Six intriguing NHL teams that have caught our attention so far

Luke Fox and Shawn McKenzie broke down the Toronto Maple Leafs' 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, which helped them break their four-game losing streak.

We’re not quite a month into the NHL season and it’s true that most teams have played about 9-10 games. That’s early, and much can still change. But it gets late around these parts — literally, folks, in most of the country we’re setting clocks back this weekend.

It’s not too early to start noticing trends, positive or negative. We wonder what surprising starts may stick, and which worrying ones may lead to in-season drama. And, with that, here are a number of truly intriguing teams to keep an eye on over the next three-plus weeks.


They have to be part of this group and not just because they’re the Leafs. The market is preparing to melt down over a mediocre start, where the roster make-up, the GM and the coach have all been under fire. Six consecutive years of being unable get past Round 1 of the playoffs will do that.

And the fact the Leafs have dropped some very winnable games against Anaheim, San Jose, Arizona and Montreal fuelled the discontent.

Wednesday’s win and John Tavares‘ “clutch” on-ice leadership will calm the hot takes for two days, but Toronto faces Boston, Carolina and Vegas next, so the winds of discontent are still blowing.

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You’ve heard about the drama; it’s been impossible to miss. The Leafs’ presumed but injury-prone No. 1 goalie got hurt before his second game; their 60-goal scorer has been slow out of the gate; the relationship between coach and $11-million winger has appeared strained; a top four defenceman has been booed on home ice; a rival coach stood up for Toronto’s bench boss as his seat scorched; and Barry Trotz opened the door to an NHL return.

We’re not even a month into the season.

The options from here are aplenty. Although the idea of a coach swap — or heck, even GM — will hang around every slump, the potential exists for roster change, too. The blue line screams “needs improvement” even if you believe better results are inevitably ahead for the team. The bottom-six needs more “umph” on the score sheet. These don’t have to be bold blockbuster moves, but every one will be excessively examined and could weigh heavily into how this entire era gets defined by history.

And this intrigue won’t even end in the regular season if the Leafs do get hot and win the division. Oh no, no. Round 1 of the playoffs is what this whole season is about. Another failure there and no regular season positives will matter anyway.


When they were winning Cups in the Dead Puck Era, the Devils were defined by how boring they were. Now, they could be one of the more exciting teams to keep an eye on.

A breakout has been anticipated for a couple years here as the rebuild starts to mature and it may be happening right now. The centrepiece of it all, Jack Hughes, was on his way to a blowout season last year before injury, and has started this one with 10 points in 10 games. Jesper Bratt leads them in scoring with 16 points, Nico Hischier is a two-way star and Dougue Hamilton is the rock on the blue line.

There is a lot to love about how this Devils team is trending. They have controlled 66.95 per cent of all shots taken at 5-on-5 to lead the league. They rank second in expected goals for and fifth in actual goals for at even strength.

But …

Their most troubling spot could hold everything back. At 5-on-5, the Devils had the 31st-ranked save percentage last season and, guess what, they’re 31st again. Vitek Vanecek and MacKenzie Blackwood either have to improve this or GM Tom Fitzgerald is going to have to find someone else.

Because if that goaltending improves and finds consistency, the Devils could be the breakout team of the year and a real dangerous unit.

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Forget Edmonton’s decade of darkness, the Buffalo Sabres have gone 11 years in a row without making the playoffs. That’s an all-time record for consecutive seasons on the wrong side of the cut-off line. And preseason odds indicated it was more likely than not the streak would extend to 12 after 2022-23.

But three weeks in, there is a nervous positivity here. The Sabres are 7-3-0 and second in the Atlantic Division. By points percentage, they’re sixth in the league.

Tage Thompson, signed to a massive seven-year extension ($7.142 million AAV) in the summer after going from eight to 38 goals in one year, has given no reason for buyer’s remorse. That deal doesn’t kick in until next season, by which time he may be a 40-goal man. Thompson has seven goals and 14 points in 10 games.

Second on the team in scoring is Rasmus Dahlin, and his seven points at 5-on-5 are tied for the league lead among defencemen. The 2018 first-overall pick had a 53-point breakout campaign last season and could be taking another step this season. The Sabres have outscored the competition 10-5 with Dahlin on the ice, and his 25:47 of average ice time ranks fifth in the league.

