NHL’s 10 biggest early takeaways: Surprise breakouts, disappointments, team weaknesses

NHL’s 10 biggest early takeaways: Surprise breakouts, disappointments, team weaknesses

It’s officially been over a month since the puck dropped on the NHL’s regular season. We’re also just two weeks away from American Thanksgiving which has historically been a pivotal check-in point on the league calendar — around 80 percent of teams that are in a playoff spot at that point end up clinching one when the season concludes.

One month obviously isn’t a huge sample size, but it’s substantial enough to where early trends and storylines for the 2022-23 NHL season are emerging. There are budding new stars, powerhouse organizations in dramatic crisis mode, exciting upstart teams on the rise and so much more. It’s impossible to cover everything noteworthy that’s happened in the league so far, but here are some of the most interesting takeaways.

1. Which teams have been pleasant surprises?

Colleague Shayna Goldman recently did a fantastic job covering Vegas, Boston, Dallas, Buffalo and Philadelphia’s surprisingly strong starts. Those clubs will get some more shine throughout this piece, but since Goldman’s article, there are a number of other teams that have risen as pleasant surprises as well.

New Jersey Devils, 10-3-0: The Devils are a possession powerhouse, surrendering the fewest shots against per game in the NHL and ranking second behind only Florida in generating over 37 shots per game offensively.

Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier have broken out in a huge way. New Jersey’s blue line is also one of the most underrated in the league. After a very rocky start in goal, plus MacKenzie Blackwood’s injury, Vitek Vanecek has provided stability, up to a .915 save percentage.

Seattle Kraken, 8-4-2: Who thought the Kraken would be sitting second in the Pacific ahead of Edmonton, Calgary and Los Angeles? It might come as a surprise when you look at Seattle on paper because they have one of the worst goalie tandems in the league and zero star power both up front and on the back end.

The Kraken boast one of the best supporting casts in the NHL though with 11 forwards who’ve notched at least seven points through 14 games. All four lines are a genuine threat to score and so is the blue line which has chipped in with 11 goals.

Detroit Red Wings, 7-3-3: Detroit went from being 31st in goals against per game (3.73) last season to 11th (2.81) so far in 2022-23. The penalty kill has catapulted to top-10 status after ranking worst in the league last season.

Some of Steve Yzerman’s offseason additions have paid strong early dividends. Ville Husso has been lights out with a .941 save percentage through eight games. Dominik Kubalik has been an offensive machine with 16 points in 13 games in light of Tyler Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana’s absences. David Perron is producing and Olli Maatta has been an underrated addition on the back end.

Detroit’s even-strength form needs to significantly improve for this run to last though as the club has only controlled 42 percent of shot attempts and scoring chances at five-on-five.

New York Islanders, 9-5-0: Many were skeptical of the Islanders after GM Lou Lamoriello didn’t make any splashy forward acquisitions to address the team’s scoring woes. New York’s gotten an internal boost in that department (more on that later) which has been enough to support a team with arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL (Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov), a rock-solid shutdown pair with Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock and the third-best penalty kill in the league.

Winnipeg Jets, 8-3-1: Winnipeg’s hot start seemed overly reliant on Connor Hellebuyck’s spectacular form. The Jets are improving in front of their netminder, however, fresh off the best performance of the season in a 5-1 win over Dallas that leapfrogged them to first place in the Central Division. Josh Morrissey’s playing some of the best hockey of his career, clicking at a point-per-game pace, Cole Perfetti’s one of the best rookies in the NHL and the forward group has done a better job backchecking and providing support for the blue line.

2. Which teams are disappointing?

There’s no shortage of clubs in early crisis mode, including some accomplished, talented rosters. Shayna also did terrific work analyzing Minnesota and Vancouver’s rough starts. Here are some of the underperforming teams beyond that.

St. Louis Blues, 3-8-0: St. Louis’ usually formidable top nine has been blunted.

Jordan Kyrou and Ryan O’Reilly are off to miserable starts, David Perron’s departure hurts, Robert Thomas has been mediocre, Ivan Barbashev’s 2021-22 breakout looks like a fluke, and Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich have missed games and or been quiet when healthy. The blue line also looks disastrous outside of Justin Faulk, completely leaving Jordan Binnington, who’s been much better than his .886 save percentage would lead you to believe, out to dry.

All eight of their losses have been by a multi-goal margin which includes some ugly blowouts.

The Blues own the lowest five-on-five shooting percentage in the league (5.51), so they’ve been unlucky burying chances offensively. That reversal will help but they’ve dug themselves a massive early hole.

Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-6-2: Blown leads, costly turnovers, bad special teams and Tristan Jarry coming back down to Earth after a torrid start have all hurt the Penguins (more on them later). The climb back into a playoff spot is even more competitive than years past because of division rivals New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Islanders’ surprise starts.

