It’s one thing to project in our heads and on paper how an offseason acquisition will fit on his new team, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually see that player in action once the games begin.
Now that we’re a couple of weeks into the season and each team has played a handful of games, let’s take a look at some of the most notable positive impacts a select few of those summer moves have made in the early going.
1. The Oilers made the Real Deal
Just like last year, the Oilers look like they’ll go only as far as Connor McDavid‘s and Leon Draisaitl‘s broad shoulders can take them. They’re unsurprisingly off to a terrific start, pacing the entire league in scoring, with 12 points in their first six games. Even more impressive is the sheer workload they’re undertaking, with Draisaitl averaging a truly stunning 25:08 per game while McDavid plays 23:10 himself. Both figures are easily the most among all forwards, with Aleksander Barkov‘s 22:25 representing the only figure north of the 22-minute threshold.
But as terrific as those two have been and will surely continue to be, that recipe will take Edmonton only so far unless it’s able to squeeze some modicum of help from its patchwork supporting cast. That’s why James Neal has been such a revelation in the early going, stepping in to provide them with that and then some in his first games donning the Oilers uniform. He not only has a four-goal effort and a league lead to his name, but he already has more goals than both he and the player he was traded for this summer had all of last season:
James Neal in 2019-20: eight goals in six games
James Neal in 2018-19: seven goals in 63 games
Milan Lucic in 2018-19: six goals in 79 (combined) games
While no one in his right mind is pretending that Neal is going to keep this kind of torrid pace up once he stops converting nearly 40% of his shots into goals, it’s still an awfully encouraging sign for a player who looked absolutely cooked last season. The measly 5% he shot with the Flames made the career 12% shooter a prime regression candidate on paper, but projecting that moving forward wasn’t quite as simple.
He visibly struggled to get around the ice in Calgary, laboring to get to his trademark shooting spots with the same type of precision and frequency that he had throughout his career. That showed in his numbers, with the rates at which he generated shot attempts, shots on goal and high-danger chances all dipping lower than they’d been in nearly a full decade (the 2009-10 season with the Stars to be exact). At the age of 32 and with all of the mileage he’d accumulated, it was fair to wonder whether he’d ever be able to get his fastball back.
The combination of playing on the top power play unit and having some better puck luck can go a long way toward painting a rosier picture, but it’s clear that Neal looks much closer to that version of his old self. He’s once again creating havoc around the net and firing the puck whenever he can, which bodes well for him continuing to produce. If the Oilers are going to keep winning games like they have thus far, they’ll need him to at least look the part of a goal-scoring threat in the offensive zone.
2. The Predators look dangerous again
The Predators caught some flack this summer (including from this writer) for their decision to essentially trade in P.K. Subban for the chance to sign Matt Duchene. If the early returns are any indication, it was a home run of a decision because it has accomplished precisely what they’d envisioned it would be when they made the move.
Duchene has come in and formed an instant chemistry with Filip Forsberg, with the two of them immediately playing beautifully off of each other from the jump. They’re already flashing the type of passing plays and on-ice recognition of where the other will be that we’d expect from players who have been playing together for years, not just a handful of games. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised considering how gifted each of them is with the puck, but even the most optimistic prognosticator couldn’t have seen this degree of excellence coming this quickly from that pairing. The two of them, along with Mikael Granlund, have been electrifying offensively thus far (all figures are during the course of 5-on-5 play, and come from Natural Stat Trick):
Time on ice: 68:48
Shot attempt share: 58.1%
Shot on goal share: 54.4%
High-danger chance differential: 15-6
Goal differential: 8-5
Expected goal share: 60.7%
The fact that they’ve generated seven goals in just over an hour of even-strength play together is inflated by the cushy 17.4% the team is shooting with them on the ice, but they’ve also been unlucky to surrender five goals against on the other end of the ice due to their goalies stopping just 86.5% of the shots behind them. Last season’s most prolific scoring lines were hovering around four goals generated per hour, and if these three continue to create this volume of good looks, they’ll be among the league leaders even once those percentages normalize.
The impact that Duchene has had on everyone involved has been widespread and profound. He looks like he has unlocked what the Predators sorely lacked last season, sparking their offense. No team is scoring goals more often at 5-on-5 or overall than they have thus far, and they’re all the way up to 14th in power-play efficiency after an abysmal 31st-place rate last season. Granlund looks like he’s settling in after an underwhelming cameo following his acquisition at last season’s deadline, and Forsberg looks like he’s going to put it all together and have the monster season we’ve been waiting for him to have.
Duchene’s presence has just as importantly allowed coach Peter Laviolette to split Forsberg up from Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, giving the team two lines for opponents to contend with. It’s the exact type of versatility and depth they were hoping to acquire when they went out and signed him in the first place.
3. The Sabres’ cutting-edge power play
This one is technically cheating because the player in question was already on the team at the end of last season, but let’s just roll with it for the sake of this exercise. After all, it was just a six-game cameo in the last days of a miserable campaign in Buffalo, and it was under a different coach and different set of circumstances.
