Fact or Fiction: Are the Montreal Canadiens already finished?

In a new segment, the Hockey Central panel answers some tough, early-season questions about the Buffalo Sabres, if Nylander will outscore Marner, if McDavid can score 50 goals, who the favourite is in the Atlantic, and more.

The NHL season started just 12 days ago and the overreactions are pouring in.

The Buffalo Sabres are tracking to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as last year’s finalists from Montreal slink away into the draft lottery and Shane Wright territory. Oh, and Connor McDavid might topple some of Wayne Gretzky’s single season records, too.

That, or reality will catch up eventually.

With small samples to sort through and one foot in reality, we weigh what’s fact and what’s fiction from three early-season performances.

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After 10 seasons of misery, have the Sabres finally put out the tire fire?

Ranked at the bottom of, well, everything at the start of the season, the Sabres shot out with three wins before dropping their first Friday night against Boston. Second place in the Atlantic Division heading into the weekend, have the Sabres been lucky, or is there a surprise brewing here?

First thing to keep in mind is the competition. The Sabres’ first three games were against Montreal (0-5-0), Arizona (0-3-1) and Vancouver (2-2-1), none of which have appeared overly threatening so far. And then in their first game against a heavy hitter, the Sabres lost 4-1 to the Boston Bruins.

There are two sides to this.

On the positive, Buffalo’s underlying numbers show they have earned their 3-1-0 start. At 5-on-5, Buffalo has the league’s best shot attempt percentage (59.25), scoring chance percentage (66.67), and rank second in expected goals percentage (63.78) over their opponents. The averages actually indicate they could have better results so far.

Even in that 4-1 loss to Boston, the Sabres outchanced the Bruins 16-9, and created nearly twice as many shot attempts.

There is a negative side, though.

First, the netminding is peaking early. Craig Anderson (.933) and Dustin Tokarski (.952) have outstanding save rates, boosted on the power play where they’ve allowed only a single goal so far. The flip side, though, is that the tandem has the league’s 18th-best 5-on-5 save percentage and, honestly, that may wind up being high.

We have to remember, too, that in 2018-19 the Sabres had a 20-9-5 start and were the league’s fifth-best team on Dec. 16. The underlying numbers weren’t as glowing on that team, but they weren’t awful either. The bottom fell out over the second half, the team’s saving percentage cratered as they were out-chanced more than any other team and Buffalo went 14-30-5 over its last 49 games. They finished 27th that season and drafted Dylan Cozens.

We’ll call this one a nice early-season story of a team punching above its weight and earning the accolades. But we’ve seen this before, and need to wait a while longer before believing this time.

Are the Montreal Canadiens just slumping, or is Shane Wright in their sights?

So, ya, it’s been bad for the Habs. They have the league’s worst goal differential (minus-15), second-worst power play (5.3) and penalty kill (55.6) and their team save percentage (.872) is fifth-worst in the league.

It’s been a little too bad to stick, though.

The Habs have only been outshot by two at 5-on-5, but outscored 9-3 thanks to a league low 2.86 shooting percentage. Brendan Gallagher, Cole Caufield, Mike Hoffman, Nick Suzuki and Christian Dvorak combined have been outscored by Jesperi Kotkaniemi this year, so it’s fair to say more offence is to come.

This doesn’t mean they’ll bounce all the way back to a level where we’d expect them to challenge for a Cup final appearance again, though. The Habs weren’t a great shooting average team a year ago either, finishing 25th, and special teams has been an issue for a few years.

Either way, panic has set in. Marc Bergevin played down the need to find a trade or make any moves right now, though his future with the team remains in question. And if the Habs are fundamentally flawed as built, it won’t be easy to maneuver out of with a number of players signed to term.

Thank goodness their first-round pick is top 10 protected. Shane Wright would be a nice consolation to a disastrous season at least.

But all is not lost, Habs fans. According to Sportsnet Stats eight teams have started 0-5-0 since 1979-80 and half of them made the playoffs: the 1983-84 Capitals, 1987-88 Whalers, 1993-94 Capitals and, yes, the 1995-96 Canadiens, the last time Montreal had such an awful start. The two Capitals teams were the only ones from this group to win a playoff series though, and in both cases they were eliminated in Round 2.

The Canadiens play the Red Wings Saturday night, a matchup that should allow them to break out of the slump. An 0-6-0 start for Montreal, though, and those historical odds get ominously longer. Five teams have started 0-6-0 or worst since 1979 and here’s how they finished:

1983-84 Capitals 0-7-0 Made playoffs, lost in Round 2
1993-94 Capitals 0-6-0 Made playoffs, lost in Round 2
1997-98 Blackhawks 0-7-0 Missed playoffs, 9th in West
2007-08 Thrashers 0-6-0 Missed playoffs, 14th in East
2015-16 Blue Jackets 0-8-0 Missed playoffs, 15th in East

Can Connor McDavid reach — eep — 200 points?

Before you throw rotten tomatoes my way, remember how crazy it sounded to suggest McDavid could score 100 points in a 54-game season (and thus achieve the eighth-best points per game rate in a season over the previous 30 years). He hit that mark, plus a few more.

In his return to a regular schedule, McDavid has been even more dangerous. Not only is he incorporating a power play one-timer into his game, but McDavid has started with five multi-point games in a row and leads the league with 13 points.

McDavid scored at a 1.88 points per game pace last season, which translates to about 154 points in an 82-game season. That alone would be an incredible mark and the second-most points ever in a single season by a player not named Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky.

In that context, taking the leap to 200 points is quite a reach.

But consider this: With a fantastic finish to last season and hot start to this one, McDavid has totalled 49 points in his past 19 regular season games — an absurd 2.58 points per game pace that, if continued over a full season, would put him over the 200 mark.

Only one player in league history (guess who) has ever scored that many points in a single season, and did it four times. So, as much as we loath doubting McDavid, the idea of reaching 200 feels like a work of fiction.

But could McDavid maintain a points per game pace over two and become the first non-Gretzky or Lemieux player to ever score 160 points in a season? It may sound inconceivable, but who’s putting it past him?

Last year’s Oilers had the third-best power play in the salary cap era (27.6 per cent), and two years ago they set the cap era record (29.5 per cent). They’ve started on a 47.1 per cent success rate this season and there’s reason to wonder if they could become just the fourth team to ever attain a 30 per cent power play success rate in a season.

1977-78 Montreal 31.9
1977-78 NY Islanders 31.4
1978-79 NY Islanders 31.2

That’s a strong group of teams to be connected to. So is this one: the Oilers have started 5-0-0, joining 31 other teams that won their first five games since 1979-80. Twenty-nine of those teams (93.5 per cent) made the playoffs and three won the Stanley Cup, according to SN Stats (1983-84 Oilers, 2003-04 Lightning, 2012-13 Blackhawks).

Only the 1986-87 Penguins and 2015-16 Habs started a season 5-0-0 and went on to miss the playoffs.

So the conditions appear to be favourable for both the Oilers to flourish and thus for McDavid to set the bar even higher in 2022. Reaching 200 points may be a fantasy, but two points per game and what would be a historical 160 points? That’s not outside McDavid’s reach. Seriously.

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