Things we’ve learned at the NHL’s one-quarter mark

NHL insider Justin Bourne joins Sportsnet Central to discuss who he thinks will start in goal for Canada at the Beijing Olympics and what Canadians are playing their way on and off the team at this point in the NHL season.

NHL action resumes Friday night after a day off for American Thanksgiving. Playoffs are taking shape, off-season additions and subtractions are being felt, and some truly awesome early-season performances have dropped our jaws.

Here are some things we’ve learned so far:

Connor McDavid is fantastic and generational, but Leon Draisaitl is the MVP

How many more ways can we talk about Connor McDavid’s greatness? His 100-plus point performance in the 56-game shortened season was mind-boggling, with a 1.88 points per game rate that stands as the best in the salary cap era and better than any player since Mario Lemieux’s 2.30 in 1995-96.

McDavid has dazzled with a couple of one-against-everyone highlight reel goals already and began the season on a 17-game point streak that had us wondering if he could take a crack at Wayne Gretzky’s record of 51 consecutive games with a point to start a season. That run ended this week, but then McDavid got on the board again Wednesday with a four-point effort.

But he’s not even the points leader on his own team.

Leon Draisaitl, with 40 points in 19 games, is four up on McDavid in the scoring race and in fact he’s the only non-Wayne Gretzky Oiler to reach 40 points before the 20-game mark. In league-wide historical context, Draisaitl is off to the best start in 25 years.

Both players excel on Edmonton’s power play, the league’s best, with McDavid leading the league in power-play points and Draisaitl in power-play goals. Edmonton’s 39 per cent success rate on the PP is incredible in its own right — the best full season power play in history is that of the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens, at 31.9 per cent. Only three teams have ever finished a season scoring in more than 30 per cent of their PP opportunities (the ’77-78 and ’78-79 Islanders also accomplished it).

Take out the man advantage, and Draisaitl has 18 points at 5-on-5 to McDavid’s 14 and, impressively, a league-leading nine primary assists to McDavid’s three.

Alex Ovechkin turning back the clock, still going strong in chasing down Wayne Gretzky’s goals record

Gretzky is an early theme in this piece, which should only underscore some of the special performances we’re seeing early on (we’ll move on in a second).

With 15 goals in 20 games, Alex Ovechkin is in a familiar spot, chasing the Rocket Richard (though he is five goals behind Draisaitl). While it isn’t shocking to see him in that position (even though he’s still doing it at 36 years old) it is certainly interesting how Ovechkin is scoring and getting points.

When you think of Ovechkin, you think of big one-timer goals from his office in the left circle. But to this point, he’s scored only twice from there and only once with his weapon of a one-timer (last Saturday against San Jose). Most of Ovechkin’s goals have some via wrist shot — he’s on pace for 39 of those types of goals, which would set a career high.

In terms of chasing the all-time goals record, Ovechkin is now fourth all-time and 22 goals away from passing Jaromir Jagr for third. Ovechkin is on pace for 60 goals this season — but let’s assume he slows down (a bad bet to make) and winds up scoring 30 more times to finish with 45 goals. At that rate, Ovechkin would start next season just 27 shy of passing Gordie Howe for second and 120 away from passing Gretzky’s 894. He could eclipse The Great One in 2024-25 on that pace and still have a year left on his contract.

Adding another layer is that Ovechkin’s early-season performance hasn’t even been defined only by goals or power play contributions. He leads the league in 5-on-5 points with 21 (three clear of Draisatil) and is also first in the league with 13 assists on 5-on-5. He’s about to pass his full season assist totals from the past two years.

Maybe we should be asking if Ovechkin, without Nicklas Backstrom in Washington’s lineup, is worthy of more first-quarter MVP talk.

The Flames are better than we all thought they were

To be sure, some things about Calgary’s start are unsustainable. The fact they have shut out their opponent in seven of 20 games so far is one, along with an NHL-best .955 save percentage. They’ve scored a few more goals than expected as well — but it won’t be this rosy all season. Bumps are inevitable and how they deal with those will be the ultimate measure of this team.

But it’s starting to look like you can throw out last season. Whereas we came into this season wondering about Johnny Gaudreau‘s future and if he was an inevitable trade piece before his contract expired, or if Matthew Tkachuk could also be in his last year with the team ahead of an RFA extension, the outlook has vastly changed now.

