Eight Surprises in the NHL (So Far)
As the season’s opening month comes to an end, we’re getting our first opportunity to try to make some sense of the standings. There’s still plenty of parity in the NHL, and the middle of the league is so bunched up that even a light slate of games can send everyone shuffling up or down. But things are starting to settle into place, and by now we can take a crack at figuring out who we were right or wrong about.
For the most part, things look a lot like the conventional wisdom expected them to. We knew that teams like the Kings and Blackhawks would be good, and we knew that teams like the Sabres and Hurricanes would be awful, and so far they’ve all held up their end of the bargain. Plenty of other teams are about where we’d expected them to be, too, give or take a few points.
And then there are the outliers, that handful of teams stubbornly refusing to play the way they were supposed to. There are always a few troublemakers every year, especially early on, and they tend to settle back into place as the season wears on. But occasionally, those surprise teams end up proving us wrong all year long.
Here’s a look at eight of the league’s most surprising teams, both the good and the bad, and whether they have any chance of keeping it up.
1. Good surprise: Montreal Canadiens (8-2-0, 16 points, first in the Atlantic)
You’d expect a conference finalist from the previous season to be good, even if that deep playoff run was somewhat unexpected. If the team was relatively young and backed by an elite goaltender, you might even expect them to be very good.
But I don’t recall seeing anyone picking the Montreal Canadiens to be the league’s best team, which is what the standings say they’ve been so far. At 8-2-0, the Canadiens are tied with the Ducks for first place overall. They’re a perfect 4-0-0 at home and have already won playoff rematches with the Rangers and Bruins.
Will it last? The current pace obviously won’t continue; nobody’s expecting the Habs to finish with 130 points. The question here is how much they’ll drop. And at least one stat suggests they could drop quite a bit; their goals differential, a paltry plus-1, suggests they’re a lot closer to a .500 team than to legitimate contender status. (That differential is heavily influenced by an early-season 7-1 drubbing by the Lightning, which it’s tempting to write off as just one bad game. But when we’re dealing with a tiny 10-game sample, we can’t really get picky.) They’re also a perfect 3-0 in shootouts, which are basically coin flips.
But other numbers suggest that what the Canadiens are doing could continue. The typical stats that would indicate a fluke — high team shooting percentage, uncharacteristic even-strength save percentage, a PDO well north of 1,000 — don’t flag anything Montreal’s doing as obviously unsustainable. And so far the Habs are winning without especially dominating performances from their best players, like P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and even Carey Price (who hadn’t looked all that sharp until a recent three-game stretch).
The Canadiens are a good team; they might be the best in the conference. All standard disclaimers about it being early and a long season still apply, but right now, they look like the real deal.
2. Bad surprise: Boston Bruins (5-6-0, 10 points, fifth in the Atlantic)
In 2011, they won the Cup. In 2013, they came within two games of winning it again. Last year, they led the league with 117 points. There wasn’t a team in the East that had been as consistently good as the Bruins for so long, and heading into this year there was every reason to assume it would continue.1
Instead, they’ve spent the first month scraping by as a sub-.500 team, and of their four regulation wins, three have come against bottom-feeders like the Flyers, Leafs, and Sabres. A team that had established a reputation as one of the league’s best defensive units has often looked lost over the first few weeks, perhaps hampered by injuries and contract disputes, and no team has inspired more “they just don’t look like themselves” comments. Vezina winner Tuukka Rask doesn’t appear invincible any more, and now Zdeno Chara is out for four to six weeks.
It’s only one month, but with both the Habs and the Lightning looking every bit as good as advertised, it feels like the top seed in the Atlantic may already be slipping away.
Will it last? Chara’s injury leaves a massive hole in the lineup, and the Bruins don’t have the cap space to go out and do much about it. So it’s quite possible the team continues to lose ground until its captain returns sometime around early December. By that point, any hope of a top seed in the east may be on life support.
But let’s take a step back. Chara will return eventually, and Rask’s career numbers indicate he’ll bounce back. And even now, the tide seems to be turning: The Bruins had won three of four before Tuesday’s third-period meltdown against the Wild, and starting tonight they’ve got six straight games against teams that missed the playoffs last year.
So they’re still good, even if for the time being they’re no longer scary good. But if they’re going to stay in the hunt for the division title, they’ll need to do more than tread water until Chara is back.
