We’re far enough into the season now where playoff races are starting to take shape, coaches are getting fired, and GMs have an idea what their team’s strengths and weaknesses really are.
With a little more than a quarter of the season behind us, it’s time to identify some early surprises and disappointments. We covered some of the best and worst on this week’s episode of the Tape To Tape podcast, in which Ryan Dixon and myself were joined by Luke Fox.
On Nov. 22, the Sabres won their 14th game of the season. On its own that’s pretty good — just three other teams were at least at that mark on the same day. But when you consider their 14th win last season didn’t come until Jan. 25, there’s obviously been a massive improvement.
Some of the things I like about the Sabres this season that were mentioned on this week’s podcast:
• They’ve won five games so far this year when they’ve been trailing after the second period. This is the kind of fight and push back we haven’t seen from the Sabres in recent years.
• They are the only team that hasn’t scored 200 goals in any of the past five seasons, but they already have 70 this season. This is mostly a factor of having one of the best lines in the entire league through the first quarter. What happens when Jeff Skinner cools off and starts slumping for a stretch? Well, Jack Eichel has a low shooting percentage that is bound to come around some, and it’s reasonable to expect rookie Casey Mittelstadt has more offence ahead.
• The goaltending has been up to the task. Carter Hutton had never played a half season’s worth of games when the Sabres signed him to a three-year contract ($2.875 million AAV), but after a strong season splitting games with Jake Allen in St. Louis, Hutton has a sturdy .917 save percentage that ranks 17th in the league.
With six playoff appearances in a row that have led to just two series wins and four wins total in the past three years, the Wild don’t inspire a ton of confidence in most corners. This season, with a new GM in place, the potential was there for a big-time overhaul. But with a 13-7-2 record they’re sitting second in the tough Central Division, comfortably in a playoff spot by six points, and top 12 in power play, penalty kill, goals and goals against.
“I was kinda thinking … maybe this year Bruce Boudreau [won’t] be a good-enough regular-season coach to get this group in,” Fox explained on the podcast. “Maybe they’re due for a step back. Maybe they would even consider a bit of a rebuild and say ‘You know what? The Parise/Suter experiment didn’t go the way we wanted.’
“But Parise’s been awesome and healthy. Ryan Suter’s been awesome and healthy, knock on wood. [Mikael] Granlund has really come into his own — the jury was kinda out on a guy like him. Eric Staal isn’t on a 41-goal pace, but he’s been solid. Matt Dumba’s taken another step. No one talks about them too much, they do have solid goaltending…
“I would not have picked them to be up there among the better teams in the West, and yet they are.”
The Ottawa Senators did the right thing
OK, we’re not talking great decisions overall. But the Sens had a tough choice to make last June: keep the fourth-overall pick in the draft and send their 2019 first-rounder to Colorado, or let the Avalanche pick Brady Tkachuk and gamble that the 2019 pick would get Ottawa a better player.
They chose to keep it and, given the outlook of the team outside the organization at the time, risked sending Jack Hughes to the Avalanche.
“Brady Tkachuk looks awesome,” Dixon said. “Ottawa looks better than we expected. There’s nine teams underneath Ottawa right now. Now, I know they’re probably due to sink a little, but are the Kings passing them?
“It seems like grabbing Tkachuk was the right thing to do,” Dixon continued. “I was thinking with lottery odds as they are, even if you finish 31st there’s an 80 per cent chance you’re not going to be drafting first overall. We were all envisioning a scenario where right from the hop you were thinking to yourself ‘Oh my god, what has this team done? They should have punted and taken [their] chances.'”
Ottawa certainly is playing a different style than we expected, too — a wide-open, high-risk game that has led them to having the league’s third-best offence (3.59 goals per game), but also the worst defence (4.27 goals per game, along with 37.9 shots). And Tkachuk has been great so far, putting up points and getting in the face of opponents, very much like his brother Matthew does in Calgary.
The Panthers weren’t great at the start of last season, but maybe you could chalk that up to having a new coach and a new system, and players needing time to learn the new way of doing things. Down the stretch the Panthers won 25 of their last 35 games and made a great late push for the playoffs. They fell one point short, but it was something to build off.
Entering Year 2 of Bob Boughner behind the bench, the addition of goal scorer Mike Hoffman for cheap, a very nice 1-2 punch of centres in Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, the Panthers were a hot pre-season choice to make the playoffs, if not achieve something bigger. But it all started going wrong in Game 1.
Roberto Luongo got injured right away and was out until early November. He went on a four-game winning streak, but has now allowed four goals or more in three straight games. In his absence James Reimer, who was thought to be a pretty safe backup, posted an .881 save percentage.
On top of that, Trocheck broke his ankle and will be out for a long while, so an advantage of having two great centres has vanished. A top-10 offence is followed by a bottom-four defence and at American Thanksgiving the Panthers sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
It’s been a massive disappointment.
St. Louis Blues
Despite being sellers the past two trade deadlines, sending Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington in 2016 and Paul Stastny to Winnipeg in 2017, the Blues got aggressive over the summer in trying to return to the playoffs and do some damage. They had a pretty good core to start with and GM Doug Armstrong went out to strengthen his team down the middle — trading for Ryan O’Reilly and signing UFA Tyler Bozak.
But, despite these additions, they’re 14th in the Western Conference with a 7-10-3 record. Jake Allen has been a sore spot, with an .893 save percentage, but the most surprising thing about St. Louis’s struggles is that their vaunted blue line has been a disappointment.
“The Blues have kinda been in the same conversation as Nashville, Winnipeg, maybe the Ducks, maybe the Flames in terms of look at their defence corps — their D is so good,” Fox said. “Jay Bouwmeester‘s finally hit a wall, got healthy scratched and doesn’t look like the Bouwmeester of old. And [Alex] Pietrangelo — a year ago at this time we were talking about him as a Norris candidate and he made his first All-Star Game and he was scoring and playing defence, but he’s been rather ordinary by his standards.”
Matt Murray. Mike Smith. Cam Talbot. Carey Price. Braden Holtby. All of these goalies came into the season as the bonafide No. 1s on their team, expected to lead the way in playoff pushes and maybe even a Stanley Cup run.
But so far Holtby’s 2.99 GAA, 29th-best in the NHL among all netminders with eight games played, is the best mark among this group.
Two of these goalies, Smith and Talbot, are playing for new contracts on teams under pressure to succeed this year — but now, what are the odds their backups (David Rittich and Mikko Koskinen) end up as the No. 1s in April?
Murray is now injured, but has been easily outplayed by Casey DeSmith to this point and if the Penguins make up a ton of ground in the next while with Murray out, when would they turn back to him?
Holtby does seem to be turning a corner with a .929 save percentage in November, but Price may be the most concerning. Even though the Canadiens are an early-season good-news story, Price has a 3.17 GAA and .895 save percentage to this point. And his struggles go back even further.
“Since January it’s over 40 per cent of Carey Price’s starts he’s given up four or more,” Fox noted.
Following an injury-shortened 2017–18 in which he had just a .900 save percentage, it’s troubling to see Price off to this start given the fact he’s just beginning an eight-year, $84-million contract ($10.5 million AAV). Only five goalies in the league make more than $6.2 million against the cap and Price is $2 million higher than Henrik Lundqvist, the next-most expensive goalie.
Maybe Price can rebound like Holtby and Sergei Bobrovsky did after slow Octobers. But it’s been shocking to see this many No. 1s struggling this early.