Photo by: Klim Musalimov
With most teams sitting at around 15 games played, as of Saturday, the league is quickly approaching one fifth of the NHL regular season. Here, separated by division, we’ll break down the key areas of interest in the season’s early stages.
Our breakdown starts with the Atlantic, which has typically been the top division in the Eastern Conference and in the NHL. Despite most projecting the Leafs, Panthers and Lightning to cruise to playoff spots, the early season has offered some intrigue in this regard. The Panthers, Leafs and Lightning currently sit second, fourth and fifth place in the Atlantic respectively. The Panthers are tenth in the league, respectable, but not what was expected of last year’s offensive juggernaut. The Panthers have been held back by a D-corps that have been hurt by injuries and the offseason loss of Mackenzie Weegar, though Brandon Montour (a sneaky Norris Trophy candidate) is doing his best to cover their tracks with four goals and 15 points in 12 games.
The Leafs, who are 7-5-3 have had well-documented struggles early in the season, but are still currently in the last wild card playoff spot in the East. The Leafs’ season has been confoundingly frustrating, losing in uninspired efforts to some of the worst teams in the league, but following these up with disciplined wins over some of the league’s best. Goalie Ilya Samsonov has been the difference for the Leafs, so it will be important to watch how they perform with him injured.
The Senators on the other hand, a team many suggested could make a playoff push or even challenge Toronto for the best team in Ontario, is currently the third worst team in the NHL and is enjoying a seven game losing streak.
On the other end of the table, the Boston Bruins, who many expected to fall off with long-term injuries to star players, did nothing of the sort. Thanks to Patrice Bergeron’s comical longevity, Hampus Lindholm’s emergent play as the the Bruin’s #1 defenseman and David Pastrnak scoring at will, the Bruins look like an early contender. Though the Detroit Red Wings are a surprising second place in the Atlantic, with a -5 goal differential, its a trend that is unlikely to continue.
The Metro, another classically strong division, has also flipped expectations somewhat. The New Jersey Devils are in full-blown wagon mode. With the third best record in the league and an eight-game win streak, the Devil’s roaring start boils down to the big steps forward taken by Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, and to them finally getting some half-decent goaltending.
The Hurricanes sit right behind the Devils, with Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov leading the charge.
The New York Islanders and New York Rangers follow, taking up the last two playoff spots in the division. The bottom four of the Metro is interesting. Though Columbus was widely expected to be bad (and are exactly that as the worst team in the league), the Penguins, Capitals and Flyers are all defying expectations slightly.
The Capitals and Penguins have both suffered from the natural progression of their players and not being able to do a lot to replenish the team’s talent. Pittsburgh in particular, though despite winning their last two, have dealt with this, evidenced by a six game losing streak, the longest under head coach Mike Sullivan’s tenure with the team. Finally, Philadelphia was expected to be horrific, and though there’s nothing special about a 7-4-2 team, it is certainly better than expected.
The Central might be the NHL’s most wide-open division right now, even if that is only because no team has done enough to separate themselves from the pack. The Jets lead the division with an 8-3 record and have the least points of any division leader. They have allowed the fewest goals in the league, mostly thanks to Connor Hellebyuck, re-entering himself into the conversation for the top goalie in the league.
Dallas, who sits just behind, are also buoyed by the excellent goaltending of Jake Oettinger, while Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson –fifth in points and eighth in goals – have also been exceptional.
The Avalanche have been fine, but they are also clearly missing some of their offseason losses like Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, as well as Captain Gabriel Landeskog who remains on the Long-Term Injury Reserve. The rest of the division isn’t much to write home about.
The Minnesota Wild have been mediocre, but not in any way that’s particularly interesting.
The Blackhawks and Coyotes have both been better than expected, they’re both still .500, so not really anything to get excited about. Nashville and St. Louis have also both been worse than expected, but both of these are easily attributable to run-of-the-mill goaltending troubles. I would not expect much to change over the season, except for some flip-flopping between the top four teams.
The Pacific looks like it will be a division without much intrigue. There is a definite upper and lower class in this division. The top of the crop are the Vegas Golden Knights, who have the best record in the league at 13-2. The Kings and Kraken have both taken steps forward, the Kings on the strength of their young players improving (notably Gabe Vilardi who is fourth in the league in goals) and the Kraken thanks to some savvy offseason additions.
The Oilers, despite video-game level (and somehow predictable) starts from Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, still sit in the middle of the pack. Jack Campbell has struggled mightily in the Oilers crease, and may have even lost his starting job to Stuart Skinner.
The Calgary Flames are also still finding their legs. Though they filled the holes left by Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk admirably with Kadri and Weegar, they were a team that was bound for some regression from last season.
The lower class of this division can fairly comfortably give up on the season and focus on getting their best draft position possible.
The Vancouver Canucks have had some public struggles. Even with an MVP-level start from Erik Karlsson, the San Jose Sharks are very bad.
The Anaheim Ducks are somehow worse with the worst goal differential in the league. Though the Kings and Kraken may flip with the Oilers and Flames, the Pacific seems more or less set.
The Contender Class:
- Vegas Golden Knights
- Boston Bruins
- Carolina Hurricanes
- New Jersey Devils
- LA Kings
Give up, tank for Connor Bedard:
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- Anaheim Ducks
- San Jose Sharks
- Ottawa Senators
- St. Louis Blues