We’re less than halfway through October. That means any hockey-season takes consist mostly of overreactions.
That doesn’t mean we can’t find any useful information this early in a season, however. The best way to sort October NHL stats into the “Care” and “Don’t Care” bins: find which numbers legitimately reflect predictions and/or concerns we voiced before the season started. If we worried about Team X or Y having a shaky defense and that team is getting lit up this season, the early numbers might become a trend. On the other hand, when Steven Stamkos calls out his Tampa Bay Lightning and warns that it’s “going to be a long season” without tighter defense, we laugh it off. It’s the friggin’ Lightning. They’ll be more than fine.
Let’s dig into some interesting early-season stats and decide whether to care about them yet.
STATS THAT MATTER
Patrik Laine’s 10 points in five games
Laine had a nightmarish season by his standard last year. By his standard. When a 20-year-old scores 30 goals and is deemed a slump-prone one-dimensional failure performing at his floor, it says a lot about that young man’s ceiling. Laine is so talented that he disappoints if he isn’t challenging for the Rocket Richard Trophy. That’s what happens when you score 18 goals in a 12-game stretch and amass 110 regular-season goals before turning 21. People want big things from you.
Because Laine hadn’t achieved anything close to consistency, his contract negotiations this past summer were complicated for both sides. In the end, Laine’s camp scored a wise contract, a two-year RFA pact carrying a $6.75-million cap hit, allowing him to bet on himself and raise his value. If Laine plays like a $10-million asset over the next couple seasons, that’s obviously great for him, but it’s also great for the Jets, as it means he’s realizing his vast potential.
Here we are, just five games into the Jets' 2019-20 campaign, and Laine has rattled off 10 points, tying Connor McDavid for the NHL scoring lead. Laine is unlikely to say the least to win the Art Ross, and we’ve seen these types of hot streaks from him before, so we can’t assume he’s exorcized the inconsistency demon. But the blazing start reminds us Laine is sublimely talented, a deadly goal scorer who also possesses the hands to set up others, and he’s still only 21. Sixty-two rookie skaters have suited up in the NHL so far this season, and Laine is younger than 35 of them. He has so much time left to grow up. The next step is, hopefully, for him to use that deadly shot more. Since Laine debuted in 2016-17, 414 forwards have logged at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, and he ranks 108th among them in shots per 60 minutes. That’s decent, but we want Laine in the elite tier. For perspective: Alex Ovechkin sits 13th over that span.
The Carolina Hurricanes’ 4-0-0 record
These guys weren’t some cute, cuddly story, enthralling us for one year of Storm Surges before fading back into obscurity. The Hurricanes can play. They possess arguably the NHL’s deepest blueline, we’re seeing signs of that leap we were expecting from sophomore sniper Andrei Svechnikov, the Canes have enjoyed some sturdy goaltending form Petr Mrazek and James Reimer early on, and coach Rod Brind’Amour’s troops look generally dominant on the attack, generating the fourth-most shot attempts in the league per 60 minutes so far.
Again – it’s a tiny sample size, but when it’s confirming an existing notion, it’s interesting. The Hurricanes were a sleeper Stanley Cup contender entering the season, and they absolutely look the part at the moment. Their victims include the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and retooled Florida Panthers, too, so it’s not like Carolina is fattening up on a breezy early-season schedule.
Rasmus Dahlin’s seven points in four games
My colleague Ken Campbell delved deeper into Dahlin’s start earlier this week, but, goodness, it’s exciting to see Dahlin going Full Phenom to start 2019-20. It shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. As a rookie, he scored the second-most points ever by an 18-year-old defenseman. At 19, he’s already showing signs that he can creep toward his superstar-level ceiling. The Sabres aren’t pelting him with impossibly tough assignments early on, starting him in the offensive zone more than 70 percent of the time and not deploying him much against other team’s best forwards, but he’s only been on the ice for a single 5-on-5 goal against in four games, with the Sabres scoring four times. The shot-attempt ratios tilt heavily toward the Sabres with him on the ice so far, too.
The defensive assignments will get tougher as coach Ralph Krueger realizes how much he can trust Dahlin, who projects to be a powerhouse at both ends of the ice. That said, the current offensive output sure is exciting. He handles the puck like a forward. It’s only a matter of time before he’s contending for Norris Trophies, and it’s exciting early on to see him looking like an all-star asset.
STATS THAT DON'T MATTER
Sergei Bobrovsky’s 4.77 goals-against average and .859 save percentage
Yawn. Sure, it’s not ideal to see your new $10-million goalie pulled after one period in his third start of the season. But please, don’t panic. Even the slightest bit of pre-season homework told us to expect a slow start for ‘Bob.’
His careers save percentages by month…
Nothing to see here. Bobrovsky always starts slowly. So does the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Frederik Andersen, by the way, so Leafs fans shouldn’t be worried about him, either. The Panthers’ luck will correct soon. They rank 27th in PDO so far, largely because of Bobrovsky’s struggles. He’ll be fine, and so will they.
The Edmonton Oilers’ 4-0-0 record
I’ll surely endear myself to the fan base by declaring the fast start a mirage. I’m sorry, but…just look at the numbers. Edmonton ranks 29th in Corsi at 5-on-5, out-attempted 186 to 140 by its opponents thus far. Edmonton has scored on 14.08 percent of its shots at 5-on-5, good for second in the league. Edmonton ranks sixth in PDO. Three of Edmonton’s four wins have come against teams that missed the playoffs last year: Vancouver, Los Angeles and New Jersey. A big reason for the success so far is a sizzling power play, which has converted six times in four games, good for a 40-percent success rate.
It’s still encouraging to see the Oilers being so efficient with their opportunities – Any 4-0 start has positive takeaways – but there is a reality check coming. The Oilers have been territorially outclassed so far – not just cumulatively but in every individual game – and it hasn’t shown on the scoresheet yet. It will soon.
The Dallas Stars’ 1-3-1 record
This team boasts several of the best young defensemen in the game and, after some aggressive off-season moves by GM Jim Nill, its best forward depth in years. The Stars are too good to keep losing four out of every five games, even factoring in the expected regression from goaltender Ben Bishop after his amazing 2018-19. The Stars are allowing the ninth-fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes. They are legitimately struggling to generate chances right now, but they opened the season against arguably the two best defensive teams in the NHL, a.k.a the reigning Stanley Cup finalists, the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. The Stars have also faced two division champions from last season in the Washington Capitals and Calgary Flames.
Once the schedule softens up, the Stars should have an easier time getting pucks toward the other team’s net, and we know the defensive side of their game isn’t a problem. It’s encouraging that Dallas’ most recent outing was by far its best. The result was a shootout loss to the Flames, but the Stars controlled the play. They’ll be OK, especially after they complete a four-game road trip that begins Monday.
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