Measuring the panic meter on four NHL teams off to slow starts

Vancouver Canucks goalie Braden Holtby looks on during a stoppage in play during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Montreal Canadiens in Vancouver, on Saturday, January 23, 2021. (Darryl Dyck / CP)

In a 56-game season, there is little room for error. Where, normally, a slow start could be overcome by December, before even half the season is over, we're now a week or two (depending on the team) away from hitting the quarter mark of the NHL campaign, and if these slow starts go on much longer, seasons could be in jeopardy.

It's still a bit early to full-on panic for any team, but these four have a heightened sense of urgency for one reason or another...

Ottawa Senators: 1-4-1

Expectations were never all that high for the Senators this season. Really, finishing anywhere but seventh in the North Division would be considered a success (though at the cost of a higher draft pick). The Sens weren't going to be graded on wins and losses this year.

Develop the kids and just don't be a soft touch on the schedule for the six playoff hopefuls you're facing all season. If you're going to be out, be a hard out.

The 5-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Ottawa's first game of the season had all the positive signs. The Senators beat their rivals and division favourite, limiting them to just 23 shots. Their 3-2 loss the next night was less encouraging overall (getting outshot 40-19), but hey, at least Matt Murray showed well. Their third game, an OT loss to the Winnipeg Jets, probably should have been a win. But in the three games since, the Senators have been outscored 17-5 and suddenly things are starting to spiral.

Murray's .862 save percentage is alarming, especially knowing he's got a $6.25 million cap hit for four years. Their 5-on-5 shot differential is among the worst in the league. Wanting to be physical and have experience on the roster is one thing, but when it comes at the cost of speed in the league today, you're not putting yourself in a position to succeed. The Sens look slow at times compared to what else is going on in the North.

Worst of all, not all the "kids" are being given a chance to play minutes, and with the AHL not yet started, guys like Logan Brown, Erik Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson and Alex Formenton are hanging out there. Colin White has played limited minutes and been scratched a few times from the NHL lineup.

Still, it's not a five on the worry meter.

Head coach D.J. Smith promised lineup changes and that hopefully injects some youth, such as White, back in. And there have been some positive showings from those playing. Brady Tkachuk has been a beast, with the Sens controlling over 60 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots when he's on the ice. Josh Norris, 21, has seen gradual improvement in the puck-possession department and Drake Batherson joins the two of them to make a first line that has been more or less of a success story in the early going. Nick Paul, a 25-year-old, has been a factor in nearly every game. Thomas Chabot is playing loads of minutes.

The Senators do not look like a team that will rise above seventh this season, and that's OK. There's no reason to panic here necessarily (except, maybe, to worry about Murray's contract eventually becoming an issue). The kids who are playing are showing rather well and that's what this season is about. Still, it'd be nice if the younger names who aren't getting into the lineup, do get that opportunity if the losses continue.

Senators 1-5 on the worry meter: 2

Vancouver Canucks: 3-5-0

With a .375 points percentage, the Canucks are tied with Edmonton and just ahead of Ottawa (.250) in the North Division. Monday's 7-1 win over the Sens calmed some of the panic that was settling in, but it's still bubbling just below the surface. Those are, after all, points a playoff team should be picking up and losing a three-game series at home to Ottawa would be immensely troubling.

The most concerning thing about Vancouver's slow start has certainly been early struggles from the top line of Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser. None of the three have a positive 5-on-5 goal differential and they have been Vancouver's worst line in terms of shot differential. Pettersson has specifically been a concern because he's not producing at his superstar level, with one goal and one assist in eight games. In his worst eight-game stretch last season, Pettersson still put up four points.

The good news is this part of the Canucks' start is likely the most correctable. A career 17.3 per cent shooter, Pettersson's currently hitting just 5.1 per cent this season. J.T. Miller hasn't scored once yet after a career season. Boeser has talked about his shot returning to a level it was at when he was a 29-goal rookie, but he's got all four of his goals in just two games. Better days are ahead for all three of them -- there's just too much skill.

The bigger concern probably should be what's going on at the other end. Vancouver has the league's highest expected goals against rate at 5-on-5, and have allowed the most high-danger chances against. That's put a strain on Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby, two goalies in prove-it seasons -- Demko to show he can be a No. 1 for a rising young team, and Holtby to show he can be a No. 1 again. As a team, Vancouver has the fourth-worst 5-on-5 save percentage and neither keeper has a save rate above .890 at the moment.

Vancouver has allowed a league-leading 21 goals against at 5-on-5 and Quinn Hughes has been on for 11 of them -- though also on for seven of the 20 they've scored. He's a high-event player you're happy to live with because his dynamism should end up creating more than his risk allows. His splits should start swinging toward the positive when all the top players start clicking.

