It was an abbreviated month, but the NHL’s first slate of games in the new season has produced quite a few surprising — some downright shocking — performances.
We mean, who knew the Vegas Golden Knights could be this competitive? Or that the Arizona Coyotes could be so lame?
On the players’ side, Steven Stamkos has made a triumphant return to hockey, leading the league in scoring by a wide margin. Goals are up all around and that’s a good thing.
Goaltenders, who have been besieged by pucks so far, have either fluourished, like Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, or floundered, like his counterpart Steve Mason.
New faces have amazed, like unheralded rookies Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt in New Jersey, as have old faces, hello Evgeni Dadonov in Florida.
With a little over one-seventh of the schedule gone, the surprises, both good and bad have not gone unnoticed. Here are eight teams and 12 players (both good and bad) that have surprised us (denoted as bad and good surprises).
20. Arizona Coyotes – Bad
The Coyotes nearly went winless in October, before finally beating a mediocre Philadelphia team 4-3 in overtime on Monday night. How bad are they, really? The ‘Yotes went 1-11-1 in October, surrendering the most goals against with 56 (-23 differential). From the top down, this is one shaky bunch. Normally reliable defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is dead last in plus-minus at -14, is but one shocker. The other is the goaltending, which was supposed to be shored up by the acquisition of Antti Raanta. So far, he and three other goalies have been a platooning disaster. Up front, fellow former Ranger Derek Stepan, who was brought in to provide depth, has scored all of two goals. Well at least they aren’t dead last in home attendance, only fourth worst in the NHL.
19. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues – Good
There are many good offensive players on the St. Louis Blues, which is a big reason the team the team sat atop the NHL standings at the end of October. The surprise top scorer in that month was veteran left winger Jaden Schwartz, who had eight goals and nine assists in 13 games, well above his career per game scoring average. He’s been a wholly reliable contributor since 2013-14 and not just in the offensive zone. Schwartz is also +10 this season, which is in the top 10 in that category. He has also piled up the majority of his points even strength, with 15 of his 17 points gained that way as of Oct. 31.
18. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks – Bad
On a team with a +2 goal differential, it confounds us that Brent Burns, the Norris Trophy holder, is a terrible -8. It’s also perplexing that in 11 games during the month of October, he had zero goals, despite ample playing time on the powerplay (four of his seven assists were garnered there). Yes, he draws the tough assignments and plays over 25 minutes per game, but let’s not forget he was +19 last year and scored 29 goals in 82 games. While 11 games is a small sample size, it is alarming nonetheless that Burns has lagged offensively and defensively.
17. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning – Good
As of Tuesday, no goalie in the NHL had won more games than Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy with 10. In just his second full season as the Lightning’s starter, the Tyumen, Russia native is 10-1, with a .927 save percentage and 2.46 goals against average. Since giving up 15 goals in his first four games, where he sustained his lone loss of the year, Vasilevskiy has surrendered only 12 goals in his last seven games. His best performance so far was a 43-save effort during a 2-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 19. He’s got our vote for early season Vezina front-runner.
16. New Jersey Devils – Good
Just because the Devils won the draft lottery and the rights to select no. 1 overall player Nico Hischier, doesn’t mean they were that bad of a team to begin with. But, we didn’t see them exiting October as the top club in the Metropolitan Division at 8-2 after play on Hallowe’en. Included in their octet of triumphs are victories over good squads like Toronto, Tampa Bay and Ottawa (twice). There is plenty to like about the re-made Devils, one being a balanced attack that has seen 15 different players score at least one goal. Another thing to like are the numbers put up by lesser-known freshmen like D Will Butcher (11 points in 10 games) and LW Jesper Bratt (10 points). For the record, Hischier has seven points in 10 contests.
15. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning – Good
In a very short time frame, Nikita Kucherov has turned himself into quite a goal scorer. In 2014-15 the Moscow born right winger had 29 goals, followed by 30 in 2015-16 and 40 last season. This year, he’s pure sniper, with 13 goals in his first 13 games. He also has eight assists to give him 21 points, three fewer than league leader and teammate Steven Stamkos (more on him later). The two are linemates and this season they have switched roles, with Stamkos being more the playmaker and Kucherov the “shoot first, pass later” kind of superstar. We know he can’t keep up the goal-a-game pace, but we believe Kucherov has the goods to score at least 50 this season.
14. Tyler Bozak, Toronto Maple Leafs – Bad
In 78 games last year, Tyler Bozak was a respectable -1 and had 55 points. He also won a career high 56.7 percent of his face-offs and had four more takeaways (52) than giveaways. This season, he does have six points, but is a terrible -9, along with 52.7 percent efficiency on draws and even-Steven on takeaways/giveaways with five each. After starting out with four points and a -2 in his first three games, the veteran centerman has slumped horribly of late. He had just two points in the last nine games of October and was -7. He is hardly alone as several players have experienced a dip lately, but the Leafs need him to be a leader at both ends of the ice.
13. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators – Bad
The Ottawa Senators are hardly in dire straits, sitting second in the Atlantic Division as of Oct. 31 with 15 points. But a closer look sees that they have won five and lost seven, but their record reads 5-2-5. And it’s a good thing the team is scoring in bunches with 44 markers, because they have given up 41. What the team may need, then, is for veteran netminder Craig Anderson to play better in the future — much, much better. After a season where he logged a .926 save percentage in 40 games and a 2.28 goals against average, Anderson has been an underachiever. He was 4-2-3 in October, with a 3.14 GAA and tepid .895 save percentage. He was particularly soft in a 8-3 loss to Montreal on Oct. 30, when he was yanked after being beaten for six goals on just 15 shots.
12. Buffalo Sabres – Bad
This season was supposed to be about a turnaround in Buffalo. So far, it’s just been another frustrating exercise in futility. The team brought in veterans like RW Jason Pominville, LW Benoit Pouliot, D Nathan Beaulieu and G Chad Johnson to provide goals, defence and goaltending. They have done so, to some degree, but all around the Sabres stunk in October, logging a 3-7-2 mark, which was dead last in the Eastern Conference. It’s been so frustrating for budding superstar Jack Eichel that even on his birthday (Oct. 28) he couldn’t resist breaking a stick over his knee. The Sabres had just lost their last game of the month, 3-2 to San Jose, when Eichel snapped his twig after exiting the ice. It’s been that kind of year in the Queen City and not showing any signs of letting up.
11. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins – Bad
Letang has already had a storied career, having won two Stanley Cups (he missed last year’s playoffs but still got a third ring) and been a two-time All-Star. This year, it seems, his game has gone south, far south. Since breaking into the league 2006-07, Letang was rarely a minus player, logging a +57 and 386 points in 617 games. This season, he’s been on the wrong end of far too many opposition goals and is a league worst -14 after action on Nov. 1. It started with a -5 in a brutal 10-1 loss to Chicago in the season’s first week and has been added to by a couple of minus-threes in losses to Tampa (7-1) and most recently Winnipeg on Oct. 29 (also 7-1). Not a pretty picture so far for a guy who logs a ton of ice time.
10. St. Louis Blues – Good
The Blues have been scary good, but we didn’t believe they were a contender early on. But, they’ve convinced us they are for real. They are currently tied for first overall in the NHL with Tampa Bay, sporting an identical 10-2-1 record. They won their last four games in a row and six of their last seven, including victories over good teams like Los Angeles and Columbus. As we said above, they are getting surprising production out of guys like Jaden Schwartz. The Blues have also benefited from the Norris Trophy worthy performance of D Alex Pietrangelo (13 points in 13 games, +6) and lockdown goaltending of Jake Allen and his back-up Carter Hutton.
9. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets – Good
When the Jets went out and signed free agent starter Steve Mason this off-season, it was thought that they had finally solved a long-standing goalie issue. They used no fewer than four goaltenders during the 2016-17 campaign, including the departed Ondrej Pavelec, the demoted Michael Hutchinson, minor leaguer Eric Comrie and Connor Hellebuyck. However, Mason was horrid from the get-go, allowing 16 goals in his first three starts, all losses before the team passed the reins to Hellebuyck. The Commerce, Michigan native has been brilliant since. He hasn’t been beaten in regulation, sporting a 6-0-1 record and has only been beaten for more than two goals once. His 1.91 goals against average and .940 save percentage have not gone unnoticed.
8. New York Rangers – Bad
All that talent and so little to show for it one month into the 2017-18 season. The New York Rangers, who opened the vault to sign elite defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk in the off-season, as well as offering rich contracts to forward Mika Zibanejad and D Brendan Smith. However, they and the underachieving bunch in Manhattan have limped out to a sorry 4-7-2 start, tying them with Carolina (who have played three less games) for dead last in the Metropolitan Division. Offensively, they aren’t doing too bad, scoring 40 goals, but defensively the Blueshirts have been porous, allowing 47 against. Neither Henrik Lundqvist nor Winnipeg cast-off Ondrej Pavelec have gotten the job done in net. King Hank has a mediocre .898 save percentage and below average goals against of 3.21, which says everything about how things are going in New York.
7. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes – Good
With everything that has gone wrong in the desert, one thing has gone very right. And that’s the play of 2016 seventh overall pick Clayton Keller. So far, the Chesterfield, MO native is leading all rookies and his team in scoring with nine goals and six assists, which is only one point off the pace of his more famous first round American confrere, Auston Matthews. The ‘Yotes likely won’t make the playoffs after a dismal 1-11-1 start, but Keller is in the early running for the Calder Trophy. His offensive exploits are not without precedent, either, since Keller was Hockey East Rookie of the Year with Boston University last season, scoring 45 points in 31 games. A building block hopefully for a brighter future in Arizona.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning – Good
Just about everything that could have gone wrong for the Bolts in 2016-17 season did. The team suffered offensively after Steven Stamkos went down 17 games into the season and when a playoff spot seemed uncertain as the trade deadline approached, the team dealt All-Star goalie Ben Bishop to Los Angeles. But, things haven’t taken long this season for the Lightning to snap-to and they are no. 1 with a 10-2-1 mark. Stamkos is back and lighting it up, with surprisingly more assists (18) than goals (6). Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose exploits we detailed in another slide, has blossomed into a true no. 1 and Stamkos sidekick Nikita Kucherov has gone all sniper, potting a league leading 13 goals already. The team also plucked a gem off the Montreal Canadiens roster in the Jonathan Drouin deal, as rookie rearguard Mikhail Sergachev has opened with 11 points in 13 games and a +5.
5. Martin Hanzal, Dallas Stars – Bad
Yes, injuries have had an impact on big-time free agent acquistion Hanzal’s first season in Big D. But, there really aren’t any other excuses for his less-than-inspiring start otherwise. The big Czech center was signed in the off-season for three years and $14.25 million as the Stars re-tooled after a lousy 2016-17 season. The team, for the most part, is better and have won seven of 12 to start the new campaign. Hanzal, when he has been in the line-up, though, hasn’t done much on either side of the puck. He was one goal (an empty netter at that) and zero assists in 11 games and has logged a team worst -9. Hanzal averaged 40 points over his last two seasons, so his production is shocking — well, shockingly bad.
4. Vegas Golden Knights – Good
No expansion team in the recent history of the NHL has enjoyed the start that the Vegas Golden Knights have fashioned after the first month of the 2017-18 campaign. It seems that pretty much every player plucked off the other 30 teams’ rosters, with the exception of Jason Garrison (waived) or Russian free agent Vadim Shipachyov (also waived) has made some kind of impact in the Golden Knights surprising 8-3 start. At least 10 players, including leading scorer James Neal, have two or more goals. To illustrate that point further, journeyman NHL defenceman (but mostly career minor leaguer) Brad Hunt leads the team in assists with seven (in six games) and is +2. And C Oscar Lindberg, who the Rangers left unprotected and who had all of 21 goals in 134 games, already has five (second best on the team) in 11 contests with Vegas.
3. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens – Bad
The Habs salvaged a terrible first month with victories over the Rangers on Oct. 28 (5-4) and the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 30 (8-3). Those two victories, though, actually pushed their record to 4-7-1, which puts them one point clear of Eastern Conference cellar dwelling Buffalo heading into November. The shockingly bad start would normally be attributed to bad defence, or lack of offence but in this case a good part of the blame can be laid at the feet of all-world netminder Carey Price. The former MVP and Vezina Trophy winner has been downright mediocre through his first 10 games between the pipes. Even in the win over the Rangers earlier this week, Price couldn’t be credited with having an impact. He surrender four goals on just 26 shots, which is a stat that is familiar in his line so far. Overall, Price is 3-6-1, with a 3.64 goals against average (38th best in the league) and lousy .883 save percentage.
2. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning – Good
After missing all 65 games last year, not many could have forecast just how well he would play in a comeback year. It was nearly a calendar year before he toiled in a regular season game when he hit the ice for game 1 against Florida on Oct. 6. It was a great and most welcome start, as Stamkos tallied two assists, including one on the winning goal in a 5-3 victory. He hasn’t taken his foot off the gas since, failing to register a point in just one game, a 4-1 loss to Anaheim on Oct. 28. The Bolts captain truly announced that he was back in a huge 7-1 win over Pittsburgh on Oct. 21, when he recorded a goal and three assists to show up the defending champs.
1. Edmonton Oilers – Bad
All that crowing in Alberta about how the Oilers were going to build on a superb 2016-17 season is just a lot of hot air now. Other teams may have good excuses for being terrible early in this campaign, but the Oilers are fresh out of them after a 3-7-1 start (second to last in the NHL). After play on Wednesday night, they still aren’t scoring with just just 24 goals so far. And this is a team that has the 2016-17 MVP and leading scorer Connor McDavid, for crying out loud. McD does have 13 points in 11 games, but to date he hasn’t had quality wingers to play with. Everyone on this club is underachieving and can share in the blame for this shocking turn of events. If the Oilers fail to make the playoffs this season, that would be a travesty.