Rather than facing an identity crisis that could have gone as far as a GM change if things didn’t get on track, the Flames now look like they could be motivated buyers on the trade market. And maybe this shouldn’t entirely have been a surprise. It’s proven very difficult to get a read on what anything from last season truly meant and we shouldn’t view Calgary as a team with an inherently flawed make-up. It wasn’t that long ago they were doing something similar to what we’ve seen through the first quarter.

In 2019-20, the Flames dealt with a mediocre start and then in late-November Bill Peters resigned as their head coach amid accusations of past racist language and player abuse. Under his replacement, Geoff Ward, Calgary won its next seven games and from that point until the season was paused in March, the Flames were 25-15-3 — a .616 points percentage that was eighth in the league and the best in Canada. Upon returning to the bubble, they knocked off Winnipeg in qualification and took the eventual finalist Dallas Stars to six games.

Last season went off the rails early and led to a coaching change, so it’s hard to say Calgary’s return to the level we’ve seen so far was a guarantee — but it does show there could be something here. Andrew Mangiapane has taken a big step and Oliver Kylington is playing a considerable role. Jacob Markstrom and Chris Tanev were still in Vancouver during the 2019-20 season. Coach Darryl Sutter has turned teams around before and has been able to get everything out of this group, which may be better equipped than the surging team of two years ago.

It’s worth remembering that last season was a challenge for everyone for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t that long ago these Flames did show something so what we’re seeing early on here is possibly more realistic than it seemed before the season.

Being an expansion team isn’t as easy as Vegas made it seem

In Vegas’ expansion season, the Golden Knights were 15-6-1 on Nov. 26, and it was clear they were going to be a surprise and a problem. Things haven’t been as smooth for the Seattle Kraken, who are 6-12-1, which is a pretty average start for an NHL expansion team in historical context. But, as we discussed last week, they haven’t played as poorly as their record indicates.

The Kraken defence has actually been pretty good, with a league-best 27.1 shots allowed per game and 8.77 high-danger opportunities allowed per game. This is where the goaltending has failed them so far, as Philipp Grubauer has an .890 save percentage and league-worst minus-9.22 goals saved above average.

If the goaltending turns around to even the league average, the Kraken should be able to claw some wins back, but the Golden Knights they are not. While Seattle has been good on defence, their offence is not going to be able to overcome any goaltending issues. The Kraken rank 25th in shots per game and 23rd in high-danger opportunities. Their shooting percentage does not indicate a team likely to start scoring more often, either.

It’s far more likely the Kraken, with $8.8 million in projected cap space, become a trade seller and possibly even use some of that room to help others make a deal and pick up future assets along the way. Not a lot of teams have cap space this season, and though the Kraken didn’t weaponize theirs at the expansion draft, it’s possible they revisit that strategy in the lead-up to the trade deadline as the playoffs become a long shot.

Firing a coach isn’t always the right choice to turn a team around

Just five years ago, the Colorado Avalanche had the worst season of the salary cap era, with a 22-56-4 record. It was truly dreadful, but you wouldn’t have put the blame on head coach Jared Bednar, who stepped into the job late in the game after Patrick Roy surprisingly resigned just before training camp in mid-August. However, it didn’t seem obvious at that time Bednar was the long-term coach there.

Under Bednar, the Avalanche have slowly been emerging as a top contender and now they’re at a key point in this rise. They’ve been through three consecutive Round 2 playoff eliminations and the cap is getting tight with Nathan MacKinnon’s raise on the horizon. The time to start winning in the playoffs has arrived with great urgency.

So when the Avs started this season a little slowly (4-5-1), there was some question if Bednar would be replaced. Then they began turning the corner and scoring a pile of goals, now on a six-game winning streak over which they’ve outscored opponents 36-15 (without MacKinnon in the lineup, by the way). Then Bednar got a two-year contract extension last week.

This team has come a considerable way under Bednar from the absolute bottom of the league and now, incredibly, he’s the winningest coach in Avs history.