Questions about the goaltending are legitimate. So far it's the Canadian teams with a solid starter who are leading in points percentage -- Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. The Canucks' defence should wind up being better, but it won't ever be great, so there will need to be a hot hand in goal to pull them through at times. This is where the loss of Jacob Markstrom is felt most.

Talking about replacing the coach or GM at this point, so early in the season when the most important players are just running cool, is reflexive. Better days are certainly ahead here. The penalty kill has been improving. The power play should pop back up from its current 24th place after it finished as one of the best last season. And the offence should, eventually, help offset some of the defensive or goaltending shortfalls.

But it is absolutely fair to be concerned right now. Every team in this division has strength in scoring and the best ones have depth. So, when the top line does heat up, what else will set the Canucks apart? Better goaltending? Improved shot suppression over last season? That's what's not clear at this point.

Vancouver has to close out at least a series win against the Senators, but next week's road trip through Montreal and Toronto will be a real measuring stick.

Canucks 1-5 on the worry meter: 4

NY Rangers: 1-4-1

As promising as everything looks on paper, the Rangers' start is another reminder that getting out of a rebuild isn't always a straight climb up. There are often bumps along the way and that's what we're seeing from this team with a .250 points percentage, tied with Ottawa for worst in the league.

Now, it hasn't been atrocious. Four of New York's five losses were by a single goal. Adam Fox was not a mirage as a player driver and minute eater, with five points in six games. Artemi Panarin is the team's scoring leader playing over 22 minutes a night, sixth-most among all NHL forwards. The team defence has been decent, holding opponents to 25.8 shots against per game, fifth-best in the league.

Holding a lead has been a problem of late -- in each of New York's last three losses they blew either more than one lead or a multi-goal one. The power play has gone from a top-10 unit last season to outside the top 20 in the early going this season.

Goaltending has perhaps been the biggest reason for the early-season bumps. Igor Shesterkin is the new No. 1 and there's every reason to get excited about him, from his track record in the KHL and AHL, to his 10-2-0 regular season NHL showing last season. So, that he's lost all three of his starts with an .886 save percentage is troubling, but it's far too early to panic about him.

Alexis Lafreniere hasn't recorded his first NHL point yet.

Their underlying numbers suggest the Rangers have been better than their record might indicate, and that when Shesterkin turns or the power play starts clicking again, they could string some wins together.

But they're still young and these are the growing pains young teams sometimes have to get through. Making it more difficult in 2021 is that the Rangers now have to play behind in a really tough division. Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are the playoff favourites, while Buffalo and New Jersey, who the Rangers have already lost to, are upstart hopefuls. The Islanders are off to a slow start, but there's some trust their system buy-in will pull them through.

If you're thinking the Rangers could be a playoff team this season they're going to have to start winning soon, with no soft stretches on the calendar. After Thursday's game against Buffalo, 12 of New York's next 14 games come against Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It's maybe too soon for full-on panic, but it could arrive in a hurry.

Rangers 1-5 on the worry meter: 3

Arizona Coyotes: 2-4-1

After winning a summer qualifying round and then getting outclassed by the Colorado Avalanche in Round 1 of the playoffs, Arizona was hopeful to build from there. While questions circle about how they'll move forward under new management, with cap space tight and no first-round draft choice for a second year in a row, this is still a team with a structure in place that should allow it to compete now.

But for Arizona to take another step, they need more on offence. Nick Schmaltz led the team with just 45 points last season, while Clayton Keller finished at 44, a far cry from the 65 he posted as a rookie two years earlier. Phil Kessel dropped to 38 points in his first season with the Coyotes.

For a team that was middle of the pack in generating shots, they just didn't have the scorers to get them over the top last season. Their 7.27 shooting percentage in 2019-20 was fifth-worst in the league, but their team save percentage made up the difference and got them to the playoffs.

But that formula will only take you so far.

Early in the 2021 season, Arizona's is getting 4.4 shots per game less than a year ago, but the quality of those shots have taken a noticeable uptick. The Coyotes are actually averaging the third-most high-danger chances a game, per Natural Stat Trick, but -- their team shooting percentage is so far lower than last season.

Now, in dealing with such small sample sizes, short cold streaks could look worse. The Coyotes scored 17 goals in their first five games, but have been shutout in back-to-back contests against defensively stout Vegas Golden Knights, and by the wall of John Gibson in Anaheim.

Kessel leads the team with four goals. Conor Garland with six points. They give up a lot of scoring chances, but generate plenty, too. Goaltending will keep them in it at least, but the scoring needs to come and, though the start was promising, the jury is still out.

The Coyotes will be a bubble team again this season, but can't get too far behind. Fourth place is entirely attainable for them in the West Division, but at some point the goals need to come, and come more consistently.

Coyotes 1-5 on the worry meter: 2

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.
close