Ottawa Senators, 4-8-0: Ottawa’s slow start is especially frustrating because the team’s actually looked pretty good. The Senators are top 10 in the league for controlling shot attempts (52.5 percent) and scoring chances (53.9 percent) at five-on-five. Ottawa’s power play hasn’t been prolific enough considering the offensive weapons it has, Josh Norris’ long-term injury has been a big blow and an already thin blue line has sorely missed Artem Zub over the last handful of games.

Calgary Flames, 5-5-2: Jonathan Huberdeau only has two five-on-five points in 11 games, while Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dube have both been slow out of the gate. I’m not worried about the Flames yet though. Calgary’s controlling five-on-five play with the sixth-best shot attempt differential in the NHL (all five teams ahead of them are currently in playoff spots) and Jacob Markstrom won’t play at a .893 save percentage-type level the whole season.

Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-9-0: Columbus’ power play has been an outrageously bad 6.1 percent. The Blue Jackets are a defensive train wreck, allowing a league-worst 4.56 goals against per game thanks to an exposed blue line and subpar goaltending.

Nashville Predators, 5-7-1: The Predators’ young talent has mysteriously disappointed. Philip Tomasino went from a promising top-six breakout candidate to AHL demotion. Eeli Tolvanen has scored just one goal and has been in and out of the lineup. Even Dante Fabbro was a healthy scratch. Couple that with top players like Roman Josi and Juuse Saros struggling and you can see why Nashville is underperforming.

3. Dahlin, Svechnikov, Tkachuk: Bona fide superstars rising from top five of the 2018 draft class

Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov and Brady Tkachuk were already well established as core pieces for their respective teams after being drafted top five. All three have taken the next step into genuine superstardom this season.

Dahlin’s looking like an early Norris candidate with seven goals and 16 points through 12 games. He’s been dominant at both ends of the ice, helping the Sabres control 57 percent of scoring chances during his five-on-five minutes according to Natural Stat Trick.

Dahlin’s progression is a reminder of how important development is in helping a player reach their potential. Dahlin was passive, tentative and lacked freedom with the previous coaching staff. The focus on simplifying his game and being forced to play a conservative style under Ralph Krueger hurt his confidence and ironically resulted in more defensive mistakes. Don Granato’s arrival as head coach midseason in 2021 was a reset. Granato gave Dahlin the freedom to play more aggressively and take calculated risks and Dahlin’s game has taken off over the last couple of seasons as a result.

Svechnikov has long teased game-breaking ability and he finally profiles like an elite goal scorer, scoring eight times with 14 points in 13 games. He’s spent most of his time on a line with Martin Necas, who’s also exploded with seven goals and 17 points in 13 games. Svechnikov and Necas’ breakouts, coupled with Max Pacioretty’s addition, should go a long way toward leveling up an offensive attack that’s let the Hurricanes down during the playoffs the last two seasons.

Tkachuk, meanwhile, boasts 12 five-on-five points which are tied with Jesper Bratt, Sidney Crosby and Troy Terry for the NHL lead. He’s been a monster along the boards and down low, nearly impossible to push off the puck. He’s finally converting his scoring chances at a higher rate which has boosted his production.

4. Will Pittsburgh’s deficient blue line shut their Cup contention window?

The Penguins have surrendered 3.43 goals against per game this season, which ranks 24th in the NHL. Some of the responsibility for those goal-prevention woes definitely lies on the forwards who’ve managed the puck carelessly and bled counterattack chances on the power play. But part of that burden also rests with Pittsburgh’s blue line which has raised major red flags.

Brian Dumoulin started showing signs of decline last season. That downward slope has accelerated rapidly as he looks like a shadow of the steady, smothering defensive presence he once was. He’s been unplayable in a front-line role with Kris Letang, which has Letang’s game suffering and looking less dynamic as a result too.

Jeff Petry’s underlying numbers are good, but they’re misleading — Marcus Pettersson was clearly driving that pair’s success. Petry’s registered just five points in 13 games, has been vulnerable defensively against speedy forwards and has taken too many penalties.

It’s early but John Marino’s trade to New Jersey for cap purposes hasn’t helped either.

It’d be foolish to count out the Penguins’ ability to make the playoffs this early. They’re too talented and experienced. But if and when they get back to the postseason one wonders if the Penguins have a blue line with enough youth and speed to win another Stanley Cup.

Is there any defenseman over the past decade who’s had a more dominant, transcendent peak than prime Erik Karlsson? Victor Hedman’s consistency made him a better player overall and Cale Makar’s playoff run last spring was special, but Karlsson’s best form reached heights we’ve rarely seen NHL defenders achieve.

