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The Surprising Early Season Pretenders and Contenders: NHL Edition

NHL 20

The Surprising Early Season Pretenders and Contenders: NHL Edition

The 2019-2020 NHL season officially dropped the puck almost three weeks ago on October 2 and some surprising teams are off to scorching starts. Oppositely, some surprising teams are struggling to find their footing early on. However, it has often been said “that it is not about how you start but indeed how you finish.” So, although it is very early on into the seven-month grind that is the NHL schedule, let’s take a look at which teams have a legitimate shot at keeping up their early-season success or turning around their cold starts.

Hot Starts

   

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres went 6-6 last season in October but new coach Ralph Krueger has his team off to a 7-1-1 start this season and are flying out of the gates. The offense has been firing on all cylinders early as the Sabres as a team are ranked fourth in the NHL with 34 goals scored. Buffalo’s +13 goal differential is also the second best in the league. Furthermore, on the other side of things the Sabres goaltending duo of Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton has been a steadying combination having allowed just 18 goals between the two of them.

Carter Hutton is fresh off of back-to-back shutouts, with his latest being a 47-save masterpiece against the Los Angeles Kings inside Staples Center last Thursday night. This one will live in the record books as well. Hutton’s 47 saves were the most ever by a Sabres goaltender in a regular-season shutout, surpassing Chad Johnson’s mark of 44 set in December 2015. Hutton fell one save short of his own personal record, which he achieved with St. Louis two seasons ago. Hutton has now gone 128:36 without allowing a goal, a stretch that dates back to the third period of Buffalo’s overtime win against Montreal last Wednesday. He made 25 saves to shutout the Dallas Stars on Monday, his first as a member of the Sabres.

Ralph Krueger’s new system has drawn rave reviews while several players (both incumbents and newcomers) are exceeding expectations. One such player is rookie forward Victor Olofsson, who broke an NHL record last week by registering his seventh straight goal on the power play to start his NHL career (dating back to the end of last season).

During the 2018-19 campaign with the Rochester Amerks (his first full season on North American ice), Olofsson was spectacular, scoring a team-best 63 points in 66 games. From the moment the Sabres started struggling in December of last year, fans clamored to see the then 23-year-old winger receive a call-up to the big club. Needless to say he is making the most of his opportunity to start this year.

Verdict: Pretender – It’s been a great start for the young Sabres, but ultimately I feel they don’t have enough depth up front to sustain their division-leading start, and I don’t have full confidence in their unproven goaltending duo. Also, they do find themselves stuck in the Atlantic division with some heavy hitters and Stanley Cup contenders (i.e. Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning). This year should see the Sabres finally taking some big strides forward but the playoffs might have to wait one more season.

Carolina Hurricanes

Last year’s NHL darlings — and one heck of a surprise story in their own right making a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — were predicted by some to take a step back this season. Well, the Hurricanes are off to a 6-3-0 overall start this season, and their 6-2 start was the best eight-game start in franchise history. It is early, but I think the Carolina Hurricanes are here to stay and are out to make a statement this year. I did not think they could repeat their success from last year before the season began, but they play the right way and compete extremely hard night in and night out.

The way the Canes compete is no doubt a straight reflection of their 49-year-old head coach Rod “The Bod” Brind’Amour. At the start of training camp this season, Brind’Amour beat half the Hurricanes’ roster with his time on the assault bike in what is a grueling conditioning test. “You just see a lot of veins,” defenseman Haydn Fleury said of his coach while testing.

Verdict: Contender – While it might be a minor concern out of all the playoff-positioned clubs in the East, the Hurricanes have been the least disciplined, taking an average of 9.8 penalty minutes a night. All those minors could catch up to them further down the road.

Edmonton Oilers

Offseason trade acquisition James “The Real Deal” Neal is tied for the league lead in goals with 9. The 22-year-old phenom Connor McDavid is off to another superb start, tied for the league lead in points. McDavid became just the second player in Oilers history to have 17 points through the first seven games of the season. The other player was none other than “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky.

There are plenty of hockey media analysts who remain unconvinced by the Oilers’ excellent start to the season, with some pointing to the first five games as evidence. More specifically, the fact the team had to overcome trailing in each game to win. As an example, in the second game of the season, at home against the Los Angeles Kings, the Oilers came from behind four times during the course of the 60 minutes to pull off the victory.

New head coach Dave Tippett has his team playing with a more concentrated effort on defense and no one has benefited more from that than goalie Mikko Koskinen. Koskinen is looking extremely sharp and just became the second goaltender in franchise history to go 4-0 in his first four games of the season. The other time that feat was accomplished was all the way back in 1983 by goaltender Andy Moog.

