One question each NHL team is facing at quarter-mark of season

Check out how the Canadian teams in the NHL are doing on American Thanksgiving Day, including the struggling Oilers, the hopeful Flames, and the surprising Canucks.

A month and a half into the NHL season we’re at the all-important American Thanksgiving mark and right around the corner from the quarter-mark, where teams begin to form opinions about themselves and how they fit into the competitive environment of 2023-24.

But there are still questions left to unfurl.

Can the Oilers claw back from a miserable start? Who will be the kingmaker at the trade deadline, and will there be any surprise sellers? Who among last year’s non-playoff teams currently in a spot is good enough to stay there come April?

In the second quarter, we might start getting answers to these questions.

That’s the focus of today’s piece, where we look at one question each NHL team is facing at the quarter-mark.

Anaheim Ducks: Are they better than we think?

They haven’t made the playoffs since 2018 and last season Anaheim bottomed out with just 23 wins, the fewest in franchise history over a full 82-game schedule. Expectations remained low coming into this season, but the Ducks are still in the running at American Thanksgiving, three points out of the second wild card spot, with two games in hand of the Seattle Kraken in front of them. The Ducks have promising young talent starting to leave its mark — don’t sleep on Leo Carlsson’s developing Calder candidacy — but are also tough to play against after beefing up in the summer and are the second-most penalized team so far.

Arizona Coyotes: Can Connor Ingram keep it rolling?

Whenever goalie trade rumours pop up Karel Vejmelka from Arizona gets mentioned because he’s cheap ($2.725M cap hit through next season), serviceable (14th in the NHL in Goals Saved Above Expected last season) and 27 years old. But as Vejmelka has struggled through November, Connor Ingram is delivering and trying to keep Arizona in the playoff mix. The 26-year-old had a .907 save percentage in 27 games last season and a .915 save percentage in the AHL two years ago. His track record suggests that, given a chance, he could emerge for this team. That could impact both the Coyotes’ playoff outlook in the months ahead, or their willingness to explore their options with Vejmelka.

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Boston Bruins: Has their trade priority shifted away from centre?

With just a single regulation loss to date, the Bruins sit atop the NHL standings. Even though they won the Presidents’ Trophy last season (and set a record for wins!) it’s still surprising because usually when a team loses — and doesn’t replace — its top two centres in the summer, the positional weakness is too much to overcome. But Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha, promoted into the top two spots, have excelled so far and rookie Matthew Poitras on the third line has been a nice surprise. Now, we wonder, will the Bruins turn their trade attention to some other position on the roster, such as more offence on the wing?

Buffalo Sabres: Will they get Patrick Kane?

This one should resolve itself sooner than later, but the Sabres are reportedly in the running for hometown kid Patrick Kane, who may want to stay in the East (pro for Buffalo) and chase a Stanley Cup (eek). The first quarter has been bumpy in Buffalo, where an 8-9-2 start and minus-7 goal differential have them chasing once again. The offence has sputtered (28th in goals per game) and Tage Thompson is out for a few more weeks yet, so Kane’s skills theoretically would be helpful. Buffalo has oodles of cap space so that won’t hinder them for a one or multi-season contract, but what are we expecting from a 35-year-old Kane following hip resurfacing surgery?

Calgary Flames: How will the next quarter influence player and management decisions?

OK so Calgary is not the worst team in Alberta at this point, so that’s a win. At 7-9-3 they’re grouped in with Nashville, Anaheim and Arizona just on the outside of the playoff picture and with a 5-2-2 in their past nine games, the Flames are trending up again. So, is there a world where Calgary is competitive enough for GM Craig Conroy to keep his players for a run, or try to re-sign some of them again? The next quarter will go a long way to deciding their path. Right away Calgary faces a heck of a schedule by taking on Dallas, Colorado and Vegas twice each over the next two weeks, plus New Jersey, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida. If they can get through December still intact, we may have to recalculate on the Flames heading into the third quarter.

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Carolina Hurricanes: Will any goalie step up?

The Hurricanes are third in the Metropolitan Division, 11-7-0 through 18 games, lead the NHL in shots on goal percentage, are fifth in expected goals differential, have a top-10 power play, and generally control the game the way we’ve come to expect.