The list of players who have turned more heads and generated more buzz than Victor Olofsson has to start the season is a rather short one. It’s all been well deserved, because he and his shot are a big reason the Sabres have been such a positive surprise early on.
Early-season, small-sample size disclaimers aside, Buffalo’s power play looks unstoppable at the moment. They’ve already scored nine times on their 21 total opportunities, generating a league-best 15.9 goals per hour with the man advantage. To put those two figures into some perspective, last season’s Tampa Bay Lightning boasted a historically great power play and they had a 28.2% conversion rate and 11.1 goals per hour. Doing so for six games compared to the full 82 are entirely different animals, and there’s no question that the Sabres will come back down to earth eventually here.
But even when they do, the process itself looks completely legit and the success should be replicable to some degree moving forward. Similar to what the aforementioned Lightning do so well, the Sabres’ power play succeeds by arming itself with shooters all over the board. They aren’t equipped with the same type of talent overall, but it’s a close enough replica of a lethal strategy.
What they’re doing is allowing the opposing penalty kill to pick its poison, acknowledging that they won’t be able to take every single scoring threat away. In the past, they were too focused on funneling point shots by Rasmus Ristolainen; now, they’re zinging the puck all around the ice until a clean shooting lane materializes. The best example of this came in last week’s home game against the Montreal Canadiens. In the first period, Jack Eichel used the threat of his shot to freeze the goalie, before firing the puck across the ice to Olofsson for what is hockey’s equivalent of an alley-oop dunk. In the second period, once the Canadiens overplayed the passing lane in an attempt to prevent Olofsson from getting another easy look, Eichel used the additional time and space to pick a corner with a perfectly placed shot himself.
There’s no question that Eichel is the catalyst through which everything runs for the Sabres’ power play, just like Nikita Kucherov is for Tampa Bay (even though they operate from opposite wings). But having all of the other threats strategically sprinkled around the zone is just as crucial in keeping the penalty killers honest, almost paralyzing them with the fear of the repercussions of whichever decision they make. They have Rasmus Dahlin playing the role of Victor Hedman, with the green light to hammer the puck from the point if the defensive shell sags in too much. They have Jeff Skinner controlling the bumper spot in the middle of the ice, similar to what Brayden Point does for the Lightning. And most importantly, they now have Olofsson manning the Steven Stamkos spot as the trigger man from the opposite circle. He already has proved to be money in the bank from that right circle, scoring all seven of his career goals on the power play.
If the NHL really is a copycat league, then any other teams with floundering power plays should be taking stock of what teams like the Lightning and Sabres have set out to accomplish whenever they get the opportunity. Then again, it’s easier said than done, because you ultimately still need the right chess pieces to pull it off.
4. The Hurricanes have strength in numbers
While Carolina didn’t necessarily make any big splashy acquisitions like a number of their Metropolitan Division counterparts did this summer, they had a sneaky good offseason. They did so by making under-the-radar yet notable improvements at pretty much every position across the board.
On the blue line, they upgraded by switching out Calvin de Haan for Jake Gardiner, and giving the minutes that went out the door with Justin Faulk to Dougie Hamilton, finally unleashing him on the hockey world. Hamilton has been playing like a man possessed, taking full advantage of all of that extra usage by producing huge numbers offensively. He’s up over three and a half minutes in average ice time from last season, has scored four goals and added four assists in seven games. With Hamilton on the ice at five-on-five, the Hurricanes have controlled an impressive 55.1% of the shot attempts, 55.7% of the shots on goal, and outscored opponents 7-2.
In net, James Reimer appears to have shaken off whatever ailed him in Florida last season, quickly reaffirming the belief that those struggles more related to the defense in front of him than anything he was doing wrong. He’s looked excellent in all three of his outings thus far, including an impressive pair of efforts on the road against the high-powered Panthers and Capitals attacks, during which he stopped 79 of the 84 combined shots he faced. With Reimer and Mrazek, the Hurricanes look well-suited to once again hover around a 50-50 split in net, which bodes well for their ability to keep both goalies fresh and optimize their performances later into the season.
As good as all of that is, the biggest strides have been made up front, where they appear to have added some legitimate secondary scoring punch. The most intriguing of the bunch is the new-look line featuring three players that weren’t on the team during their postseason run last spring: Erik Haula (a trade acquisition), Ryan Dzingel (a free agent signing), and Martin Necas (promoted from the AHL). Those three encapsulate so much of what makes this Hurricanes team special, from the different paths they took in getting here, to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, to the relentless up-tempo pace at which they like to play.
They have nine combined goals between the three of them, helping to carry an offense that’s somehow still in the top 10 when it comes to goals scored per hour despite Sebastian Aho having just two points and Nino Niederreiter not having scored yet. Following Tuesday night’s win in Los Angeles, that trio has now played just under an hour of five-on-five hockey for the season, and has crushed the competition:
There’s a lot of random variance this early in the season when it comes to performances on both an individual and team level. It’s going to take a while before things stabilize and we truly get a more reliable feel for what’s real and what’s not. One takeaway that we can comfortably make right now however is that this Hurricanes team is once again very good, and that their impressive start to the campaign is no fluke. They can beat you in so many different ways, and they’re putting that on full display already.