NHL Early-Season Surprise Teams
Several clubs are having surprising starts to this NHL season. Here’s a look at those doing noticeably better or worse than expected as of Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017.
Arizona Coyotes. During the offseason, they brought in Rick Tocchet as head coach and added center Derek Stepan, defensemen Niklas Hjarlmarsson and Jason Demers and goaltender Antti Raanta. Despite these moves, the rebuilding Coyotes suffered the indignity of being the NHL’s only winless team (0-7-1).
During training camp, some pundits suggested the Coyotes had one of the better defense corps in the Western Conference. That’s not reflected in their play so far, giving up 4.25 goals-against per game. It also hasn’t helped that Raanta’s missed most of October with an injury. There’s also not a lot of scoring punch beyond Stepan, Max Domi and talented rookie Clayton Keller.
Buffalo Sabres. Following a summer of sweeping changes in the front office and behind the bench, there was anticipation the retooling Sabres would make significant strides this season. Instead, they stumbled from the gate with a 2-5-2 record.
Beyond leading scorers Evander Kane, Jason Pominville and Jack Eichel, their offensive production drops sharply. Top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen seems to have regressed. They’ve also given up a league-leading six shorthanded goals and had the fourth-highest goals-against per game (3.89).
Colorado Avalanche. After finishing with the NHL’s worst record in 2016-17, the Avs weren’t expected to show much improvement this season. Uncertainty over the trade status of center Matt Duchene was supposed to be a distraction. However, they’ve opened with a 4-4-0 record.
Duchene’s acquitted himself well, netting seven points. They’ve also received solid goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and unexpected offensive contributions from Nail Yakupov, Sven Andrighetto and rookie Alexander Kerfoot. Having dropped their last three games, the Avs could be returning to earth. Still, they’ve exceeded expectations thus far.
Edmonton Oilers. Having reached the playoffs last season for the first time in a decade and with Connor McDavid winning the scoring title and MVP honors, expectations were very high for the Oilers entering 2017-18. There was even talk of contending for the Stanley Cup. However, they’ve lurched through the opening weeks with a 2-5-0 record.
The defensive game was shaky at first but that’s improved of late. Offense, however, is an ongoing issue. McDavid’s off to a slow start, Leon Draisaitl is sidelined with a concussion and the secondary scoring is anemic. Only the Montreal Canadiens scored fewer goals than the Oilers.
Los Angeles Kings. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2014, the Kings missed the playoffs in two of the following three seasons. In the offseason, they promoted Rob Blake to general manager and John Stevens as head coach. The players have so far responded well. With a 6-0-1 record, the Kings are the only NHL club unbeaten in regulation.
Credit a renewed emphasis on offense for the improvement thus far. Last season, the Kings were 24th in goals per game (2.43). This season, they’re third (3.86). Veteran forwards Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown have responded most favorably to the change. Kopitar’s regained his usual 70-point form and Brown is off to his best start in years.
Montreal Canadiens. Considered a playoff club when this season began, the Canadiens find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 1-6-1 record. They’re struggling at both ends of the rink. A much-anticipated reversal of fortune has yet to materialize as panic sets in among Habs followers.
A horrible start by all-world goaltender Carey Price and an inability to score are the prime factors. The Canadiens skaters are generating plenty of shots but are dead last in the league in goals per game (1.50). Usually, Price’s stellar goaltending would compensate for their scoring difficulties, but so far he’s unable to bail them out. If Price doesn’t regain his form soon, the Canadiens risk falling into a hole too deep to escape.
New Jersey Devils. Having last reached the playoffs in 2012 and considered a rebuilding club, the Devils weren’t expected to show much development this season. However, they sport a 6-2-0 record and sit atop the Metropolitan Division.
Credit belongs in part to the offseason addition of youngsters Nico Hischier and Will Butcher. Hischier has formed a strong bond with top-line winger Taylor Hall. Butcher’s skilled puck-moving abilities are a godsend to their defense corps. Acquiring forward Marcus Johansson via trade in the summer has also bolstered their offensive depth.
New York Rangers. A perennial playoff contender, the Rangers were expected to have a better blueline corps this season. However, defensive breakdowns plus a lack of depth at center left them with a 2-5-2 record and last place in the Metropolitan Division.
To make room for the signing of free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk last summer, the Rangers traded center Derek Stepan to Arizona and bought out veteran blueliner Dan Girardi. Looks like their absences are being more keenly felt than expected. Coach Alain Vigneault is frequently juggling his lines but hasn’t found a suitable combination yet.
San Jose Sharks. It’s been an October of fits and starts for the Sharks thus far. They’ve struggled to a 3-4-0 record in their first seven games. For a club that marched to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, their poor start has raised eyebrows.
The Sharks’ biggest problem is finding the back of the net. While Logan Couture’s come to life of late with seven points in his last three games, he and his usually reliable teammates Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns have been inconsistent. They still haven’t found a suitable replacement for Patrick Marleau, who departed for Toronto via free agency in July.
Vegas Golden Knights. Expectations were low for the expansion Golden Knights entering their first NHL campaign. They’ve turned into one of the pleasant early-season surprises, winning six of their first seven games and setting a league record for the best start by an expansion club.
The Knights have jelled quickly under head coach Gerard Gallant. They received solid goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban, though they will be tested in the coming days with both currently sidelined. It’s doubtful the Knights can keep up this pace, but there’s no question they’ve already exceeded early-season expectations.