Those are two of the best, and most important, stories on the Sabres. There are other positives too, but we must be cautious with victory lapping before the season is even a month old.

Last season, Buffalo went 5-1-1 out of the gate, then won just three of its next 15 and was 8-11-3 by the time November was finished. In 2019-20, the Sabres started 9-2-2 in October and then went 3-8-3 in November.

Will it be different this year? Here’s a look at Buffalo’s underlying numbers at 5-on-5 in those other two good Octobers and the direction they went in the second month of the season:

Oct. 2019

Nov. 2019

Oct. 2021

Nov. 2021

Oct. 2022


47.73 (25th)

52.22 (8th)

49.93 (16th)

48.08 (22nd)

51.44 (11th)


46.65 (25th)

50.03 (17th)

49.76 (19th)

44.23 (29th)

49.69 (19th)


52.83 (11th)

48.21 (19th)

54.17 (9th)

42.86 (28th)

58.97 (6th)


.930 (7th)

.912 (22nd)

.946 (4th)

.896 (30th)

.930 (7th)


8.56 (14th)

7.71 (19th)

6.57 (25th)

9.12 (9th)

10.13 (4th)

By every measure, they looked more like a “non-playoff team” as the games went on.

The Sabres are probably not going to be a top-six team this season, or a division winner. And there probably is some level of course correction coming — their 1.030 PDO ranks second in the league and will fall with time.

The X-Factors here will be goalies Eric Comrie and Craig Anderson, secondary veteran offence from Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo, and other youngsters such as Dylan Cozens or Owen Power pushing through whatever challenging stretches are ahead. And, ahem, Carolina, Tampa, Vegas and Boston are on tap over the next nine days.

Owen Power passes to Victor Olofsson for the game-tying goal Wednesday night

The Sabres don’t have to be a division winner this season to be a success, though. Their intrigue comes in their potential to rocket out of this extended rebuild, shake up the order of the Atlantic Division by being a force all year and, perhaps, even getting to the playoffs. If they do get to the playoffs, who are they pushing out?


It took less than a month for a team with a certain level of promise (encouraged by how the last few months of 2021-22 played out) to have its coach put on the hot seat, its roster construction come under fire and for a section of people to declare the playoff chase over. Being four points out of a playoff spot at the start of November has traditionally been an exceptionally difficult hill to climb, though it’s still early.

The intrigue comes in where exactly they go from here.

The Canucks have many faces. One of the worst outfits in the league at the start of last season turned into a playoff-pace team from late December on, and now is 31st in the league by points percentage again. New, forward-looking management was brought in last season and there was anticipation they would take this team in a different direction than Jim Benning had them on.

The off-season is the optimal time to make sweeping changes like those, but instead the Canucks doubled down. JT Miller was extended, Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko were signed to provide winning depth and the defence (a team weakness throughout the peaks and valleys) was left largely untouched. Interestingly though, captain and centre Bo Horvat was not extended and could become a UFA next July. What seemed like a slam dunk would get done in the off-season has suddenly become much more complicated.

“I think one thing that could be an issue is how do you do an extension when things are going like this?” Elliotte Friedman pondered on the Jeff Marek Show. “This is a team that was hoping to be a playoff team and they’re really not trending that way. I think that makes these kinds of situations difficult. … I can see the Canucks looking at this and saying, ‘This is not the right time to do this.'”

When GM Jim Rutherford joined After Hours at the height of the early panic, he didn’t exactly endorse the coach for the full season. On this past weekend’s 32 Thoughts headlines segment on Hockey Night in Canada, it was reported that the players have been told roster changes could come if the wins don’t.

“The Vancouver Canucks made it very clear to some of their players that if there were changes made, they wouldn’t just be potentially the head coach,” Friedman reported. “I heard what they told some players (was), ‘We’ve had two coaches with this group, it isn’t working so far, so if anybody who thinks we’re going to sit back and wait and that’s going to be the change we’re going to make, you might be mistaken.’ The changes might be with the roster.”