But now, where there was depth in net, there are question marks. Starting the season with a three-headed monster between Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta and Pyotr Kochetkov, the Canes have the fourth-worst team save percentage and none of their netminders individually are over .894. Andersen, who has the best numbers of the group so far, is out indefinitely with a blood clot. Raanta, the No. 2, left Wednesday’s game after one period for precautionary reasons. And Kochetkov is 61st of 75 goalies in Goals Saved Above Expected.

Chicago Blackhawks: Will Connor Bedard start to pull away in the rookie scoring race?

Maybe the most unsurprising stat at this point is that Connor Bedard is your rookie scoring leader, with 10 goals and 16 points in 17 games. Logan Cooley is four points behind, Leo Carlsson and Marco Rossi are four goals behind, but Bedard is picking up steam. With 12 points in his past 10 games, it’s been over a month since Bedard went two games in a row without a point. Will he start pulling away from the class in the second quarter, or can someone else step up to keep pace?

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Colorado Avalanche: Will depth scoring emerge, or have to be found on the trade market?

The Avalanche are cruising at 12-6-0, sixth in 5-on-5 goals and third in shots per 60 minutes and while it would be great for the power play to pick it up a bit, the issue the team may look to address as the season goes on is depth scoring. The stars at the top of the lineup are getting theirs, but outside of Ross Colton no bottom-six forward has more than two goals. Off-season pickups Ryan Johansen (six goals, one assist), Jonathan Drouin (two goals, three assists) and Tomas Tatar (zero goals, seven assists) would hopefully provide more, plus an injury to Artturi Lehkonen (and of course Gabriel Landeskog) put stress on the depth. We’ll see if someone steps up in the lower lines in the second quarter, or if this is the area Colorado focuses on around the deadline.

Columbus Blue Jackets: What if Patrik Laine doesn’t turn it around?

Laine’s return to the lineup Wednesday after an “embarrassing” healthy scratch was met with a goal and a decisive win over the Blackhawks. Hopefully this is the start of a turnaround for player and team. But what if not? Laine makes $8.7M through 2025-26 and the Blue Jackets need him to be one of their more productive players if this build-up is going to work out. The priority has to be finding a way for him to succeed than moving on. Perhaps his and the team’s ongoing struggles will instead shine a brighter light on a management team that is one of the longest-tenured in the league and put them on the hot seat.

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Dallas Stars: Can they hang with the cream of the crop in the West?

At 12-4-2 with a .722 points percentage Dallas is the NHL’s fifth-best team to this point and there aren’t really alarming trends to be concerned about. But although this team got to the Western Conference Final last season, they still have some proving to do as far as being a contender in the West. So far this season Dallas is 0-1-2 against Vegas and Colorado, with the loss to the Avs being an utter meltdown where they blew a 3-0 lead and allowed six unanswered goals. They also dropped a 3-2 decision to Boston at home. The Stars are a Cup contender, no doubt, but it’s still a question if they can take down the more proven teams.

Detroit Red Wings: Can they stop the slide?

One of the Atlantic’s hopeful upstart teams, the Wings started very positively with a 6-3-1 record in October that included a five-game winning streak, but their November so far has gone 2-3-2, including a winless trip for two games to Sweden (also including handing Boston its only regulation loss). They have lost eight of their past 11 games now and that means they’re back-sliding in the standings, hanging on to the second wild-card spot. The power play’s hot start has cooled, Alex DeBrincat has two goals in his past 11 games after starting with nine in his first seven, and their expected goals per 60 is 23rd over the past month. Their first game back from Sweden was a 4-0 win over New Jersey and now the Red Wings get Boston Friday afternoon as they try to correct this slide.

Edmonton Oilers: Soooo… which goalie are they going to add?

We’re running out of things to say about the Oilers and have no reasonable explanation for the team’s disappearance on several levels. Has there been a more disappointing team in the salary cap era? And while there are several things that need to be fixed, from a power play that has fallen out of the top 10, to a team defence that has trouble finding its checks, the goaltending position is the one that can most directly be dealt with in a trade. Edmonton is dead-last in team save percentage and while Elliotte Friedman wrote that the preference is to find Jack Campbell a way back, the reality is that this season is slipping away fast and something has to be done.

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Florida Panthers: Is Sam Reinhart pricing himself out of town?

