There have been plenty of surprises through the first quarter of the season, both good and bad. The play of their top players has the Dallas Stars decidedly on the ‘good’ side of the ledger in the early going.
Monday night’s NHL games marked the official passing of the first quarter of the season and like Nathan MacKinnon, time flies, doesn’t it? It seems like just yesterday we were waiting for the league to rubber stamp the Las Vegas expansion application and allow Bill Foley into the annual owners’ croquet game. We’re still waiting on that and, if Jeremy Jacobs’ comments have any merit – and they do – we’ll be waiting a lot longer.
Off the ice, that was one of the big surprises of the season so far. Between the boards, here are some of the others that have surfaced after the first quarter:
Most surprising player in a good way: Lots of candidates for this one, but Michael Cammalleri of the New Jersey Devils is 33 freakin’ years old and he’s on pace to be a point a game player for the first time since he wore No. 13, which he’s doing again this season. When Cammalleri signed with the Devils prior to last season, he was forced to wear No. 23 because, well, Lou Lamoriello told him he couldn’t wear it. But once Lamoriello moved on, Cammalleri took 13 back and has led the Devils in scoring. Cammalleri has made a career of proving doubters wrong and through the first quarter, he and the Devils were doing just that.
Most surprising player in a bad way: We’re going to have to go with the guy who’s currently listed in 146th in the NHL scoring race at the moment. The Pittsburgh Penguins are having trouble generating offense, another huge surprise, and nobody has epitomized that struggle more than Sidney Crosby. What’s worse is there have been games when Crosby has seemed invisible. The pairing with Phil Kessel did not work and Crosby had no points and just eight shots (eight shots!) in Pittsburgh’s first five games. Under coach Mike Johnston, Crosby is playing less and with 52 shots (on pace for 213) he’s not getting to the shooting areas and he’s shooting less. And with a shooting percentage of just 5.8 percent, his career average is well into double digits, he’s scoring less often.
Most surprising team in a good way: All right, we all thought the Dallas Stars were going to be a pretty good team this season? But this good? Like, first place overall in the NHL after the first quarter of the season good? Like, 9-2-0 on the road good? Like John Klingberg making a case for the Norris Trophy good? The Stars goaltending has been good, but certainly not great. But that’s OK on a team that can score like this one and has the second, third and fifth leading scorers in the NHL in Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Klingberg.
Most surprising team in a bad way: The Anaheim Ducks were supposed to be the runaway winner of the Pacific Division this season and a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup, but if the playoffs were to start today, they’d be way on the outside looking in from a distance. One of the reasons for the poor showing is the Ducks have put themselves in a hole in a good number of games this season, with the second periods being particularly bad. Another has been the well-documented struggles of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, but there has been virtually no secondary scoring to keep the Ducks afloat. GM Bob Murray is not one to make rash moves like, say, firing a coach, but he’ll have to do something if the Ducks continue this way.
Second-most surprising team in a good way: Once again, the Devils. This is a team that was roundly expected to be in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes for the entire season, not a playoff spot. But John Hynes, who has to be the leading contender for the Jack Adams Award, has the Devils playing an up-tempo style that is leading to some good things. GM Ray Shero’s under-the-radar pickups in the off-season have worked out quite nicely and it helps that Travis Zajac is playing much better than he has in the past couple of seasons.
Second-most surprising team in a bad way: The demise of the Calgary Flames comes as no surprise to the analytics community, who had preached all last season that the way the Flames played the game – giving up tons of shots and chances and relying on frantic comebacks – was sustainable. They were right, it turns out, but their collapse to near the bottom of the league has to be a surprise even to the number crunchers. The Flames are a disaster defensively and are among the bottom feeders on both special teams. The bold Dougie Hamilton move has been an early and epic disappointment.
Most surprising story in a good way: The NHL had the American League’s successful 3-on-3 blueprint to rely on before implementing it this season, but nobody really knew what to expect from the new format. Well, as it turns out, it has been as exciting as all get-out and it has delivered what it was intended to, more games decided without the shootout. The GMs recently enthusiastically endorsed it at their meetings in November and the best thing is that coaches, so far at least, haven’t found a way to make it boring.
Most surprising story in a bad way: It has to be the early fizzle of the Calder Trophy race between Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Neither young man is at fault for this one. McDavid’s fine rookie season has been stunted by an unfortunate injury. Eichel, who has been explosive at times, simply doesn’t have the personnel around him to help him be hugely successful on a personal level. Eichel leads all rookies in shots, but is having a hard time finding the back of the net.