Conor Garland has been healthy-scratched. Brock Boeser had zero goals in six games before getting injured. Tanner Pearson has scored once, Nils Hoglander has zero, and the bottom-six isn’t much threat to pick up the offensive slack. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is having a nightmare start, but that’s probably as close to an immovable contract in-season as you can get.

Eventually this management team is going to put its stamp on the franchise and do something different than to carry on Benning’s path. But when — and what — will that be?

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Four seasons removed from their Stanley Cup championship, the Blues have one official playoff round win in that time — a 4-2 series victory over Minnesota last spring. As currently built, the team has a mix of grizzled vets and a new group of skilled youngsters who will — maybe — be the leaders of a new core.

Maybe because … what if they don’t get back on track?

The Blues won their first three games of the season, but have lost five in a row since. That spurred GM Doug Armstrong to face the media Tuesday, and put a stamp on his thoughts on the team, and what may happen if they don’t start winning soon.

Unlike other struggling teams with expectations — Vancouver and Toronto — the Blues’ manager was very direct about the possibilities going forward. No. 1: the coach is safe and the problem, at the moment, is with the roster.

“What we need to see is a competitive level higher than we have now and what we have to do is find a part of our game that we can build off of when things aren’t going good,” Armstrong said. “It’s 10 per cent of the season, so I don’t want to overreact but we certainly can’t underreact, too.

“I told the players the coach is not going anywhere … and I don’t say that as a threat or anything like that, but I believe in the coach, I believe in the system and this isn’t a system issue, it’s a competitive issue.”

At 5-on-5, the Blues have a 46.45 shots for percentage, 23rd in the league. Their expected goals for percentage of 47.68 ranks 21st. Their penalty kill ranks 19th and their power play, 11th.

If roster changes are eventually necessary in the eyes of the GM, the possibilities are endless. Vladimir Tarasenko had previously asked for a trade and is in the last season of his deal. So is Ryan O’Reilly, but he’s such a staple of this team and the captain. It’s hard to move significant money in-season.

When the Blues started 2018-19 horribly, Armstrong didn’t react with any big trade or firing, but the team got back on track and went from worst in January to first in June.

And, if there is a silver lining here, it’s this: the Blues are 30th in shooting percentage (first last season) and 25th in save percentage (13th last season), which gives them the league’s lowest PDO at 0.961, behind the Sharks, Blue Jackets and Coyotes. Those averages will course-correct somewhat, but how long will it take? And what, exactly, will the GM do if this drags on much longer?

“Everyone has the term ‘retooling,’ ‘rebuilding,’ whatever ‘re’ is it sucks and I don’t want to be a ‘re’ anything. I want to continue what we’re doing now,” Armstrong said. “I do believe in the group, but we’re not in the belief business, we’re in the winning business, and we have to start to compete at a higher level.”

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Compared to Vegas, Seattle’s NHL arrival was much more subdued: A 27-49-6 record that landed them at the bottom of the Pacific Division and with the fourth-overall draft pick. If you’re looking for something to point a finger at for that result, it’d be at the goaltending and a lack of scoring on the roster.

So, now that the Kraken are off to a 5-4-2 start and third in the Pacific, it has made them one of the more surprising stories three weeks in.

Their offence is top-10 in the league, and at 5-on-5 they have the sixth-best expected goals per game rate. Oliver Bjkorkstrand, acquired for cheap in the summer, hasn’t even taken off in the goal department yet, though his underlying numbers are impressive. Andre Burakovsky, also acquired to add offence, has nine points in 11 games. Rookie Matty Beniers has looked like a veteran.

“What’s happening that couldn’t happen last year up and down the Kraken lineup is they’re finally starting to capture that magic in a bottle that comes when you actually get to hold your pairs and lines together,” Kraken analyst Alison Lukan said on the Jeff Marek Show. “That chemistry matters most in the hardest moments because that’s when you’re under pressure and that’s when you don’t have to think, you just know where your linemate or D partner is going to be. And I think we’re seeing the benefit of that right now.”

Because the Kraken have been winning games, they haven’t been able to find a full-time spot in the lineup for fourth-overall pick Shane Wright. That storyline is full of intrigue itself, since if Seattle isn’t going to use him, the only other option is to send him back to major junior.

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