Teams with legitimate surprise potential

Speaking of surprising starts, two teams are this year’s breakouts, and another could qualify for that distinction depending on your pre-season outlook of them:

Anaheim Ducks: Shayna Goldman discussed the contributions from two key youngsters, Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry, in her analytical takeaways from the first quarter. Their continued success is key to the Ducks’ ability to keep it up. So is John Gibson, off to a .920 save percentage start, as he makes a bid to be Team USA’s Olympic No. 1. Adam Henrique, Rickard Rakell, Ryan Getzlaf all appear to be past their career-best seasons, but they are veterans who are also vital to supporting the kids. The mix is a healthy one.

The Ducks won’t be a Cup contender, and the more realistic hope is that they hang around the playoff fight until the very end. That would be a step up from three straight years of being a bottom feeder with one of the worst offences in the league. Anaheim’s underlying numbers show an average team — near-even shot and expected goal differentials at 5-on-5 and a favourable amount of high-danger scoring opportunities. That’s all good news. Even better is that their PDO (aka the “luck” stat) is middle-of-the-road, so there’s no obvious reason to expect the bottom to suddenly fall out.

Columbus Blue Jackets: They’ve had only nine games and three goals from Patrik Laine, seven games from Max Domi and a rocky start from one of their tandem goalies (Joonas Korpisalo), but the Blue Jackets hit the quarter mark fourth in the Metro Division with some quality wins over Winnipeg, Las Vegas and Colorado along the way. There are some interesting players on this team, starting with leading scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand, who is trending up for a third year in a row. Cole Sillinger is having a strong rookie season fly under the radar as their second-line centre (a spot they’ve sorely lacked). Zach Werenski is top-10 in defencemen points and goalie Elvis Merzlikins is top-10 in goals saved above average. There’s more here than meets the eye and in a Metro Division that’s still figuring itself out, a fourth-place finish seems up for grabs.

Minnesota Wild: Is this team a surprise? Hard to say. They handed over the keys to the kids last season and did finish a strong third in the temporary West Division, losing to Vegas in seven games. But these sort of developments can be stop and go. The Wild are still going strong in 2021-22, though, sitting atop the Central Division by three points. They could even be further ahead. The Wild rank fifth in the league by 5-on-5 expected goal differential, but are 15th in actual differential. Their team save percentage ranks 30th and they have had to lean awfully hard on Cam Talbot as Kaapo Kahkonen struggles to find his game. If Talbot can find last year’s fine form again, or if Kahkonen can start realizing his potential, things could really take off here.

Teams with legitimate disappoint potential

Vancouver Canucks: Depending on who you ask, expectations around the Canucks this year may have been low to begin with. The team certainly thought it had a playoff shot, though, and made off-season moves to try and improve their lot. However, it’s been nothing but a disaster and moral victories in the absence of actual ones. Change appears inevitable, whether it’s the coach, GM or even the players. Thatcher Demko and Conor Garland have been some of the nicer stories, but none of their other key players are performing well enough. At seven points out of the playoffs at the quarter mark, it would take one heck of a turnaround for the Canucks to not be a disappointment.

New York Islanders: While I do believe you write off the Lou Lamoriello/Barry Trotz Islanders at your own peril, the lift back to the playoffs is getting awfully heavy. The team has had to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak deemed not severe or out of control enough to postpone games, but that’s put them in a rough spot. At the quarter mark, New York is last in the Metro and the only team under .500 (.375) in the division. Their first home game didn’t come until last weekend either, when they opened brand new UBS Arena, so the schedule has been challenging as well. They may yet put on a noble charge, but a playoff miss could only be a disappointment (understandable or not) after back-to-back semifinal appearances. To get back, they may have to play as one of the top teams the rest of the way.

Montreal Canadiens: From Stanley Cup finalist to first overall draft choice? It’s not impossible for the Habs, who haven’t been able to do much in the early going. Playing without Carey Price is one thing, but they have the fourth-worst offence by goals per game so far and all the excitement over Cole Caufield’s rookie season has been quieted, with one goal in 13 games. GM Marc Bergevin’s future is up in the air as he’s in the last year of his contract. We could identify this was a team punching above its weight in last year’s playoffs, carried along by their all-world goalie. But the cracks in the foundation run deep and with so many players signed to term, it’s not obvious how to fix it. If Bergevin does go, the next GM will have quite a job on their hands.