3. Good surprise: Nashville Predators (6-1-2, 14 points, first in the Central)
After a disappointing season that saw them miss the playoffs for the second straight year, the Predators made major changes. The fired longtime coach Barry Trotz and replaced him with Peter Laviolette, and swung one of the biggest trades of the offseason to add former 40-goal scorer James Neal. On top of that, they welcomed former Vezina finalist Pekka Rinne back to full health after a season lost to hip problems.
Those are the sort of changes designed to turn a team around quickly, but heading into the season, the consensus among the experts was that the Predators would be a nonfactor.2 One month in, they’re sitting near the top of the Western Conference with just one regulation loss. Rinne looks fantastic, Neal is scoring, Mike Ribeiro is behaving himself, and Shea Weber is being Shea Weber.
Will it last? A look at the Predators’ schedule throws up some red flags, since it hasn’t been an especially tough month. They’ve played six of nine at home, and while they looked good in splitting a pair against Chicago, their only other game against a legitimate contender was a 3-0 loss to the Penguins.
Still, the key here is Rinne, and so far there’s no reason to think he can’t get back to his former self. If that’s the case, the Predators could be good enough to stay in the playoff race, even if a fall from the top of the Central seems inevitable.
4. Bad surprise: St. Louis Blues (4-3-1, 9 points, fifth in the Central)
After yet another disappointing early playoff exit, the Blues managed the tricky offseason balancing act of keeping a very good core intact while still making major moves. They gave out the biggest free-agency deal of the year (in term of average value) to Paul Stastny and officially moved on from the Ryan Miller experiment. That didn’t necessarily make them better than the Blackhawks or Kings, but it should have been enough to keep them in the West’s top four.
Instead, they wake up today sitting at 10th in the conference. And while they’ve had recent victories against the Blackhawks and Stars, they’ve earned most of their wins against relative weaklings while dropping games to contenders like the Rangers, Ducks, and Kings.
Even coach Ken Hitchcock seems confused, telling reporters, “We have no idea what type of team we have” after Tuesday’s game.
Will it last? The whole “10th in the conference” thing sounds worse than it is; the Blues have played just eight games, and have games in hand on just about everyone. But even then, it’s been an uninspiring start.
The good news is that their biggest risk coming into the season seemed to be goaltending, since nobody ever seems to fully trust Brian Elliott and Jake Allen is still unproven. But that duo has been just fine. It’s the offense that has struggled, and you can largely attribute that to a miserable 6.1 shooting percentage that’s bound to go up.
So the Blues should be OK. The concern here would be that their fans were probably hoping for more than just OK; they wanted some indication that the team had taken a step forward. There’s still time, but we haven’t seen that happen yet.
5. Good surprise: New York Islanders (6-3-0, 12 points, first in the Metro)
After the Islanders addressed their goaltending and made a handful of decent free-agency pickups, it became trendy to start talking about them as a potential playoff dark horse. When they made a pair of trades to improve their blueline just prior to the season, the bandwagon started to get downright crowded.
Still, I’m not sure anyone really expected them to be this good. Through nine games, they’re in first place in the Metro and they lead the league in goals scored. John Tavares looks great, Johnny Boychuk is suddenly a power-play machine, and unheralded sophomore Brock Nelson is racking up points. They’re not just winning — they may be the league’s most entertaining team right now.
Will it last? I was pretty much all in on the Islanders in the preseason, so I suppose I can’t bail on the bandwagon now. But there are some warning signs here.
For one, the newly improved goaltending hasn’t really been all that improved. Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson are both posting a sub-.900 save percentage, and the Islanders are giving up more goals per game than all but five other teams. Halak has shown that he’s a better goalie than that and should improve, but the chances of a change of scenery helping him reestablish himself as a top-tier guy are fading quickly.
As for the explosive offense, Tavares should stay unstoppable as long as he’s healthy. But Boychuk has already cooled off, and Nelson should soon, too. There’s enough talent here to light up a few scoreboards, but they’re not going to shoot 10.5 percent at evens all year.
I picked them to make the playoffs, and I still feel good about that call. But the Metro is a logjam right now, with the top six teams within two points of each other. The Islanders need to keep banking points, and efforts like Tuesday’s loss to the lowly Jets just can’t happen.
