was even):
That’s not exactly a breakthrough, but at this point you start with baby steps.
More important, the underlying numbers suggest that Duchene’s lack of production is more due to a swing of bad luck than anything in particular that he is or isn’t doing. He’s putting almost twice as many shots on net as a Senator than he was in Colorado, but he’s getting PDO’d to death at both ends of the ice. That kind of stuff can happen to anyone over the course of a year, and if it’s buried in the middle of a season we may not even notice it. But when it comes in a player’s first few games after a monster trade, it gets people talking. (Kyle Turris has six points in eight games in Nashville, in case you were wondering.)
But while you might be able to shrug off Duchene’s struggles as a temporary blip, there’s at least some reason for concern with the Senators as a group. Their record is already inflated by loser points, with just eight actual wins to show for 22 games. That’s a stat that can go both ways, since some better luck in overtime and shootout coin flips would mean a few extra points. But they’re already well back of just about everyone else in the ROW tie-breaker, which could come into play if the playoff race is close.
So what’s wrong? It’s not about injuries; with the exception of Erik Karlsson‘s delayed start to the season, they’ve been reasonably healthy. They are getting hurt by goaltending, with Craig Anderson posting a .895 save percentage. Normally we might write that off as a slump by a guy who’s usually among the league’s best, and it probably is, but you get a little nervous when a guy who’s 36 starts to stumble.
No team is ever as bad as they look during a losing streak, so we have to go bigger picture when trying to figure out the Senators. And there’s a good chance that Anderson settles in, Duchene adjusts to his new home, Karlsson wins a few games singlehandedly and everything turns out OK. But it’s also possible that the Senators we’ve seen so far this season are an accurate reflection of what this team should be — in other words, one that loses more than they win, keeps it relatively close in the process, and hangs around the outside of the playoff picture.
And of course, they’ve already played most of their trade chips, at least in terms of future assets. We often hear about how crucial it is for Ottawa’s bottom line that the team always at least make the post-season. If things don’t turn around soon, we might be about to find out just how crucial.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.
5. Nashville Predators (14-6-3, +7 true goals differential*): Last year’s conference champs had won nine of 10 before yesterday’s shootout loss in Carolina.
2. St. Louis Blues (17-6-1, +19): Yes, there are too many Central teams in the top five. We’ll need to sort this out over the next few weeks.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (16-5-2, +24): They’ve hit their first losing streak of the season, dropping road games to the Caps and Pens. That’s not enough to knock them out of top spot, but they’re coming back to the pack.
(*Goals scored minus goals allowed, without counting shootouts like the NHL does for some reason.)
The Blues didn’t pass the Lightning in our power rankings this week. But in a marginally more important development, they did pass them for first place in the standings. At 35 points, the Blues now own a one-point lead over the Lightning for top spot.
We won’t get overly excited about — the Lightning still have a game in hand, and it’s still too early to get worked up over a single point here or there. But the bigger story is that a Blues team that not many of us had among the top contenders heading into the year isn’t fading. They might be getting stronger.
How good have they been? With 24 games down, they’ve already posted four winning streaks of at least three games, while never losing more than two straight. They rank third in goals scored, behind only the Lightning and Maple Leafs, and trail only Tampa in goals differential. And if you like your possession stats, you’ve no doubt already noticed that the Blues rank first in score-adjusted Fenwick.
The headlines have been coming from the first line, which could make a good case for being the league’s best right now. Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have combined for 90 points, with each posting double-digit goals. We expect that sort of production from Tarasenko, but it’s shaping up as a breakout season for both Schwartz and Schenn, neither of whom has ever hit the 65-point mark.
Schenn, of course, came over during the off-season in a trade with the Flyers. That deal didn’t seem earth-shaking at the time, but now looms as the biggest move of the off-season. He didn’t come cheap, costing Blues GM Doug Armstrong two first-round picks. But that looks like a steal right now, as Schenn has helped transform a Blues team that’s been missing Robby Fabbri and Patrik Berglund up front.
Can they keep it up? The top line has to cool off at some point, and backup Carter Hutton won’t look like Dominik Hasek every time out. But you’d also figure that Jake Allen can play better, and a blueline led by Alex Pietrangelo could be even better as Jay Bouwmeester works his way back up to his usual ice time. The Central looks strong again this year, so there won’t be much margin for error. But at this point, the Blues have to be the favourite to win it.
