We’re reaching an interesting point in the NHL season. Now that we’re three weeks into the schedule, most teams have either already played double-digit games or will be doing so shortly. While the start of a new season theoretically represents a clean slate for all players and teams alike, as analysts and fans, it’s tough to completely shake the baggage we had heading in.
It’s tough to know the precise right time to let go of our preseason expectations and embrace the possibility that we were wrong about certain situations, particularly because the early days of each season are filled with all sorts of wonky results. Although 10 good or bad games in the middle of a campaign wouldn’t really register in most cases, it’s all we really have to work with at this point. With that said, there are so many different variables to consider, and we’d be foolish not to account for all of the new information that’s available, given the effects of all the offseason player movement, coaching changes and players who got better or worse for a variety of reasons.
So with that in mind, let’s take the temperature of some notable teams that have gotten off to hot starts to assess whether they will continue.
All data cited in this piece is courtesy of either Natural Stat Trick or Corsica and is current through Tuesday evening’s slate of games.
After the inspiring playoff run they went on last season, the Avalanche entered the 2019-20 season as arguably the most hyped team in the league. The only two primary reservations we had about them realizing those sky-high expectations were their ability to produce enough secondary scoring behind the Nathan MacKinnon–Gabriel Landeskog–Mikko Rantanen line, and how their unproven goaltending would be able to hold up behind that high-octane offense. So far, so good on both fronts.
The “New Guy” line of Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi has been terrific in the early going, outscoring the opposition 6-3 at 5-on-5 and providing the Avalanche with the second forward unit they can confidently throw out there when their stars require a breather. They’ve already squeezed 10 combined goalies out of those three, and there should be plenty more to come. The third line hasn’t really gotten going yet because of J.T. Compher‘s brief absence, but Tyson Jost‘s hat trick on the road against the Lightning was an encouraging sign that better days are ahead for that group as well. After what appeared to be a gruesome looking lower-body injury for Rantanen, the Avalanche will need that supporting cast to step up even more than was initially expected.
The goaltending wasn’t necessarily a concern as much as it was a question mark. Philipp Grubauer was terrific down the stretch last season and has performed well whenever he’s gotten the opportunity, but this is also uncharted waters for him because he’s never entered a season as the goalie who would start the majority of his team’s games. After starting seven of Colorado’s first nine games, he’s on pace for 64 starts, which would nearly double his previous high of 33 (last season). If he does sputter at any point, his backup looks awfully interesting as a candidate for more action.
Pavel Francouz is a relative unknown in NHL circles considering that he’s a 29-year-old who just started his first NHL game this month, but his track record suggests that was because of opportunity and not his ability. You never really know how to translate success in other leagues to the NHL because of the talent gap, but for goalies, the ability to stop the puck at every stop along the way is typically a good sign of future results. And Francouz has done just that regardless of where he’s played:
.924 save percentage in 164 Czech League games
.945 save percentage in 83 KHL games
.918 save percentage in 46 AHL games
He’s continued to show off those skills in his limited action thus far, posting a .949 save percentage in his four NHL appearances. His most recent performance against the high-powered Lightning was littered with jaw-dropping saves, as he stopped 44 of the 46 shots he faced. He looked every bit the part of an experienced goalie who’s traveled the world and performed at a high level wherever he’s landed, looking completely unfazed as the league’s most devastating offense peppered him with high-danger shots from all over the ice. The team will still rely on Grubauer to do most of the heavy lifting, but it’s quite a luxury to have a second option like Francouz on whom to fall back.
The Ducks are a classic example of a team that has to really convince people that it might be good — or at least not as bad as it was expected to be.
Anaheim finished 24th overall last season and was a punching bag for much of it. Its roster was ravaged by injuries, and its chances of competing on a nightly basis were decimated by questionable coaching. Both of those issues appear to have been addressed — with Dallas Eakins taking over behind the bench — and it’s time to start embracing the possibility that the fundamental change in process could lead to legitimately improved results.
Unlike last season, when the Ducks similarly started off with a 5-1-1 record before the wheels came off, this appears to be an entirely different set of circumstances that are driving their early success. In those first seven games last season, the Ducks controlled a league-worst 41.5% of the shot attempts and 42.1% of the shots on goal, which indicated that there was no real substance to that team beyond goaltender John Gibson. He put up an admirable fight, doing everything humanly possible to steal games they had no business winning as he was barraged by shots. But once he got banged up and came back down to Earth, everything around him crumpled. Here are the underlying numbers for the 2018-19 campaign:
5-on-5 shot attempt share: 46.9% (27th in the NHL)
5-on-5 shot on goal share: 46.9% (28th)
5-on-5 expected goal share: 45.4% (29th)
5-on-5 high-danger chances against per hour: 12.3 (28th)
All situations shot attempts against: 58.5 (30th)
All situations shots against: 29.0 (21st)
All situations expected goals against: 2.56 (29th)
All situations high-danger chances against: 13.5 (30th)
Here’s how they compare in each of those categories under Eakins thus far:
5-on-5 shot attempt share: 50.4% (15th)
5-on-5 shot on goal share: 50.3% (14th)
5-on-5 expected goal share: 49.2% (17th)
5-on-5 high-danger chances against per hour: 8.35 (9th)
All situations shot attempts against: 53.8 (8th)
All situations shots against: 29.5 (7th)
All situations expected goals against: 2.34 (9th)
All situations high-danger chances against: 8.2 (3rd)
Despite the improvements, there are still legitimate concerns about whether this team has enough offensive firepower to keep up with the best teams in the league. That’s one of the main reasons we shouldn’t expect them to keep winning six of every 10 games and staying ahead of teams like the Golden Knights, Sharks and Flames in the Pacific Division standings.
