Sean McIndoe looks back at weekend play in the NHL and the league’s biggest storylines. You can follow him on Twitter.
Opening faceoff: Yes, it’s early
Welcome to the NHL Weekend Wrap.
Every Monday, we’ll dive in on some of the key stories that emerged over the past few days of NHL action. We’ll take a look at some of the weekend’s best, worst and strangest plays. And we’ll also include weekly power rankings at both the top and the bottom of the league, focusing in on the five teams who’ve staked out a claim at each end of spectrum.
That last part is going to be a little tricky today, and for the next few weeks at least. With no team having played more than three games, we don’t have all that much to work with here. On the one hand, we don’t want to completely discount what we’ve seen happen on the ice. Pre-season predictions are nice, and we’ve all made ours, but they go out the window once the real action starts.
On the other hand, right now we’re talking about two or three games – if we start overreacting based on that, an enraged analytics guy will burst through the wall and start screaming “small sample size” until he hyperventilates. And he’d be right.
So we’ll try to walk a line. And we’ll probably walk it wrong, at least in a few spots.
Around this time last year, the Canadiens were unbeatable, the Penguins looked awful, and some morons were even wondering where Sidney Crosby had disappeared to. Then again, sometimes the first week or two can tell you a lot about where the pre-season consensus has gone wrong. Last year, a strong start by the Capitals was the first signal that they’d made the leap to the league’s top tier, and you can ask any Blue Jackets fan what a rough opening week can reveal.
For now, when in doubt we’ll err on the side of the pre-season consensus. That’s why we weren’t going to see any shockers in the top five, and why we won’t be sticking winless teams like the Kings and Ducks in the cellar. But as October creeps towards November, the scales will tip more and more to what the season seems to be trying to say, even if what it’s telling us is that we were all dead wrong about a few teams.
So yeah, it’s still very early, and some of this will end up looking awful in hindsight. But that’s half the fun, so let’s give it a shot. Don’t forget to bookmark this page so you can call me an idiot in six months. OK, days.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. Washington Capitals (1-0-1, +1 true goals differential*) – Last year’s top regular season team hasn’t looked great yet, but taking three points out of four against division rivals isn’t a bad start.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, +3) – You could make a case for the Panthers to claim this spot; they also went 2-0-0 while facing the same two teams the Lightning played. Luckily, the two teams can sort it out themselves when they face each other tomorrow.
3. San Jose Sharks (2-0-0, +2) – Beating the Kings in the opener was impressive. Beating the Blue Jackets three nights later was… well, you can only play the teams the schedule serves up, right?
2. St. Louis Blues (3-0-0, +5) – Going undefeated is good, but what’s more impressive is that the Blues did it against three very good teams. This week, they head out on the road for a three-game swing against the Pacific’s Canadian contingent.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (2-0-0, +1) – Two home games against Cup contenders, two 3-2 wins. Even without Sidney Crosby, the reigning champs are doing enough to hold onto top spot.
(*True goals differential is simply the difference between how many goals a team scores and how many they allow, which seems obvious enough. But the NHL calculates its version of goal differential differently – they also count each shootout win or loss as a goal for or against. So our number occasionally won’t match what you’ll see on the NHL standings page.)
Sticking to our “don’t overreact” theme, we’ll have to see more from teams like the Senators, Coyotes, Avalanche or even the 2-1-0 Oilers before we let them anywhere near the top five conversation.
It’s certainly possible that one of those teams really will turn out be one of the season’s positive surprise stories, but even their biggest fans would agree that ranking any of them as Cup favourites based on one or two games would be silly.
That said, the conservative approach ends up giving us a top five that features the final four teams from last year’s playoffs, plus the Presidents’ Trophy winner. That feels a little too convenient, and it’s tempting to go looking for somebody else to sneak onto the list, if only to earn some out-on-a-limb credibility points.
Is it too soon to get excited about the young Flyers? Can we give the Stars some credit for at least being a lot of fun, even when they lose to a bad team? Hasn’t counting out the Blackhawks been pretty much the surest path to regret over the half-decade or so?
There’s a case to be made for any of those teams, and probably a few more. At the end of the day, if you feel really strongly about a team that didn’t make the top five, just know that I absolutely had them as a close sixth.
But for now, we’ll stick with our five favourites and their combined 10-1 record, as unimaginative as that may be. None have especially tough schedules coming up this week, so let’s see how many can hang around until the next rankings.
Road to the lottery
The five teams that look like they’re headed towards watching Nolan Patrick highlights and clicking refresh on draft lottery simulations.
5. Vancouver Canucks (2-0-0, +1) – No regulation wins, but they scored all the goals in a 2-1 win over Calgary, which was neat, and last night’s comeback was downright impressive.
