In the long run, wins and losses in the first weeks of the season can pay dividends, particularly when the margin between making the post-season and missing out entirely can be as slim as a single point. That doesn’t necessarily mean the first few weeks of the campaign are indicative of what the standings will look like come season’s end, however.
For instance, on this date last season, the Ottawa Senators looked like they might be able to hang in the Atlantic Division thanks to a plus-eight goal differential and 4-1-4 record that put them two points back of the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s that early season success that gave Ottawa the confidence to pull off the three-way trade that brought Matt Duchene to town. But we all know how that ended up.
Slowly but surely the Senators fell apart, slipping down the standings at an alarming rate. And by the time the campaign closed, all that separated Ottawa from the NHL’s basement was five points, with their minus-70 goal differential sitting as the second-worst in the league. The early season success was more a mirage than an indication of what was to come, and that’s the peril of believing in the standings all that much at this point in the season.
With that in mind, these are the five team whose early season records should be taken with a grain of salt:
The Canucks had some of the longest odds in the league at the start of the season, and not without reason. Vancouver has a thin roster primarily led by young talent. The belief was that this would be a season filled with growing pains. Turns out, though, that the Canucks keep finding ways to win. In fact, at the 10-game mark, Vancouver has a one-point edge on the San Jose Sharks for first place in the Pacific Division and won last night’s outing against the Vegas Golden Knights despite losing, oh, half their roster to injury by mid-game.
The good times won’t last in Vancouver, though. Nothing about the Canucks’ success screams sustainability. Coach Travis Green’s club is getting caved in in terms of possession and scoring chances yet escaping by the skin of their teeth on most nights. It appears as though the wheel could fall off at any moment. And you know what? That’s OK! Vancouver will benefit more from another high draft pick than they will a surprise appearance in the post-season. The Canucks need to think long term. That’s no reason not to bask in the early glory, though.
It’s easy to look at Arizona’s success, or lack thereof, and chalk it up to just another season in which the Coyotes will be a bottom feeder. This is a team that started the campaign without a single goal at 5-on-5 through the first two weeks of the season. But to write the Coyotes off this soon would be foolish. This team has some talent, which was evident in the back half of the 2017-18 campaign, and it sure looks like things are starting to head in the right direction after a slow start.
First, let’s address the offensive issue by saying this: Arizona has scored nine goals at five-a-side in their past three games. The Coyotes can score. They’re not the Los Angeles Kings. Second, look at the numbers. Long a possession black hole, Arizona currently sits fourth in 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage (54.8), fourth in shots for percentage (55.5) and sixth in scoring chances for percentage (54.7). Their high-danger chances for percentage is middling, but the duo of Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper has been pretty solid. The Coyotes have the ninth-best save percentage at 5-on-5. Arizona is far better than their record suggests.
Maybe the timing of this isn’t great given the Ducks are on a three-game skid, dropping games to the Golden Knights, Buffalo Sabres and Chicago Blackhawks, but Anaheim is in far more trouble right now than their 5-4-1 record would indicate. But the Ducks are currently sitting third in the Pacific Division with an even goal differential solely because of John Gibson.
Just take a quick look at the numbers. The Ducks are last in shots per game (23.9). They are last in shots against per game (37.9). That means Anaheim’s shot differential per game is a startling minus-14. They’ve surrendered 140 more shots than they’ve taken. Worse yet, at 5-on-5, Anaheim’s Corsi for percentage (40.5), shots for percentage (39.8), scoring chance for percentage (37.8) and high-danger chance percentage (36.8) are all league-worst marks. At this rate, Gibson’s legs might fall off by the 20-game mark.
The one caveat here is that the Ducks are banged up in a big way. Being without Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase, Jakub Silfverberg and Patrick Eaves hurts. Having already dealt with injuries to Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler, among others, hasn’t done Anaheim any favors, either. But things really don’t look all that great for the Ducks. If something doesn’t change in a hurry, it could be a long, long year in Anaheim.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The Golden Knights didn’t face the normal ebbs and flows of an NHL team last season. Somehow, it was one perpetual ebb that grew and grew and grew until Vegas won the Western Conference and fell a few wins short of winning the Stanley Cup. Well, turns out that stored up bad luck is coming to roost right about now, with the Golden Knights nine games into their campaign with the third-worst goals per game rate in the league and some questions about what’s plaguing the offense.
Turns out, though, the answer is nothing is really plaguing the attack at all other than the aforementioned bout of bad luck. Quite frankly, below the surface, Vegas has been just as good as they were last season. They’re a top-three team in Corsi for, shots for, scoring chances for and high-danger changes for percentage. They’re dominating games in much the same way they did last season, playing coach Gerard Gallant’s up-tempo system to perfection.
So, why the mediocre start? Well, the dreadful shooting percentage doesn’t help. Only the Coyotes have a worse shooting percentage at all strengths. It also doesn’t help that Marc-Andre Fleury has an awful .904 SP. That the Golden Knights have been able to hang around in the early going despite next to no luck in goal or on the attack speaks to the talent the team has, however. Everything is going to be all right in Vegas.
Just as everyone suspected, the Senators have risen to prominence once again and become a contender in the wide-open Atlantic Division. They were just that one big move away — trading over-the-hill defenseman Erik Karlsson for Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo — from a return trip to the post-season. Or something like that. Right?
All kidding aside, Ottawa might not be quite as bad as the pre-season prophecies foretold, which is to say they’re not going to finish with a negative point total. The Senators have been a plucky bunch that has gotten some scoring from unexpected places early in the season in order to compete and stay in games with some tough teams. Case in point, they handed the Toronto Maple Leafs their first loss and hung with the Boston Bruins until late-second and early-third period power play goals sunk the Senators earlier this week. Part of that is thanks to the otherworldly and entirely unexplainable phenomenon known as every-other-year Craig Anderson. Part of it is because Ottawa has the second-highest shooting percentage in the league.
Over the course of a long season, though, expect the Senators to tumble down the standings and land in a position that’s more in line with what was expected entering the campaign. Ottawa’s underlying numbers suggest as much, to be sure, but the aforementioned shooting percentage and Anderson’s play are incredibly unlikely to hold up for an entire campaign. The bad news is that unlike the Canucks, there’s no silver lining here for the Senators. They’ve given up their first-round pick and when the eventual fall comes, they won’t even be able to look forward to a potential first-overall draft choice. The Colorado Avalanche on the other hand…