In two years with Florida, the 2014 second-overall pick has had back-to-back career seasons, two 30-goal campaigns and he’s coming off a playoff run to the final in which he was one of the Panthers’ most impactful players. And Reinhart may be even better in 2023-24. The 28-year-old’s 13 goals are one off the league pace and his 25 points are top-10 overall. A pending UFA Reinhart is earning a healthy raise from his current $6.5 million AAV, which could start becoming too costly for a Florida team with three players already making $9.5 million plus.

Los Angeles Kings: Will Cam Talbot be a mid-season Vezina contender?

The Senators bailed on Talbot in favour of Joonas Korpisalo after the former posted an .898 save percentage last season, and paid the former Kings starter to bring consistency to the position. But behind Los Angeles’ strong defence (sixth in shots against per game, first in limiting high-danger chances against) Talbot is competing for the league lead in save percentage (.930), GAA (2.02), wins (nine) and Goals Saved Above Expected. If he keeps at this pace then we’ll find ourselves at the halfway mark with Talbot being shockingly in the running for the Vezina Trophy.

Minnesota: Will Dean Evason make it to the all-star break?

Though the Wild are trudging through a cap crunch brought on by the Zach Parise-Ryan Suter buyouts and are somewhat in the “playoff mushy middle” in that they’re a good regular-season team that lacks something special to propel them on a run, it’s easy to forget this team has eclipsed 100 points two years in a row. So as we hit the American Thanksgiving mark with Minnesota at 5-8-4, completely capped out and with several key players struggling, there isn’t a lot GM Bill Guerin can do with the roster. If he does make a move, it seems changing the coach would be the easiest reaction, though it doesn’t appear to be imminent. Still, the power play is 24th and the penalty kill is dead last.

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Montreal Canadiens: Can they get Sam Montembeault signed?

Jake Allen’s name is atop many lists for the Edmonton Oilers to target these days, but before Montreal moves on from one goalie, they may want the assurance they’ll have another beyond this season. Sam Montembeault is a 27-year-old pending UFA making $1 million this season and showing that he’s building on last season’s success. The ideal path forward from here would be for the Habs to run with Montembeault and Cayden Primeau as the 24-year-old develops, but it might take some time to come together on a comfortable term and AAV for both sides.

Nashville Predators: Will Juuse Saros jump back to form?

The Predators will go as Jusse Saros goes, and since Saros has been one of the NHL’s best goalies with one of its biggest workloads for the past few years, we expected him to lift the team into playoff contention and maybe even beyond. Heck, the last time they did qualify two years ago was only because Saros went on a tear down the stretch and elevated a mediocre roster. So the degree to which Saros has struggled this season is alarming, with an .894 save percentage and a Goals Saved Above Expected rate that is better than only Edmonton’s Stuart Skinner. As a result, Nashville is 8-10-0. This narrative could turn on a dime, so we’re watching for Saros to have a much better second quarter.

New Jersey Devils: Can the 5-on-5 offence turn on?

Last season the Devils were second in the NHL in expected goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, and they ranked fifth in actual goals scored in that situation. This season that’s been an area holding them back to a 8-8-1 start and 14th in the Eastern Conference, despite the fact their power play is easily the league’s best at 37.7 per cent. The Devils are still getting looks at 5-on-5 and rank fourth in the NHL by expected goals, but only the Sharks have scored fewer times. If New Jersey’s 6.52 shooting percentage (also second-worst in the league) can start turning around, the Devils should start their climb up the standings again (that is if their other concern, the goaltending, holds up. That’s a piece for another day).

New York Islanders: Can they remain competitive with such a meek offence?

The Islanders have reached the playoffs in three of the past four seasons — and the third round twice — relying on team defence and stellar goaltending, while their offence was notoriously weak. But even this year’s version of the Islanders is pushing the limits of how successful you can be without scoring much. Over the past four years the Islanders have averaged between 2.71 and 2.95 goals per game, ranking between 21st and 23rd in the league. This season they are averaging 2.56 goals per game and sit with the 30th-ranked offence. The goalies are still strong, but now the defence is giving up more than usual as well — 31st in shots against per game and scoring chances allowed. Just two points out of a wild card spot with a .528 points percentage, how sustainable is it this time?

New York Rangers: Can Artemi Panarin work his way into the Hart Trophy discussion?

Beginning the season with a 15-game point streak, Panarin sits eighth in NHL scoring with 10 goals and 26 points in 17 games, a scoring rate he has not yet managed in his career. Across a couple of different centres, Panarin has driven his line with Alexis Lafreniere on the opposite wing scoring eight times in 17 games. For the individual success Panarin has found this season, perhaps no contribution would be greater than unlocking Lafreniere’s first overall potential.

