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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

McGuinness: Evaluating The NHL's Biggest Early Surprises

We’ve reached November, which means two things are true in the NHL landscape. It is still way too early to care about the standings, but it is no longer too early to ignore them. And if you fire up the NHL app and scroll over to them, boy, you’ll find some shockers. Seven teams that made the playoffs last year, including three of the final four clubs standing, aren’t currently in a playoff spot. The standings are supposed to be a quick snapshot of where each team is generally at, but they look more or less like the results of a random number generator right now.

Things are obviously going to change between now and the end of the season; they always do. Avalanche and Golden Knights fans shouldn’t be fretting that they’ll go from the league’s two best regular-season teams last year to playoff spectators, which is where they currently sit. But today, let’s celebrate some of the clubs that have gotten off to fast starts that maybe we weren’t expecting to.

Some of them will inevitably fade out of contention before long. But you never know where the next 2017-18 Devils and Avalanche or 2018-19 Islanders, teams that had almost no expectations that started the regular season playing well and just never really stopped, are lurking. Here are the five most surprising teams that currently sit in a playoff spot (a group that combined for exactly as many playoff wins as you and I last year), and what their odds are of still being there at the end of April.

Buffalo Sabres: 5-3-1, 4th in Atlantic

Maybe we shouldn’t be as surprised to see the Sabres here as we are. The only true contenders they’ve faced so far are Boston and Tampa Bay, and six of their first eight games have been at home. Plus, there's history here. In the last 82 game season (2019-20), the Sabres jumped out of the gates to a 9-2-2 record, only to fall off the face of the Earth by March. The year before, Buffalo won ten straight in late November, sitting atop the entire league.

These Sabres, however, are a whole different level of surprising. Victor Olofsson, their only remaining top-six forward from the start of last year, is carrying the offensive load with a team-leading five goals and nine points. But the real heroes of Buffalo’s excellent October are their goaltenders. 40-year old Craig Anderson is sixth in the league with a .921 SV% (min. 3 games played). Journeyman Dustin Tokarski, who spent most of last year in the AHL, is eighth with a .936 mark. Their underlying numbers are surprisingly solid; the Sabres have generated more expected goals than they’ve allowed at five-on-five, although they’ve been trending in the wrong direction over the last few contests.

The Verdict: This is almost certainly nothing more than a hot start for a team destined for the basement. But considering how much Sabres fans have had to deal with over the last decade, there’s no shame in just embracing this positive stretch, however long it lasts.

Detroit Red Wings: 4-4-2, 5th in Atlantic

All the Red Wings are hoping for this year is progress, and their first-month results certainly show some. Rookies Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider look legit already, combining for seventeen points right out of the chute. Dylan Larkin seems rejuvenated as well. Starting this season with a fairly tough schedule adds to Detroit's credibility. Teams full of young guns like Detroit are always difficult to evaluate. If they keep this up, it won’t be long before comparisons to the 2016-17 Maple Leafs, a team with six rookie 20-goal scorers that reached the playoffs, start popping up.

The Verdict: Perhaps the scariest thing about Detroit is they’re playing well with some obvious room for improvement. Jakub Vrána looked awesome in the Motorcity in the second half last season, but he’s out for a few months with shoulder surgery. 2021 Calder finalist Alex Nedejlkovic hasn’t been anything special yet in the net either. It’s still very much an uphill battle for the Red Wings. But with teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay looking a bit more vulnerable than they did a few weeks ago, the path for the Red Wings to at least play meaningful games in April looks a lot clearer.

Philadelphia Flyers: 5-2-1, 4th in Metropolitan (1st Wild Card in East)

It felt like a lot of people were eager to write the Flyers off as anything resembling contenders following a nightmare 2020-21 season, leaving the prior year’s success in the dust. Yet for everything that went wrong last year, the Flyers still finished 19th in a league where 16 teams make the playoffs despite historically bad goaltending. So far, Carter Hart looks sharp, Martin Jones is back to 2016 vintage form, and wouldn’t you know, the Flyers look solid. Their five-on-five play is a bit underwhelming, so maybe there’s some regression due. But getting the injured Ryan Ellis and Kevin Hayes back in the lineup sometime this month could offset that.

The Verdict: Philadelphia’s biggest obstacle is its division. Carolina hasn’t lost a beat, the Penguins and Capitals still appear to be winning their fights against father time, the Islanders seem due to improving, and I easily could’ve picked the Rangers instead of the Flyers for this segment. Unless the red flag that is their second defensive pair becomes a two-ton anchor, there’s a pretty solid shot the Flyers keep their streak of alternating and missing the playoffs alive for an eleventh straight year (and like the San Francisco Giants, even years are good for their fortunes).

St. Louis Blues: 6-1-0, 1st in Central

A Blues team that seemed to be in turmoil throughout Vladimir Tarasenko’s summer trade request saga and identity-less to start the year is back to shocking us all, just like they did in the second half of 2018-19. Yes, they’ve been heavily out-chanced so far at five-on-five. But Tarasenko looks much more like the elite goal scorer he was pre-shoulder injury, and Jordan Binnington is doing well when he isn’t trying to fight other players.

The Verdict: St. Louis is a very deep team up front, and they’ve proved capable of riding their depth to a championship in recent memory. Their defense is weaker than it was in 2019, which probably kills their chances of making a really deep playoff run. I had them on the wrong side of the playoff bubble in a deep Central Division at the start of the year; I’m pretty close to pushing them over the hump now.

San Jose Sharks: 6-3-0, 3rd in Pacific

Just like with the Sabres, maybe we shouldn’t be quite as shocked to see the Sharks here, at least this early on. This is a core with a lot of pride and success on their resumés; of course, they aren’t going down without a fight. Timo Meier and Logan Couture are back in 2018-19 form, combining for twenty points in the early going. James Reimer and Adin Hill have flipped the script on their goaltending, which was some of the league’s worst last year with Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk mainly splitting the load. Maybe the Sharks just needed a little bit of stability here and a little bit of avoiding Evander Kane’s reportedly cancerous effect on the locker room there to at least return to respectability.

The Verdict: Unfortunately, they might need a lot more to sustain their success. The Sharks have the fifth-worst expected goals percentage in the league, and they’ve lost three of their last five games after starting 4-0-0. Maybe they could hang around late into the season if everything goes right. But I think they’ll likely still be better off trading Tomas Hertl at the deadline and starting a new chapter, finally leaving the success of their once great core firmly in the past.