Verdict: Contender – The 58-year-old Tippett has a proven track record from his time as the head coach of the Dallas Stars and the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes. During 14 seasons combined at the two stops, he made eight playoff appearances and highlighted his worth by winning the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year in 2010. It also helps to have two perennial all-stars in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The lack of scoring depth upfront is a bit concerning, but with a new head coach preaching defense and two studs leading the attack, I believe the Oilers finally make it back to the playoffs this year for just the second time in the McDavid era.

Anaheim Ducks

Coincidentally, the Ducks are the third team on this list with a new head coach. Since being hired as the new Anaheim Ducks bench boss, Dallas Eakins has been preaching speed, discipline, and fun and it is paying dividends early on. The Ducks and their new head coach won their first four games at home in the Honda Center for the first time in five years (they did lose Sunday night at home to the Flames). Overall the Ducks are off to a strong 6-3 start.

Ducks starting goaltender John Gibson is off to another fantastic start. The team MVP last year has a 4-3 record to go along with a stingy 1.85 goals against average and .941 save percentage. Also, helping Gibson shoulder the load is 39-year-old backup goaltender Ryan Miller. Miller is 2-0 and sports a 1.50 goals against average to go along with a .941 save percentage. Furthermore, The Ducks tight checking style of play has resulted in the team only yielding more than two goals once throughout their first six games.

Verdict: PretenderWhile the defense and goaltending is absolutely legitimate, the lack of scoring depth up front is a major concern. Speaking on the lack of scoring, the Ducks power play is looking out of sorts as they are now 1-for-19 on power-play opportunities to begin the season. Furthering the struggles to put the puck in the net, four of their games have been decided by just one goal. In addition, aging captain Ryan Getzlaf has seen his production decline in each of the previous two seasons. Ultimately, I think the lack of offense will have the Ducks on the wrong side of the score sheet more often than not.

Cold Starts

New Jersey Devils

After opening the season on a six-game winless streak, the Devils have erased just about all the positive feelings they had built up with an offseason that looked successful on paper. Instead of carrying the excitement of a positive offseason into the opening month, the Devils have nose-dived out of the gate. Only once in the history of the franchise has the team had a worse opening six games, and that worse start came when the franchise was still the Kansas City Scouts. In terms of goal differential, they’re second from the bottom right now at -12. In short, this team came into the season with high expectations and got off to perhaps the worst start since the team arrived in New Jersey in 1982.

The Devils have now recorded back to back wins on the season for a 2-4-2 record. However, the inconsistency in their play has been the major problem. The Devils games prior to their two recent victories all contained either major blown leads or blowout losses. Head coach John Hynes could be on borrowed time if the team can’t figure out its inconsistent play.

Verdict: Pretender – The Devils have three key players up front with immense talent, but they all have varying degrees of question marks in the short term. Former league MVP Taylor Hall is in a contract year and is uncertain if he wants to stay in New Jersey; 20-year-old Nico Hischier still has some maturing to do; and 18-year-old rookie Jack Hughes is just in his first NHL season. Furthermore, the Devils goaltending duo of Schneider and Blackwood is a major question mark. Ultimately, I feel New Jersey’s slow start is a mirror image of how their season will unfold. The New Jersey Devils are still a couple years away from being big-time contenders.

Dallas Stars

Almost unanimously agreed to be in contention for the top spot in the Central Division just a couple weeks ago, the Dallas Stars have been the definition of a disappointment. The Stars currently own the most regulation losses in the league after collecting their seventh through the first 10 games of the season. That being said, the firepower is there with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and premier offensive defensemen in John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. In other words, the Stars appeared to be a sure thing coming into the year.

After their recent loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday, backup goaltender Anton Khudobin let out some frustration, saying “what else can you say? We just got another L, [expletive], I don’t know. We just have to keep going and do something.” It must be said that Dallas is definitely an entertaining team when they’re in the middle of a losing streak. It was just last season that team CEO Jim Lites described the Stars as “[insert expletive here]” and put immense pressure on Benn and Seguin to perform to their capabilities. The Stars eventually got out of that slump and ended up with one of the Western Conference wild-card spots.

Verdict: Contender – The Stars, one win away from the conference championship last year, brought in three big aging veterans this offseason to help them make that push to hoist the Stanley Cup this year. Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera are all proven winners in the NHL, and one has to believe that their slow start is due to trying to have their new pieces adjust to new surroundings. Dallas has a highly skilled roster with elite scoring, defense and goaltending. Like last season, I think it’s just a matter of time before this group figures it out and makes their way into the playoffs.

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  1. Don't forget the Pens playing with literally half of their  starting forwards, and still racking up the goals. (Saturdays shut out against an insane performance from Fleury not withstanding)
    Eyeman79
    Don't forget the Pens playing with literally half of their *starting forwards, and still racking up the goals. (Saturdays shut out against an insane performance from Fleury not withstanding)

    Fleury "revenge" games are always a good time. But yeah, the Pens are evil so they tend to find a way. Like, they even forced Landeskog to score on himself to give them a win, they have mind-control powers.

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