But it’s all relative. At the very least, there appears to be a certain baseline level of competence with the Ducks this season, and that shouldn’t be discounted. When you have a goalie as good as Gibson is, the threshold you need to clear to give yourself a chance to be competitive is quite low.
He’s never finished in the top five of Vezina Trophy voting, but Gibson is a rock star in net, with his play unquestionably warranting recognition ever since he entered the league. What he needs in front of him to not only give the team a fighting chance but also finally start get himself some credit in the discussion for best goalies in the league is quite reasonable — keep the shots and chances against him to a manageable level, and provide the bare minimum for offensive support.
The Ducks weren’t able to clear that low bar last season, but it appears they now have a chance under a new coach and a collection of young players who should only continue to get better as the season progresses.
There were two big stories involving the Coyotes last season: their almost comically anemic offense, and how good Darcy Kuemper was in carrying them nearly to the playoffs despite it. Both of those trends are once again in the spotlight, but they appear to be aligning in the same direction, making Arizona a dangerous team.
The team’s ability to generate goals this season has been in stark contrast to last season, when no player reached either the 20-goal or 50-point threshold. It’s still too early to project individual paces because one strong game here or there can change the entire outlook, but it’s worth noting that the Coyotes have scored four or more goals in four of their past six games, a benchmark they hit only 27 times in 82 games last season. They’ve also scored five goals twice already, which they did only five times all last season.
In the first few games it looked like it was going to be the same story again after they were shut down by Gibson and the Bruins’ Jaroslav Halak, but since then, they’ve feasted against less stingy competition. Here’s a look at that improvement across the board, sorting their league rank offensively by game state:
Last season: 31st at 5-on-5 scoring, 26th on the power play, 27th overall
This season: 18th at 5-on-5 scoring, 10th on the power play, 14th overall
The two biggest driving forces have been the addition of Phil Kessel and the fact that the group is finally healthy and intact. The Coyotes haven’t really started turning their looks into goals quite yet at 5-on-5, but the top line of Kessel, Derek Stepan and Clayton Keller will if it keeps dominating like it has thus far. They have just two goals to show for their work, but they’re controlling 61.5% of the shot attempts, 65.1% of the shots on goal and 70.0% of the high-danger chances. That’s a recipe for success, and it appears that Arizona is getting the shot in the arm it hoped for when it traded for Kessel.
Kuemper’s ascension as he approaches 30 is quite the development, becoming the latest example of how seemingly random the goaltending position can be. While everyone salivated at the idea of Antti Raanta finally being healthy enough to soak up a full workload, Kuemper has quietly sneaked into the Coyotes’ crease and taken the job for himself based on his play. It’s fair to say that it’s been a surprising turn of events at this stage of his career, considering that he’d never really shown himself to be anything more than a league-average backup before last season:
From 2012-2018: 114 starts, .912 save percentage, minus-22.7 goals saved above average
Since the start of last season: 61 starts, .927 save percentage, plus-15.4 goals saved above average
We’re ultimately going to need to see more of these trends continuing before we can say with any real confidence that the Coyotes should be considered a threat at the top of the Pacific Division. But if they can prove to be simply competent offensively, that should be enough to win plenty of games when paired with this kind of goaltending.
These two franchises seem to always be inextricably linked. They’ve been the dregs of the league for the better part of the past decade — which peaked in the epic tank battle for the Connor McDavid sweepstakes — and they’re now each sitting atop their respective conferences in a stunning turn of events to start the season.
In a way, they’ve also followed a similar formula for their early success: strong goaltending, a lethal power play and their best players doing a lot of the heavy lifting. The Oilers are fifth in save percentage, their power play has generated the third-most goals per hour, while Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are second and fourth in league scoring while north of 1.5 points per game. The Sabres are fourth in save percentage and fourth in goals per hour on the power play, and Jack Eichel has been playing like a man possessed this season, with 14 points in 10 games.
If we have to pick between the two, the Sabres’ success appears to be more sustainable. They’ve been the superior 5-on-5 team, hovering around the 50% mark in all of the shot-based metrics. (They’re at 50.0% in shot attempts, 50.2% in shots on goal, 54.8% in high-danger chances and 51.1% in expected goals.) That represents a marked improvement from where they were last season, even when they were on their big 10-game winning streak. The various renovations they made to the lineup this summer have paid immediate dividends, significantly increasing their floor by removing many of the black holes, and turning their blue line from a liability into a net positive.