That’s still four months away. In the shorter term, the Blues will get the Ducks, Kings and Wild this week. If they continue their winning ways against that group, there’s a decent chance they’re sitting on top of next week’s power rankings.
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. Detroit Red Wings (10-9-5, -2): Make it four straight losses, although three came in overtime. They’re still holding down a playoff spot in the top-heavy Atlantic, but that suddenly feels very temporary.
4. Philadelphia Flyers (8-9-6, -3): Make it seven straight losses for the Flyers in a season that’s so far been a massive step back for a team that had seemed headed in the right direction.
3. Florida Panthers (8-12-2, -14): Another week without a ROW, but they’ve put up an impressive 133 shots in their last three games.
We interrupt these power rankings for an important conversation.
For basically the entire season, there hasn’t been much suspense when it comes to rock bottom in these rankings. The Avalanche took the No. 1 spot in week one because we were two games in and they were coming off a 48-point season. But ever since, it’s been an easy call each and every week. It’s been the Coyotes all the way.
That wasn’t exactly staking out a controversial position. The Coyotes struggled through what was quite possibly the worst start in NHL history, losing their first 11 games and failing to register a regulation win until there were already 20 games in the books. Not only were the Coyotes the obvious pick as the league’s 31st-best team, but it was hard to imagine anyone else even getting close.
But a lot can change in a week or two, and a recent three-game win streak has the Coyotes close to clawing their way out of the league’s basement. So it’s time to ask a question that seemed unthinkable even a few games ago: Is it time to anoint a new team as the league’s very worst?
Buffalo Sabres, we are looking in your direction.
The Sabres headed into the weekend on a seven-game losing streak. Combined with the Coyotes’ quasi-hot streak, that left Arizona just one point back of passing Buffalo for 30th spot. Granted, the Sabres had games in hand, but when the Coyotes are breathing down your neck it’s fair to say the season isn’t going well.
Even worse, while the Coyotes were finding some reason for optimism, the Sabres sounded like a team that was ready to implode. Jordan Nolan had some strong words, saying that “we’ve got to start holding guys accountable,” and it wasn’t hard to guess that he may have meant some of the team’s bigger names.
Unlike most of those guys, Nolan has actually won before in this league, so his comments landed with some impact in Buffalo. And they were quickly echoed by some of those big names, including Jack Eichel, who spoke about the need to stop making excuses and start working harder.
The Sabres followed that by splitting a pair of games against struggling teams, earning a win over the Oilers but then getting shut out by the Canadiens. Meanwhile, the Coyotes kept pace with an overtime win over the Kings and a loss to the Golden Knights.
Add it all up, and the Coyotes have nearly caught the Sabres for 30th overall. They’re just one point back, and while the Sabres still have that pair of games in hand, the Coyotes clearly have the momentum right now.
So is it time? Is this the week that the Coyotes finally escape the bottom of the power rankings?
2. Buffalo Sabres (6-14-4, -27): … no. Not quite.
1. Arizona Coyotes (6-17-3, -31): But it was close.
By the way, that’s about where the good news ends for the Sabres heading into this week. They’ll face the Lightning, followed by a home-and-home against the Penguins.
Quick shifts: 10 more notable moments from around the league
• Carey Price is back, and just in time to help the Canadiens to a much-needed shutout win on Saturday night. Sure, it came against the sad-sack Sabres, but right now the Habs will take what they can get.
• Speaking of teams that needed a win, the Oilers picked up a big two points with yesterday’s decision over the Bruins. A couple of slumping players had a hand in the win, as Cam Talbot was solid and Ryan Strome scored the third-period winner.
• In other Strome family news, Dylan is on his way back to the NHL. The Coyotes called up the third-overall pick from the 2015 draft; he’d been dominating the AHL.
• Assist of the week goes to Mathew Barzal, whose tour of the Senators’ zone ended with a 2-0 Islanders lead:
• Make it five straight for the Golden Knights, who beat the Sharks and Coyotes over the weekend to move past the Kings and into top spot in the Pacific. William Karlsson is emerging as one of the stories of the early season; he’s got 13 goals on the year, after posting just 18 in his first three seasons.
• Brent Burns‘s goal-scoring slump is over; he finally got on the board on Friday:
• Finally, yesterday marked the official 100th anniversary of the NHL’s founding at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal back in 1917. If you missed any of the last century, or could use a refresher, you can get all caught up here.