Injuries and inconsistency, unfortunately, plagued Karlsson over the past few years. The electric qualities of his game diminished, the defensive flaws were magnified and for the last couple of years, he’s been discussed as owning one of the worst contracts in the NHL with an $11.5 million cap hit until 2026-27.

Karlsson has turned back the clock and found his vintage form, scoring 10 goals and 19 points in 14 games. These points aren’t just empty calories. Karlsson has commendably controlled shots and scoring chances and has driven a plus-five goal differential at five-on-five, which is very impressive considering how underpowered San Jose is. He’s been Norris caliber and is singlehandedly making the Sharks an entertaining TV product.

He isn’t the only veteran defender who’s unlocked vintage form though.

Hampus Lindholm was never a flashy player, nor a true No. 1 defender, but he was a smooth, intelligent two-way force for a long time with the Ducks. Lindholm’s play-driving impact started to slip toward the end of his Ducks tenure though and there were questions about whether he could live up to the eight-year, $52-million extension he signed with the Bruins after being acquired at the deadline.

Lindholm’s been worth every penny and more so far this season. He was thrust into the No. 1 role with Charlie McAvoy’s injury and ensured the Bruins didn’t skip a beat. Lindholm’s logged north of 24 minutes per night, crushed his five-on-five matchups and successfully keyed the top power-play unit, notching 13 points through 13 games. McAvoy’s return will bump Lindholm from PP1 so the latter’s offensive production will taper off, but his two-way impact as a bona fide top-pair presence is a massive boon.

6. Colorado still searching for Kadri’s replacement

The Avalanche have played 332 five-on-five minutes without Nathan MacKinnon on the ice. In that time, Colorado has scored just 1.44 goals per 60 minutes.

This trend isn’t new. Colorado was thin on bottom-six scoring last season as well before it went out and acquired Artturi Lehkonen who was a slam-dunk fit. There’s zero need to worry right now but with the cap forcing the club to move on from Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, the Avalanche look like they’ll need to add secondary scoring at some point before the deadline to go deep in the playoffs again.

Gabriel Landeskog’s injury has to be mentioned — his eventual return will go a long way in stabilizing the second line. The second-line centre hole that Kadri left behind is still a question mark though. Alex Newhook was given the first crack there but he struggled, notching just three points in 11 games. Evan Rodrigues and J.T. Compher rotated in the 2C spot as well. Compher’s a fast, disruptive defensive force but with a career high of 33 points, he’s probably not the long-term answer at 2C. Rodrigues probably isn’t either, even though he’s been a strong bargain signing.

Whether GM Chris MacFarland upgrades at 2C or finds another Lehkonen-type addition on the wing, it’s clear that the Avs need to upgrade their secondary scoring to retain their status as Cup favorites.

7. Early free-agent stock watch: Whose value is skyrocketing and who’s falling?

Bo Horvat, UFA 📈: Since March 9 of last season, Horvat’s tallied 26 goals in 32 games. He’s on pace to shatter his previous career high of 31 goals despite the team around him being stuck in turmoil.

Ryan O’Reilly, UFA 📉: Players with O’Reilly’s championship pedigree, proven ability to step up in the playoffs, physical style and two-way chops will always have value. But he’s going to turn 32 in February, has notched just two points in 11 games and his usually elite faceoff numbers have slightly tapered off as well.

David Pastrnak, UFA 📈: Pastrnak’s blazing start, despite missing Brad Marchand, was a huge reason the Bruins didn’t skip a beat despite early injuries. He’s scored eight goals and 20 points in 13 games.

Jesper Bratt, RFA 📈: Bratt inked a one-year, $5.45-million deal this past summer instead of signing a long-term extension. That decision looks like it’s going to pay off handsomely, as he’s off to a monster start with 18 points in 13 games.

John Klingberg, UFA 📉: Klingberg mistimed last offseason’s market, settling late in the summer for just a one-year deal at $7 million with Anaheim. He’s been crushed defensively at five-on-five and is quarterbacking a Ducks power play that’s second-worst in the NHL.

Jonathan Toews, UFA 📈: Toews didn’t look like himself at all last season after missing the entire 2021 campaign with illness. He’s already up to seven goals and nine points in 12 games this season.

Matt Dumba, UFA 📉: Dumba’s been mistake-prone and very unreliable defensively this season. His play-driving numbers have also dipped and he’s goalless with just two assists through 12 games.

Gabriel Vilardi, RFA 📈: Vilardi’s development was stalled due to injuries for a while but he’s up to 10 goals and 15 points in 15 games after splitting last season between the NHL and American League.

8. Ultra-defensive teams that implemented more offensive systems have had excellent starts

The Bruins, Stars and Islanders have all been elite defensive teams the last few seasons, ranking top five for goals against per game between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons. Each of them relied on conservative, tight-checking systems which drove strong defensive results, but led to scoring issues at times and ultimately a disappointing end to their campaigns last season.