Ottawa Senators: How will they handle a busy December after a restful start?

With 15 games played to this point, the Ottawa Senators have had the lightest schedule through the season’s first six weeks, but will play another 15 games through a busy four weeks in December. During that, Ottawa will have two back-to-backs, their first Western Conference road trip (an eight-day, five-gamer) and face a pretty competitive run of teams that includes both of the past two Stanley Cup champions, and two meetings with the rival Leafs. They’ll ease out of November with two games in the next seven days, but that last month of 2023 will be where we find out if any cohesion or momentum was built on a perfect two-win trip to Sweden.

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Philadelphia Flyers: Where does the team and Morgan Frost go from here?

Coming off 19 goals and 46 points last season, his first full one in the NHL, Morgan Frost has been healthy scratched nearly as much as he’s been played by John Tortorella this season. Though there’s no indication he’s asked for a trade yet, this situation surely can’t go on like this forever. Frost did not get a point in any of the first six games he played, but has four in his past four including two goals. The 24-year-old, with some of the lowest even strength minutes, is also one of five Flyers players averaging over a goal per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 — the other four are Philadelphia’s leading goal scorers. Frost is also one of four Flyers averaging over one primary assist per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. And the Flyers are 6-4-0 with him in the lineup, 4-4-1 without. Making $2.1 million for this season and next, where does this drama go in the second quarter?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Does Sidney Crosby have another 100-point season in him?

Not since 2018-19 has Crosby eclipsed the century mark, though his points per game pace in the shortened 2020-21 season would have been strong enough to get there. Now the 36-year-old is off to another stellar start, perhaps overshadowed by the fact he’s outside of the top 10 scorers. But all the underlying numbers are elite. With Crosby on the ice at 5-on-5 the Penguins control 57 per cent of the shots, goals and high-danger chances, and would you be surprised to learn he’s the league leader in even strength points? If the Penguins’ dreadful power play could ever turn a corner there would be even more offence for Crosby to find, since he has just three extra man points so far. At 89 points this season, Crosby would pass Phil Esposito for 10th on the all-time list — 100 points would see him reach 1,600 points.

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San Jose Sharks: Who gets traded off the roster?

At 3-15-1 without any wins on the road yet and at or near the bottom of so many statistics, the Sharks have a one-way ticket to the draft lottery and will be a seller at the trade deadline. And while Timo Meier was the big target last year, there’s probably not another one like him coming out of San Jose this season. Anthony Duclair is a pending UFA with recent playoff success, while Mike Hoffman also has an expiring contract and is tied for the team goal-scoring lead (that’s just four, but he’s at the top!). We’ll see if Mackenzie Blackwood, a past Team Canada goalie hopeful hurt by injuries, becomes a target for a goalie-needy team and finds his game again in better surroundings.

Seattle Kraken: Can they separate from the middle pack to build on last season?

Since Season 1 the Kraken’s netminding has not been its strong suit, finishing 32nd and 30th in team save percentage the past two seasons. In 2023-24 that trend has continued, with Philipp Grubauer and Joey Daccord combining for the league’s 28th ranked save percentage past their quarter mark. So how did they get into the playoffs and win a round last spring? The biggest difference for the Kraken was that in their second season they had the NHL’s second-best shooting percentage and its fourth-best offence, allowing for a few career goal-scoring seasons from the likes of Jared McCann (40) and Daniel Sprong (21). So far this season regression has hit back, as the Kraken have sunk to 23rd in shooting percentage and 25th in scoring. With 21 games played they hold on to the second wild card spot with a .500 points percentage — can they recapture some of last season’s offence and pull away from the pack behind them?

St. Louis Blues: Can their most important scorers start producing?

After turning into a surprise deadline seller last season, it will be interesting to see how the next quarter shapes St. Louis’ plans from here. Currently holding on to the West’s first wild card spot with a 10-7-1 record, the Blues are getting great goaltending from Jordan Binnginton so far, but their offence has left something to be desired. Twenty-fourth in the league in goals per game and 31st in power play percentage, most of St. Louis’ top scorers have been silent so far. Robert Thomas is a point-per-game player, but past that Brayden Schenn, Jordan Kyrou and Pavel Buchnevich — last season’s top three scorers — have all fallen well off their pace and are tied at 11 points right now.

