NHL Fact or Fiction: Whose hot start will prove sustainable?

James Neal scores four goals to get the Oilers a 5-2 win over the Islanders.

Every October we’re treated to surprise players getting off to hot starts. Some of them carry it through to give us great seasons or even career years, and some got lucky and see that stellar early production end suddenly as they fall precipitously down the NHL’s leaderboards.

So for the players off to great starts, are they serving up fact or fiction? In order to find out, we can look at the details of what they’re producing and see if there’s a recipe for long-term success somewhere in there, even if the extreme high scoring in the first couple weeks of the season can’t truly be sustained.

Let’s examine a few cases.

Anthony Mantha

After 25 goals in only 67 games last season, Mantha is picking up right where he left off with six goals in his first four games, adding two assists for two points per game. Mantha has always been a dangerous shooter, but has struggled to become a household name due to lack of opportunity.

So is this a mirage or is Mantha taking the bull by the horns now that he’s playing nearly 20 minutes per night?

Mantha has been knocking at the door for a long time now, what kept the Detroit Red Wings from letting him open it is anyone’s guess. We can talk about the lower levels of competition he faced or optimal deployment, but the fact is he’s been one of the Red Wings’ best players for years.

This season you can see quite clearly that he’s getting to the right places, producing far more than team or league average, and getting it done off the rush at a high rate despite the Red Wings not being a great rush team.

Mantha ranks eighth in the NHL in scoring chances per minute at 5-vs-5 this season, and his excellent numbers at 5-vs-5 might even hold out to a large extent, since half his production so far has been on the powerplay.

I have my doubts that he can be a point per game player, but can he get close? I wouldn’t be surprised, especially if he continues to play with Larkin.

This exact level of production is impossible to sustain, but there’s all sorts of breakout potential here, so let’s say it’s fact.

Matt Duchene

The Nashville Predators’ marquee acquisition in the off-season hasn’t disappointed so far, leading the team in points on the strength of seven assists in just four games, six of which have come at even strength.

We already know that Duchene is a very good offensive player, and he had one of the best seasons of his career last season, so a repeat wouldn’t be that surprising. But he’s more of a goal scorer than a playmaker, so is he flexing his playmaking muscles in a new situation or just getting lucky?

As it turns out, at 5-vs-5 Duchene is completing 3.88 passes to the slot per 20 minutes, the highest mark in the league, just ahead of Sidney Crosby.

He’s also 11th in scoring chances created for his teammates, so it’s not just one type of play that he’s excelling in. He won’t keep on getting nearly two assists every game, but his play has been great, so this one is a fact.

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Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers are undefeated through four games, no not just undefeated; they’ve won all four games. I know, it’s a shocker. I even tried to make a bet with Steve Dangle that the Oilers wouldn’t win their first three games this year, which he refused to take because who would bet on the Oilers, right?

Did the Oilers find a way to turn one of the worst batches of wingers in recent league history into a juggernaut led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the Oilers aren’t a disaster by any means. Head coach Dave Tippett has them playing a low-event style at even strength that relies on their elite players making bank on fewer chances, while minimizing chances against.

Only five teams are giving up fewer high-danger chances at 5-vs-5, but overall the Oilers are still being out-chanced at even strength, though they’ve managed to produce as much as they’ve given up off the rush and off the cycle.

The dominant looking start is fiction, but the strategy the Oilers are employing is pretty smart. If you can be even in scoring chances with your opponents despite having decidedly less talent, but the guys creating your chances are McDavid and Draisaitl, you take that.

James Neal

Key to the Oilers’ incredible start has been James Neal equaling his goal production from an entire season with the Calgary Flames in four games with the Oilers. He leads the league in goals with seven, and he’s scoring on nearly half his shots on goal.

Obviously that can’t continue, though we know that Neal has a very long history of being a good goal scorer. If anything, the assumption despite his age should be that his brutal year in Calgary was the aberration, not the new normal.

The NHL has Neal credited with 15 shots, but Sportlogiq has him at 14, so in actuality he is scoring on half his shots. 14 shots puts him at a tie for 20th among forwards.

Eight of those 14 shots on goal were from the slot, tying him for 26th in the league. Five of them were from the inner slot, which is up a bit higher, tied for 17th. All those are good signs for Neal, but even with McDavid setting him up in some prime shooting areas, his expected goal total on those shots is about two.

So we’ll call this start fiction, with the caveat that Neal has done exactly what was asked and expected of him, and looks primed to bounce back from a down goal scoring year.

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