When the Calgary Flames hit the ice Sunday in Washington, where they fell 4-2 to the Capitals, coach Bill Peters’ team became the first to hit the 17-game mark this season. And arbitrary as that games-played total may seem, it does carry some importance. With 17 games in the books, the Flames are now officially through one-fifth of their campaign, the first team this season to cross the 20-percent threshold.
So, where do the Flames stand with the first fifth of their season in the books? Well, they’re not sitting as pretty as some may have expected – we at The Hockey News picked them to win the Pacific Division and they’re four points off the lead right now – but you’re not about to find anyone feeling too positive or negative about the performance. There have been ups and downs, but Calgary is about where most would have expected, not falling all that far behind first place in their division and still comfortably in the wild-card race with the calendar flipping from October to November.
But not all teams can say the same. With the first month of the season in the books, a few teams have fallen well short of expectations while others are exceeding pre-season projections.
Here are six teams that have surprised for reasons either positive or negative reasons:
San Jose Sharks
All right, so the Ducks aren’t in a post-season position or anything, but the pre-season prediction around most parts was that Anaheim would finish in the Pacific Division basement and among the worst teams in the Western Conference. It made sense, too. The Ducks are rebuilding, adding some youth around existing veteran pieces, and there was no reason to expect coach Dallas Eakins to get that much out of his group this season. This was set to be a feeling-out process, a chance for Anaheim to get a sense of who will and who won’t be integral parts of the future.
A funny thing has happened, though. Instead of the young guns coming to the fore, it’s the veterans who have stood out. The offense has been led by Jakob Silfverberg, Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique, while John Gibson has been John Gibson and Ryan Miller has played just as well, giving the Ducks a case for the best one-two punch in goal in the NHL.
Can this continue? Anaheim’s mediocre underlying numbers are concerning and the Ducks’ PDO suggests there’s some aspect of puck luck here. But as long as Gibson is healthy, Anaheim is going to have a chance to stockpile some wins. Wild-card contention isn’t out of the question, particularly not after a fairly good start to the season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Coach Mike Babcock doesn’t find himself on the hot seat because the Maple Leafs have been out-and-out poor, but rather because the pressure is on for Toronto to prove it can be more than an also-ran in the uber-talented Atlantic Division. Last season marked the third consecutive first-round exit for the Maple Leafs and this season is supposed to be the one that sees Toronto finally take that next step.
As has been the case since the arrival of the Maple Leafs’ young guns – and even more so since John Tavares arrived in Toronto – offense isn’t the issue. Even with ‘JT’ sideline, the Maple Leafs still scored at a torrid pace and sit third in the NHL with 52 goals entering Tuesday’s action. But Toronto’s defensive play still leaves much to be desired. Their 51 goals against are the fourth most in the league and only nine teams have allowed more goals against per game. The Maple Leafs are also getting outshot with some regularity and have an expected goals for at 5-on-5 of 49.4 percent. That ranks 20th in the NHL.
There’s still plenty of time left and the Maple Leafs are a playoff team. Of that, there’s little doubt. What Toronto does once they get to the dance is going to be the big question, and if the answer isn’t the one the Maple Leafs’ front office wants, Babcock could be looking for work.
By simple virtue of the fact new Buffalo bench boss Ralph Krueger was one of the biggest unknowns entering the campaign might be enough to knock the Sabres off of this list – how could anyone know what to expect out of a coach who spent a half decade in the world of the English Premier League? – but to see Jack Eichel and Co. among the Atlantic Division leaders is stunning.
What’s special about the Sabres through the early season, too, is who is contributing. The obvious names are among the club’s leading scorers, as Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Dahlin and Jeff Skinner rank first through fourth in points. Tied with Skinner, however, is surprise rookie Victor Olofsson, meanwhile Marcus Johansson has been an instant fit and Casey Mittelstadt seems to be finding his groove.
What does the 9-4-2 record through the first month of the season mean for the Sabres? Well, they’re not about to get too ahead of themselves. It was about this time last year that Buffalo embarked on a 10-game winning streak that amounted to absolutely nothing by season’s end. The Sabres’ success will depend on the continued success of goaltending duo Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. The crease will dictate where Buffalo finishes this season.
New Jersey Devils
There was bounce in the Devils’ step entering the season, so much promise after a summer that concluded with New Jersey GM Ray Shero hoisting the Undisputed Off-Season Championship title. The Devils had the first-overall pick and drafted Jack Hughes, added P.K. Subban in a blockbuster deal, nabbed a top-six scoring upgrade in Nikita Gusev and signed reclamation project Wayne Simmonds with hope he could rediscover his old form. The upside and potential was there for all to see.
But now it’s starting to look like all of it was a mirage. Through a dozen games, New Jersey has a 3-5-4 record, the Devils have a minus-14 goal differential, have blown leads on a consistent basis and the boo birds irked unrestricted free agent-to-be Taylor Hall. Next to nothing has gone right for New Jersey, who are a point out of last place in the NHL.
Before the Devils can be written off, though, we might want to wait to see if Shero can’t find a way to address his goaltending situation. Neither MacKenzie Blackwood or Cory Schneider has played well this season. The two have combined for an .865 save percentage and have goals-against averages above three. Maybe an upgrade in goal, one way or another, can be the answer.
Last season’s Oilers finished with the seventh-fewest points in the NHL. Ahead of the season, we projected this season’s Oilers to finish in much the same place. And can you blame us? While changes were made behind the bench and in the GM chair – hello, Dave Tippett and Ken Holland – there was little done to fundamentally the roster that had once again failed to get the job done. The notable movement included the departures of Andrej Sekera and restricted free agent Jesse Puljujarvi, who is playing in Finland while awaiting a trade. Also, the Oilers flipped Milan Lucic to Calgary for James Neal, which was more head-scratching than anything even if it was judged to be a somewhat favorable deal for Edmonton.
The Oilers have sure made all those expecting them to crash and burn to start the season look foolish, though. Thanks in large part to Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who have combined for a ludicrous 20 goals and 51 points through 16 games, Edmonton leading the Pacific Division – we repeat, leading the Pacific Division – through nearly 20 percent of their campaign. And speaking of blowing expectations out of the water, Neal, coming off of a career-worst season, already has 11 goals and 13 points. That’s four goals more and only six points fewer than he scored in 63 games with the Flames last season.
The Oilers’ underlying numbers aren’t the greatest. No one is going to deny that. But they’re storing up some points now for when some inevitable slips and stumbles come, and a productive opening month could be the difference between another long summer and a spring spent playing some meaningful games.
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