6. Bad surprise: New York Rangers (5-4-0, 10 points, fourth in the Metro)
After last season’s playoff run that left them just three wins short of a Stanley Cup, the Rangers came into this season with expectations of building on that success while competing for the Metro Division title. But after an uninspiring first month, they’re looking more like a middle-of-the-pack team in what’s developed into a surprisingly tough division.
The big issue has been inconsistency. The Rangers have beaten good teams like the Blues and Sharks, but they needed a shootout just to earn two points against the Hurricanes and were blown out at home by the Leafs. Offensively, Rick Nash has been fantastic, scoring a league-leading nine goals, and Derick Brassard has chipped in four. But nobody else on the team has managed more than two, and slow starts by Martin St. Louis, Ryan McDonagh, and last year’s leading scorer, Mats Zuccarello, have left the team averaging three goals a game. That should be enough to win most nights in this league, but a tough month from Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t left much margin for error.
Will it last? It’s worth remembering that the Rangers in general, and Lundqvist in particular, slumped through much of October last year, too, and that season turned out OK. The Rangers have looked better lately, including Monday’s thrilling comeback win over the Wild, and a few of the unexpected Metro contenders should fall back. New York should be fine.
7. Good surprise: Calgary Flames (5-4-2, 12 points, fifth in the Pacific)
You won’t find many fifth-place teams in the “good” sections of this post. Then again, you also won’t find many teams that went into the season with lower expectations than the Flames, who were thought to be prime contenders for last place overall and the coveted Connor McDavid pick.
So what’s happened? For starters, they went out and got a real goaltender in Jonas Hiller, and he’s been very good. Another offseason pickup, Mason Raymond, has had a strong start, and Mark Giordano has picked up where he left off last year. And 24-year-old Joe Colborne has been their leading scorer, finally showing some signs of the promise that made him a first-round pick six years and two teams ago.
It’s been a great story, hasn’t it, Flames fans? Why don’t you just go ahead and skip the next section.
Will it last? Good lord, no.
OK, that was maybe a little too emphatic for the “anything can happen” NHL, so let’s tone it down a notch: almost certainly not. For one, an awful lot of the Flames’ wins have come against truly bad teams like the Hurricanes, Jets, and Oilers.3 That’s not the whole story — they also beat Chicago, and outplayed Montreal in an OT loss on Tuesday — but the schedule has helped.
But more important, the percentages are bound to catch up with them. Hiller can’t possibly maintain his current numbers, and the team probably doesn’t have the talent to keep shooting 8.4 percent all year. Their current PDO of 103.5 is fourth in the league, and while a little midseason regression won’t kill a good team, the Flames aren’t one. Chances are, they’re nowhere near as good as they seem so far. Which, again, is still only barely above .500.
If you’re a Flames fan and you want to look on the bright side, you see this start as evidence that they’re closer to returning to contention than anyone gave them credit for. Then again, you could also look at it as a fluky hot streak that won’t end up accomplishing anything other than costing them McDavid. Hey, don’t make that face at me. I told you to skip this section.
8. Bad surprise: Colorado Avalanche (2-4-4, 8 points, last in the Central)
Yes, yes, go ahead, analytics guys. Cross your arms and smirk and mutter something about how you’re not remotely surprised that Colorado is terrible. We’ll all wait here until you’re done.
Here’s the thing, though — yes, every predictive stat was screaming that the Avs couldn’t repeat last year’s success. But last year’s success was 112 points and a division title. With all that young talent on the roster, how far could they really fall?
Pretty far, as it turns out. They’re currently 13th in the West, three points out of a playoff spot. They’re still getting outshot most nights, and now they’re struggling to get any consistent scoring. They’ve already lost to bad teams like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Florida. And while it’s usually wise to ignore the preseason, in this case it seems worth mentioning that the Avs were terrible back then too, winning just once in eight games.
Will it last? Ironically, the same fancy stats that predicted Colorado’s doom now point to at least some hope of recovery. Last year’s 8.8 shooting percentage was clearly unsustainable, but given their talent level, this year’s 6.3 percent almost certainly is, too. Semyon Varlamov is healthy again,4 and there’s no way Nathan MacKinnon keeps stumbling along at a half-point per game.
So they’ll get better. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be especially good, and they’ll probably have to be to make the playoffs. It’s not like the rest of the division is running away and hiding on them, but with the Pacific looking better than expected, it’s possible that the Central will have only three spots up for grabs. That’s bad news for a team that, right now, looks no better than fifth-best in the division.