Boston, Dallas and New York all made coaching changes this summer. New hires Jim Montgomery, Peter DeBoer and Lane Lambert have tweaked their respective clubs’ systems to allow more offensive creativity. These teams are carrying the puck through the neutral zone more often in pursuit of rush offense instead of mostly relying on dump-ins. Their defensemen are encouraged to be more active instead of operating statically and resorting to low-danger point shots.

The early results are promising.

Data collected prior to Nov 9 games

All three teams are among the league leaders in five-on-five goals.

Will these offensive gains last? We’ll see because the Stars and Islanders are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league respectively with five-on-five shooting percentages over 10 percent. That kind of elite efficiency could come back down to Earth.

9. Which goalies have surprised (for better or worse) with their performance so far?

Goaltending is extremely volatile so we’re bound to see wild swings early in a season. Here are some of the more surprising goalie performances, for better or worse, so far this season. The key word in that last sentence is surprise; seeing an elite goalie like Hellebuyck, Sorokin or Jake Oettinger dominate doesn’t qualify.

Logan Thompson 📈, Vegas Golden Knights: Robin Lehner’s injury created a ton of uncertainty for the Golden Knights in net heading into this season. Thompson’s been a remarkable story, posting a .930 save percentage through nine games.

Thatcher Demko 📉, Vancouver Canucks: Demko was the Canucks’ MVP in 2021-22 and many viewed him as a dark horse contender for the Vezina heading into this season. Vancouver’s embarrassing penalty kill, the alarming number of east-west seam passes they’ve surrendered and their inability to box out in front of the net has completely left Demko out to dry. Demko hasn’t been as bad as the stats would lead one to believe but he’s still been a lot worse than most expected.

Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers 📈: Hart’s re-established himself as a top goaltender after inconsistency plagued him the last couple years. He’s kept the Flyers competitive despite the club being outshot and outchanced by wide margins in most games. Philadelphia’s done well to prevent seam passes in front of Hart, but he’s stopping pucks at a .946 rate and leads all netminders in goals saved above expected by Evolving-Hockey’s model.

Jack Campbell, Edmonton Oilers 📉: Campbell played well on Tuesday against the Lightning but he’s been underwhelming otherwise, rocking a .884 save percentage. Stuart Skinner has fortunately been excellent as the No. 2 in six appearances, which has prevented the goaltending situation in Edmonton from totally unraveling.

Linus Ullmark, Boston Bruins 📈: Jeremy Swayman and Ullmark split starts evenly last season. Swayman received the nod as Boston’s No. 1 heading into this season but he’s lost the 1A mantle to Ullmark, who’s posted a .932 save percentage in 11 appearances.

Cal Petersen and Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings 📉: The Kings are a top-10 team in controlling five-on-five shots and scoring chances but Petersen and Quick have combined for the fifth-worst team save percentage in the league.

Ville Husso, Detroit Red Wings 📈: Husso’s proving he wasn’t just a one-year wonder. The 27-year-old has already saved 7.5 goals more than expected based on the quality of chances he’s faced, a big reason why the Red Wings are picking up wins despite being outplayed at even strength.

Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs 📈: Matt Murray’s injury thrust Samsonov into the spotlight as The Guy. Samsonov was rock solid until getting hurt against the Bruins.

Alex Stalock, Chicago Blackhawks 📈: Stalock has barely had a chance to play the last couple of seasons after being diagnosed with myocarditis. The 35-year-old’s defiant NHL return is an inspiring story, keeping the Blackhawks competitive with a solid .914 save percentage.

The 2021-22 season was a miserable one for the Montreal Canadiens. It led to some positive changes, though. The franchise brought in Martin St. Louis as head coach and has committed to a full rebuild. Fans are now getting a glimpse at the future with a really young blue line. Most importantly, the club’s young forwards have bounced back.

Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield have been a nearly unstoppable duo on the top line. They’re both over a point per game and have combined for 17 goals in 14 games. St. Louis’ decision to shift Kirby Dach to the wing and elevate him to the top line has also been a genius move. Dach’s caught fire since with nine points in his last six games.

Suzuki and Caufield are riding elevated shooting percentages so they’re due to slow down a bit, but they’re leaving no doubt that they can be face-of-the-franchise-type figures for the next great Canadiens team. Suzuki’s living up to the pressure of captaincy and Caufield’s going to be an elite goal scorer for at least the next decade.

Some stats are accurate prior to Nov 9 games

(Top photo: Ed Mulholland / USA Today)

#NHLs #biggest #early #takeaways #Surprise #breakouts #disappointments #team #weaknesses

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