Best and worst of the off-season

Best trade

Pavel Buchnevich to St. Louis; Sammy Blais, 2022 second-round pick to New York Rangers

A win for the Blues that they didn’t have to give up a first-rounder for Buchnevich, who has been a strong top-six winger for them, and even a third-line asset to really spread out scoring. At 5-on-5, Buchnevich has the best on-ice shot differential among all St. Louis forwards and the team has outscored the competition 10-3 with him out there (his on-ice goals for percentage is also a team-best). He’s starting to roll, too, with nine points in his past 11 games.

Honourable mention here to the Detroit Red Wings adding goalie Alex Nedeljkovic from Carolina for a third-round pick and Jonathan Bernier (who became a free agent and signed with New Jersey). While Carolina has found another way to success in net with Frederik Andersen playing so well, Nedeljkovic is one of the primary reasons the Red Wings are feeling good at 9-9-1. His $3-million AAV for this season and next is a steal and he’s proving last year’s Calder finalist nod was no fluke.

Best free agent addition

Frederik Andersen, Carolina Hurricanes

Andersen appeared to be falling off in Toronto and lost his starting job to Jack Campbell, but has been one of the best at his position in the league in 2021-22. Interestingly, Andersen has become somewhat known for his slow starts, but has posted a .936 save rate, 1.90 GAA and a league-leading 11 wins so far. His 9.34 goals saved above average (via Hockey Reference) ranks fifth in the league. He took a $500,000 pay cut to join Carolina with a $4.5-million AAV, too. If he keeps up a top-five level of play, the Hurricanes will solidify as contenders.

Have to also mention Tony DeAngelo here because his $1-million AAV has been a steal for what he’s provided the Canes. DeAngelo has 17 points in 18 games, which is tied for fourth in scoring among all NHL defencemen and his 10 points at 5-on-5 is a team best. Another nod goes to Zach Hyman in Edmonton, as he’s been a perfect complement to the Oilers’ stars. He’s not a league or positional leader in any category, and has slowed in production of late, so he’s not the top signing, but deserves a mention.

Worst trade

Seth Jones, 2021 first, 2022 sixth to Chicago; Adam Boqvist, 2021 first, 2021 second, 2022 first to Columbus

This move was questionable in a few ways. Jones’ play has been hot and cold to start the season, and though the Hawks have been outscored 18-11 when he’s been on the ice at 5-on-5, that’s actually one of the better marks among their defencemen. They’ve been outshot 181-158 with him which, again, doesn’t look great but is one of the better differentials on Chicago’s blue line. The on-ice negative is that he’s not been a decisive game-changer for them, though, which you might want from a player signed long-term with a $9.5-million cap hit. The on-ice positive? He does have 15 points in 19 games, so it’s not like this has been all bad.

Here’s the thing: Even if you like the player, making such a bold move and spending so much in the way of futures to acquire him was extremely risky for a team not out of a rebuild yet. The Hawks got Jones and the final pick of Round 1 from last summer’s draft — they gave up 21-year-old Boqvist’s potential, the 11th-overall pick in the draft (which turned into centre Cole Sillinger, who has stepped into the NHL right away) and their 2022 first-rounder. That pick is top-two protected, but could still end up being a very high selection for Columbus. The Hawks have played better lately, but hit the quarter mark 27th in the NHL by points percentage. Time could still turn this deal around for Chicago, but not if winning and playoffs are still years away.

Worst free agent addition of the off-season

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Carolina Hurricanes

The Canes are all over this piece. The decision to sign Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet and a $6.1-million AAV hasn’t worked out, as he didn’t fit in the top six and has fallen to the fourth line with just over 10 minutes of ice time a game. He has one point in his last 11 games and that’s with very favourable offensive zone usage, and sheltered by a loaded and deep team. How does this play out in the long run? They gave up a first-rounder to acquire him and Kotkaniemi will be an RFA again at the end of the season. With a number of other contracts to sort out, it will be tough to justify continuing to pay Kotkaniemi this salary with any term until he shows a bit more.

Honourable mention here as well to Toronto signing Nick Ritchie for two years and a $2.5-million AAV. For a team always cap tight, allocating that amount of money to a player who still hasn’t found a fit in the lineup is concerning. Ritchie has been closer to fourth-liner than anything else and has been given every opportunity to get going. He has zero goals and three points in 21 games.


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