Tampa Bay Lightning: How quickly can Andrei Vasilevskiy get up to speed?

Through 20 games the Lightning have a 9-6-5 record and sit third in the Atlantic Division, though by points percentage they’re ninth in the Eastern Conference right now. Good thing Andrei Vasilevskiy is set to return this weekend. To this point the Lightning have relied on Jonas Johansson to get them through and he’s been 66th out of 75 goalies in Goals Saved Above Expected. Vasilevskiy should give the team a huge lift, but, remember, this is a back surgery he is returning from so we’ll see how long it takes him to return to form.

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Toronto Maple Leafs: How will Brad Treliving address the blue line and will it be a big swing or a tweak?

There is no secret that Toronto needs to, and will, change its defence corps to some degree by the trade deadline as they sit 20th in shots against per game and, as outlined by Justin Bourne this week, have problems gapping up, preventing zone entries, and defending the rush. On Thursday John Klingberg was put on LTIR, which will make this need even more obvious. The question is what kind of defencman, or defencemen, will Treliving go after?

Bourne outlined the need for a strong skater, but it will also be attractive to chase size and strength. And will the bold GM tweak at the margins, or play a more aggressive hand to try and give the back end a much different look? It’s still to be determined just how much cap space they have to work with, as we wait to see if Klingberg will come back this season, or not.

Vancouver Canucks: How much will they get hit with regression?

With a league-leading 1.052 PDO (adding shooting and save percentage together) the Canucks are probably due some regression back somewhere towards the general 1.000 average. And though, yes, it’s true good teams can finish with relatively high PDOs, the Bruins had a 1.040 mark last season that was easily the highest of the past decade.

Thatcher Demko’s re-emergence as a Vezina hopeful is probably sustainable, so what we’re looking for is if Vancouver’s offence breaks a bit. Currently with a league-high 13.54 team shooting percentage, the Canucks have some notably high individual rates. J.T. Miller is converting on 28.3 per cent of his shots, Nils Hoglander on 27.3 of his and Brock Boeser 25.5 of his. That’s three of their top five goal-getters. Now, Andrei Kuzmenko sustained a 27.3 shooting percentage for 81 games last season and ended up with 39 goals (he has three goals on 10.7 per cent shooting this season), but there’s no way each of these players can sustain all their early offence, is there?

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Vegas Golden Knights: Is Shea Theodore still the NHL’s most underrated defenceman?

In a season where Quinn Hughes leads everyone in scoring and Cale Makar is two points off that pace, the Norris Trophy is going to be a difficult one for any other blueliner to take over. So this is where we shine a little light on Vegas’ Theodore, who won’t dazzle you the same way as either Hughes or Makar with jaw-dropping offensive totals, but he has 18 points in 20 games, which is just two off Vegas’ team lead. A great skating defenceman excellent at breaking pucks out of the D-zone and into the O-zone, Theodore is perhaps the most important part of Vegas’ deep and accomplished defence corps. When he’s on the ice at 5-on-5, the Golden Knights have outscored opponents 17-11 — when he’s off the ice, they’ve outscored the competition just 22-20.

Washington Capitals: Is Alex Ovechkin finally, actually, slowing down?

When Ovechkin didn’t score at all in his first four games and was kept without a shot in two of them, it was enough to raise an eyebrow. Then he scored goals in back-to-back games — earning 14 shots in a game against the Leafs — and we chalked it up to a streaky goal scorer. Now 16 games in Ovechkin hasn’t been held shot-less again, but he does only have three goals in his past 10 games, and five in 16 games overall. It doesn’t help that Washington has the league’s worst power play, leaving Ovechkin with just a single extra-man goal. At this rate Ovechkin is pacing towards a 25-goal season, which would leave him still 47 shy of tying Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record and, perhaps, not a lock to reach it in 2024-25. Of course, he could score 15 times in his next 20 games.

Winnipeg Jets: Can the special teams get on track?

We assume Connor Hellebuyck will settle in and see his save percentage get back over .900, and then some, so our biggest question at this point is about Winnipeg’s power play and penalty kill. The power play started excruciatingly slow but has shown signs of life in the past couple of weeks, moving up to 19th in the league. But the penalty kill remains stagnant, 29th in the league with a 72.9 per cent kill rate. The Jets have allowed 16 power play goals against and have scored just 12 of their own.

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