Four points is four points, and it’s enough to drop them down from their preseason spot as consensus worst team in hockey, but not quite off the list entirely… yet.
4. Calgary Flames (0-2-1, -5) – No team in the NHL has had an uglier start relative to expectations. The Flames were a trendy playoff pick thanks to a good young blue line and a new starting goalie. But despite what looked like an easy opening schedule, the Flames are winless, and what’s worse they can’t keep the puck out of their net. I don’t see them staying on this list for long, but I’m not sure how I can keep them off.
3. Buffalo Sabres (1-1-0, +1) – The Sabres grab a spot on the list as much due to their injury problems as anything else. But given who they’re missing, last night’s win over the Oilers was a strong sign.
2. New Jersey Devils (0-1-1, -2) – They opened with a tough pair of road games against the two Florida-based teams. They lost both, but looked respectable doing it.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets (0-2-0, -4) – As we’ve mentioned before, this is a team with an established history of getting off to terrible starts, and now the schedule gets ugly for the rest of the month. Nobody should panic after two games, but you could forgive Columbus fans if they wanted to start warming up.
So if we thought the top of the league was tough to figure out, the bottom is pretty much a mess.
Pre-season favourites like the Kings, Ducks, and Blackhawks are all off to tough starts, but it’s too soon to throw out everything we thought we knew and start worrying too much about any of them. (Although that day may not be far off for the Ducks, who’ve looked downright awful for stretches in their three losses.) And the Red Wings are teetering on the edge of our list, starting out 0-2-0 with an ugly -5 goals differential.
Meanwhile, at least a few teams we’re used to seeing towards the bottom of the rankings are exceeding expectations. The Maple Leafs’ kiddie brigade looks good, the Oilers started strong before last night’s meltdown against the Sabres, the Avalanche beat the Stars at their own high-flying game, and the Coyotes are undefeated. Sure, they’ve played one game, but as we may have mentioned once or twice, it’s still early.
The race for last place is going to be a fascinating one this season. For the first time in years, no team went into the year in clear burn-it-to-the-ground rebuild mode, the way that teams like the Sabres, Coyotes and Maple Leafs recently have. Those three teams are all aiming for progress this year, as are the Oilers, Devils and Hurricanes.
The Canucks evolved into a consensus pick to finish near the bottom of the league, but that’s clearly not the goal in Vancouver, at least as far as the front office is concerned. And you don’t get the sense that there’s any patience for another lost season in Columbus, at least if the current management group wants to keep their jobs.
Add it all up, and right now nobody can shrug off a loss as being all part of the long-term plan. That’s a nice change from recent years. It also won’t last forever. Give it another month or so, and it won’t be long before some teams are already all but done, and have no choice but to shift their attention to the future.
It will be interesting to see who makes that call, and when. In a league where all the headlines these days are being made by young stars who were picked at the top of the draft, it won’t take much for the temptation to tank strategically shift towards a long-term view to take over.
Quick shifts: Ten more notable moments from around the league
• The Maple Leafs home opener ceremony, in which they finally retired the franchise’s various honored numbers, was well done. If you missed it, you can watch it here.
• On Saturday, Ryan Miller managed to play an entire game, allow zero goals, and earn the win, but not the shutout thanks to Loui Eriksson’s own goal. That feels like a metaphor for the coming Canucks season, although I’m not sure whether it’s a good or a bad one.
• Not wanting the Canucks to be alone on the embarrassing goals highlight reels, Cam Talbot and the Oilers were kind enough to do this last night.
• We had what looked like an ugly scene in Arizona, where rookie Jakob Chychrun went hard into the boards in his NHL debut on Saturday and seemed to suffer a serious leg injury. It looked bad, but he returned to the game minutes later.
• Also ugly: This head-slam by Jake Virtanen on Carolina’s Joakim Nordstrom last night.
• With a slightly condensed October schedule thanks to the World Cup, backup goalies are getting into the action earlier than usual. We’ve already seen Scott Darling, Carter Hutton and Andrei Vasilevskiy pick up wins.
• Islanders’ rookie Mathew Barzal picked up a rare penalty: two minutes for playing the puck while standing in the penalty box.
• Speaking on unexpected penalty situations: Your leaguewide PIM leader is Jakub Voracek, thanks to a a post-goal tantrum after Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s OT goal gave the Coyotes a 4-3 win over the Flyers.
• In case you’ve ever wondered, this is what $15.5-million worth of cap hit looks like when it’s throwing punches.
• Finally, goal of the weekend honors go to Josh Bailey, who undressed everyone on the ice to score the OT winner last night against the Ducks.