The Toronto Maple Leafs knew what they were getting in John Tavares when they signed him to an earth-shattering seven-year, $77-million pact. He was the most prized free agent on the market, maybe the most prized free agent in NHL history, and when he started the season with 10 points in his first five games in blue and white, it was hardly a surprise. After all, Tavares is a two-time Hart Trophy finalist in the prime of his career. He’s expected to put up those kind of numbers.
Tavares didn’t really slow down all that much through the month of October, either. In 12 games, he registered six goals and 13 points, and he maintained a top-six role often playing in front of or just behind Auston Matthews in the lineup. Of course, with Matthews sidelined with a shoulder injury and likely out all of November, Tavares’ role is bound to increase and we’ve seen that in recent outings — ice times of 20:56, 21:26 and 20:26 are four of the five highest of the campaign for ‘JT.’ All of this is to say, though, that Tavares has been exactly the player the Maple Leafs knew they were getting. He’s a top-line pivot, one of the best players in the world.
Not every off-season acquisition was heralded in quite the same manner, though, and there are a few players who have wowed in their new hometowns by far exceeding expectations. Which five players have done the best job of bucking pre-season projections through the first month of the campaign? Here are five who have stood out:
Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames
What the Flames hoped they were getting in Lindholm, who was acquired as part of a five-player blockbuster ahead of the draft, was a responsible two-way pivot who could contribute somewhere in the 20-goal, 50-point range. And that would have been great for Calgary, it would have made Lindholm a worthwhile summer pickup. But what the Flames have actually gotten out of Lindholm — nine goals and 17 points in 15 games, not to mention a tied-for-team-best 20:45 average ice time among forwards — has made Lindholm one of the best summer additions any team made.
As colleague Matt Larkin pointed out earlier this week, Lindholm’s performance has raised some eyebrows in the sense that it has some thinking he’s playing over his head, and maybe his offensive numbers do suggest as much, but don’t go thinking his offensive output is wholly unsustainable. Sure, his shooting percentage has more than doubled over his career average, but he’s on pace to fire more pucks on net and he’s playing alongside the most talented linemates he’s had in his career. That’s resulted in Lindholm finding himself one-third of the way to setting a career-best mark for points and more than halfway home when it comes to a new career-high goal total with a ton of runaway ahead of him.
We could look back at this deal by season’s end as the best move made by any team, especially if this fit with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan is the real deal.
Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
The Blues knew they were getting a first-line center in O’Reilly, and that was why they paid so handsomely to land the pivot from the Buffalo Sabres. Center depth was an area St. Louis believed they needed to address with the departure of Paul Stastny at the deadline last season, and O’Reilly fit the bill. He’s sound at both ends of the ice, has been a consistent contributor and he can skate big minutes. O’Reilly has really come in and commanded the first-line role, though. He’s been outstanding.
In 11 games, O’Reilly, who has never scored more than 64 points in a season, has already found the scoresheet 16 times — four goals and 12 assists — and he’s filling the top-line pivot need to perfection. His average ice time is 20:45, far and away the most of any Blues forward and more than all blueliners not named Alex Pietrangelo. O’Reilly is winning a remarkable 62.5 percent of his faceoffs, has blocked shots, thrown the body and he’s already been credited with 14 takeaways, the seventh-most among all forwards.
O’Reilly has done everything for St. Louis, too. Power play? He’s second in ice time among forwards, behind only Vladimir Tarasenko. Penalty kill? At 2:05 per outing, Alex Steen is the only Blues forward with a larger role. O’Reilly also ranks third in even strength ice time. In O’Reilly, St. Louis was looking for a do-everything center. He’s been that and more.
Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens
It was easy to pan the Canadiens’ one-for-one swap with the Arizona Coyotes at the moment it happened. Alex Galchenyuk, who was headed south, was fresh off of a 19-goal, 51-point campaign that put him second in scoring in Montreal the year prior, and he had netted 66 goals and 151 points in 225 games across his past three seasons. Domi, meanwhile, had struggled with the Coyotes. After a standout rookie year, he had failed to reach a double-digit goal total in consecutive seasons and had scored just 36 goals and 135 points in 222 games.
And while the jury is still out given Galchenyuk has only recently returned from injury in Arizona, something about playing in Montreal has brought Domi to life and the early returns don’t look so bad for the Canadiens. In 13 outings, Domi has seven goals and 13 points and it appears as though he’s fitting in perfectly under coach Claude Julien. He’s second in ice time among Montreal’s forwards, and while he’s struggled on the dot, that hasn’t stopped Julien from throwing Domi over the boards at center.
There are still some kinks to be worked out. Montreal would probably like to see Domi drive play better than he has, and ironing out the aforementioned difficulties in the faceoff circle would be a plus. But given the face-palming that was happening post-trade, we’d say this has worked out well for the Canadiens so far.
Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins
You’ll recall that it wasn’t all that long ago, December 2016, that Halak was demoted to the New York Islanders’ AHL affiliate. It would be three months before he got the call back to the NHL, too, all the while Halak attempted to find a new home. With no takers, he stuck around with New York, endured a mediocre-at-best 2017-18 campaign and then bolted as a free agent, signing this summer with the Bruins. The assumption was he would be a steady backup in Boston, playing 20-odd games and supporting start Tuukka Rask.
Well, turns out Rask’s own troubles have made Halak into a split-starter to kick off the campaign and it’s he, not Rask, who is turning in the best numbers of the two Bruins netminders. In eight games in the blue paint in Boston, Halak has turned in an NHL-best .952 save percentage and 1.45 goals-against average to go along with a league-best two shutouts. It’s not as though that’s a result of Halak getting the tomato cans, either. His opponents have included the Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes, and he stopped 39 of 40 shots in a Saturday meeting with the Nashville Predators. The loss to the Predators — a 1-0 defeat that Halak kept Boston in — was the first game Halak started in which the Bruins didn’t earn at least a single point.
Will he last as a split-timer with Rask? Only until the incumbent finds his form, in all likelihood. But as a relatively overlooked summer signing, Halak has done wonders in the Bruins’ crease.
Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
Micheal Ferland has gotten all the attention in Carolina, and with good reason. He has seven goals and 11 points in 14 games for the Hurricanes and he’s on pace to smash previous career bests. He’s almost been like found money. But Hamilton, who has started to come alive offensively with two goals in his past five games, has been among the most brilliant play-driving defensemen in the NHL in his short stay with the Hurricanes.
While his average ice time his actually down from last season — the big minutes have typically gone to Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk throughout October — Hamilton has been thriving in his second-pairing duty with Brett Pesce. He’s getting a favorable slant of zone starts, but Hamilton also boasts an incredible 65.3 Corsi for percentage through the first 14 games of the campaign and the only defensemen who have been on ice for more scoring chances for their club at five-a-side are Chicago’s Erik Gustafsson and teammate Jaccob Slavin.
Individually, though, Hamilton is the king of play-driving and chance generation. He leads all blueliners and all skaters with 93 shot attempts at 5-on-5 and his 22 scoring chances are also the second-best among defensemen. If his shooting percentage ever gets back to his career average, and it’s only slightly better than half of that right now, Hamilton could very well lead all defenseman in goals in successive campaigns.