The case for the Oilers’ continuing this level of success seems flimsier. They haven’t been nearly as good as a group at 5-on-5, relying more heavily on those other aforementioned strengths. They’re currently squeezing every remaining ounce of juice out of their goaltending, which doesn’t seem very likely to continue for much longer based on the players involved. The duo of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have stopped north of 92.5% of the total shots they’ve faced to this point, which is a figure that’s going to inevitably dip down to something around 91% (if not lower) if the past is any indication. We saw this kind of a strong start for Koskinen last season before he crumpled, while Smith has been on the wrong side of the hill for long enough now that we should know better than to buy into a couple of strong games strung together.
Dave Tippett’s system has historically gotten the most out of its goalies (including Smith himself once upon a time in Arizona), and it wouldn’t be the first time that a team’s goalies got hot and stayed hot. But it’s important to maintain some perspective and evaluate situations like this based on the larger sample size, because save percentages over a short period of time can mask a lot of underlying deeper rooted flaws. It’s truly remarkable what a hot goalie will do for changing the overall perception of a team as a whole. I’m skeptical.
While James Neal‘s goal scoring has been a pleasant surprise, the degree to which this team relies on their top two players is really pushing the boundaries of what’s humanly possible. It’s currently leaning on Draisaitl to play the minutes of a No. 1 workhorse defenseman, and Connor McDavid isn’t too far behind. Here are the leaders in average ice time for the season among all forwards:
The good news for the Oilers is that these two did this last season, and they did it well. In a way, there’s something admirable about going to battle with your two best players, leaving it all out there, and going down swinging. Everyone knows all about McDavid’s singular greatness, but Draisaitl appears to have taken his game to another level, shedding any lingering concerns that his production is just a byproduct of playing with the best player in the world. He’s been dominant for large stretches this season, and he’s either scored or directly set up half of the team’s total goals.
The bad news is that it still doesn’t seem like an ideal management of your best resources, especially when we’re in the load-management era of optimizing player performance by closely monitoring workload. While they’re going the way they have been early this season, Edmonton will be just fine; but, the margin for error is incredibly thin — if either of McDavid or Draisaitl slows down or gets injured, everything could crumple around them like a deck of cards. That’s a scary place to be in when talking about such a physical and dangerous sport like hockey.
Coming into the season, the Pacific was widely considered to be the weakest division in the league, largely because of its perceived lack of depth beyond the top three teams. But it’s been surprisingly frisky in the early going, with no real obvious bottom feeders presenting themselves. We’ve already highlighted the Ducks and Oilers here, but even the Canucks and Kings are putting together nice little résumés of their own in the first couple of weeks.
No one has been more critical of the Canucks and their seeming lack of a forward-thinking plan when it’s come to constructing their roster than I have, but I’m willing to admit that they already look a lot better than I thought they would following their series of offseason acquisitions. They’ve had the benefit of an awfully light schedule in the early going, but they also just finished off a largely successful four-game road trip and have won six of their past seven games.
Jacob Markstrom looks terrific in net, trying to prove that this level of performance in his new norm as he builds off his impressive play following the All-Star break last season. On the blue line, not only has Tyler Myers formed an excellent top pairing with Alexander Edler, but rookie Quinn Hughes also continues to make something special happen every time he steps on the ice. Travis Green has done a commendable job of properly evaluating what he’s working with up front and putting his players in a position to succeed. He’s divvied up the forward minutes appropriately, burying his bottom-six in defensive minutes in an effort to free his most skilled players for all of the premium offensive minutes they can handle. The de facto top line of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller has rewarded him, dominating possession when they’ve been out there. It’s still early, but this team has a different feel to it than the ones from the past couple of lackluster seasons.
No team has had higher highs and lower lows than the Kings to start the season. They’re 4-5-0 to date, and will likely be a .500 team for the entirety of the season. But it looks like they’ll get there in a more entertaining path than we figured when we projected them to be the least watchable team in the league in the preseason. They’ve already been walloped by the Canucks by an 8-2 margin and gotten shut out in back-to-back home games by the Hurricanes and Sabres. But they’ve also returned the favor by drubbing the Predators and beating the division-rival Flames twice (while outshooting them in a single period by a 20-3 margin and a 20-4 margin in those two separate meetings).
Despite the losing record, there are a lot of positives to take from their first stretch of games this season. Anze Kopitar looks revitalized, showing major signs of bouncing back after he looked like his best days were behind him for much of last season. The team is playing a lot faster under Todd McLellan, jumping from 25th in pace at 5-on-5 last season to seventh thus far. As a group, they’re top-5 in shot share, shots on goal, high-danger chances and expected goals, which is a significant improvement from the floundering even-strength club they were last season. Some flaws remain with this team, but it’s giving off a dramatically different vibe from the overwhelmingly depressing situation of 2018-19.