The NHL pre-season isn’t the best predictor of what’s to come in the regular season, but it can give us a hint as to what to expect when the games actually matter.
Generally speaking, the standings at the end of the NHL pre-season don’t tell us all that much. If they did, the New York Islanders, who finished the exhibition slate with the league’s best record, could start planning their parade route. They’re not about to do that, though.
For the most part, the games are played with partial NHL rosters and with veteran players who are simply getting back into game shape before the regular season begins. That’s why we get scenarios like the Islanders leading the league, the Vegas Golden Knights as one of the pre-season’s highest-scoring teams and a Colorado Avalanche club that keeps pace with the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild in the Central Division.
But just because these games are a tune-up for the real thing doesn’t we can’t glean anything from the half dozen-plus games that each squad plays. In some cases there are small details, one facet of the game, that a club shows a proclivity for in the early going that’s worth watching. In others, we get confirmation of what we already know. And in some instances, especially when it comes to young skaters, we get a glimpse of a player who looks more than ready for the challenge the NHL brings.
Hockey fans have seen all of that and more over the past couple weeks, so here are five things we’ve learned from the 2017-18 pre-season:
Don’t take penalties against the Winnipeg Jets
Last season, Winnipeg’s power play was mediocre at the best of times and the Jets finished the season as the 18th-most effective team with the extra man. Now, the pre-season is a small sample, so we’re going to see numbers normalize and come down to a range similar to that of the regular season, but one thing was clear through the exhibition schedule: Winnipeg’s going to be well above the middle of the pack this time around.
Across their eight games, of which the Jets won two, Winnipeg’s power play clipped along at 29.5 percent. It was nearly four percent better than the San Jose Sharks’ power play, which ranked second in the pre-season. The Jets’ biggest weapon on the power play was — surprise — Patrik Laine, who wired home four goals with the man advantage, all of which came on one-time blasts. Laine added another two assists to lead the team with six power play points, but he wasn’t the only one clicking on the power play. Dustin Byfuglien tied Laine’s output with two goals and six points, Nikolaj Ehlers managed one goal and five points, Mark Scheifele had one goal and four points and Blake Wheeler put up three assists.
If only the Jets could get their penalty kill operating at the same rate…
Connor McDavid is set to pick up where he left off
The pre-season usually lends itself to some head-scratchers among the league’s top scorers. Case in point, Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin is tied for third in league scoring through the pre-season, putting up three goals and eight points in five games. The name atop the preseason scoring leaders, however, is about as far from surprising as it gets, as Connor McDavid, one season removed from winning the Art Ross, Hart and Lindsay trio of trophies, paced the league with 10 points in five games.
Yes, there’s no way McDavid averages two points per game in the regular season, but it’s a sign he’s just as ready as he was last year to take the league by storm. Not only that, but McDavid’s one year older, one year more experience and chances are we could be seeing another Art Ross come his way by season’s end. He was the only player to notch 100 points last season and no one will doubt his ability to exceed the century-mark this campaign. Really, if everything goes right, there’s a chance we even watch McDavid set the post-lockout record and become the first player since Joe Thornton in 2005-06 to score 125 points.
The Montreal Canadiens are far better than their pre-season record
There’s nothing to be gained from finishing the pre-season with a perfect record. There’s no award and, really, it’s meaningless given a fair share of those games are played without full-scale NHL rosters and there are even a few split-squad games thrown in there from time to time. That said, there’s always a bit of consternation from fans of those teams who can’t manage to win at least one game during the exhibition slate, and that was the case for the Montreal Canadiens through six preseason tilts. And, while losing six straight in the pre-season would be bad enough, the fact that Montreal was outscored 25-9 through those contests made it a bit more unsettling.
Thankfully, the final two games of the pre-season were likely more indicative of what we can expect out of the Canadiens this season. Against the Florida Panthers on Friday, Montreal played a defensively sound game and skated away with a 3-1 win. The next night against Ottawa, the Canadiens lambasted the Senators and banged home goal after goal en route to a convincing 9-2 victory.
The Canadiens have much more offensive punch than they showed through the early part of the pre-season and are much better defensively than giving up 25 goals across six games. This is, after all, a Claude Julien-coached team. If nothing else, they’ll be sound in their own end and you can expect a far better performance from start to finish once the games really matter.
Clayton Keller shines and that bodes well for rookie campaign
Unlike previous years, there is no prohibitive favorite for the Calder Trophy. There’s no Laine or Auston Matthews. There’s no McDavid or Jack Eichel or Artemi Panarin. There’s no single player who stands out above the rest of the crop. But if anyone’s Calder stock went up in the pre-season, it was Clayton Keller’s.
Of course, every team is playing games at different speeds and veterans aren’t going out and giving absolutely everything in the pre-season, but Keller looked every bit the NHL-ready winger that Arizona hoped he would be this season. In four games, he managed three goals and eight points, and it’s not as if his numbers are skewed at all by one big game. He potted two goals and three points in his first, two assists in his second, added a goal in his third and finished the pre-season schedule Saturday with two more assists against a Sharks team that dressed what was basically an opening-night roster.
Keller is going to start the season in a top-six role, of that there’s almost no doubt, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended up manning the top line in short order if he continues to produce. One season removed from dual NCAA rookie-of-the-year honors and a standout performance at the World Championship, Keller is one freshman to keep your eyes on.
The Carolina Hurricanes could be the league’s most defensively sound team
Again, let’s note that the pre-season isn’t the ultimate proving ground and there’s still a full 82-game schedule to be played before we can make any proclamations about who was what and where some teams deficiencies lied across the 2017-18 campaign. With that out of the way, though, can we stop and talk about the Carolina Hurricanes for a minute?
Of all teams expected to take a step forward this season, the Hurricanes are the most obvious candidate thanks in large part to the work GM Ron Francis has done to build a young, talented squad that has been supplemented by veteran pieces. But throughout the pre-season, coach Bill Peters had Carolina operating as such a cohesive defensive unit that getting shots against the Hurricanes, let alone scoring, was an incredibly tall task.
Carolina’s 15 goals against put them into a three-way tie for the sixth-fewest across the exhibition schedule, but the more impressive mark was the shots against per game. The Hurricanes allowed 24.6 shots per game, the fewest of any team by close to one shot per outing. Even against the pre-season’s highest scoring team, the Oilers, the Hurricanes only allowed 21 shots, and that’s against an Edmonton lineup that was basically an opening-night squad, including McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic, Jussi Jokinen, Patrick Maroon and Ryan Strome. Carolina’s 6-2 victory was Edmonton’s only loss of the preseason.
If that’s how Carolina can defend this season, and if Scott Darling puts up a save percentage close to his .925 mark in the pre-season, we could be looking at the league’s most improved team by a long shot.
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