The National Houdini League
The NHL season is a harrowing grind. With a strenuous 82 game schedule spanning
seven months there is a massive amount of hockey yet to be played. With that being said, I am now going to overreact to the first few months of the NHL season and ignore what I just said. Here are some of the biggest surprises in the NHL at the season’s quarter-mark.
The Vegas Golden Knights
The 1974-75 Washington Capitals – 21 points. The 1992-93 Ottawa Senators – 24 points.
The 2017-18 Las Vegas Golden Knights – 33 points in 26 games and leading the Pacific division. Predicting this start by the Knights is equivalent to hitting a royal flush in the Caesars Palace casino. The Knights have been nothing short of remarkable and have defied every prediction made about them at the start of the season. I would assume a team that has had Maxime Lagace start the majority of their games and are led in scoring by William Karlsson (14G 11A) would be firmly planted at the bottom of the league. Instead, the Knights have shrugged off the doubters, the scourge of injuries to their net-minders, and any Twitter account that dare take them on to rush out to the greatest start the NHL has ever seen from an expansion franchise. Gerard Gallant, who was kicked out of Florida faster than Mike Ribeiro at a strip club, deserves a ton of credit for how well this team is playing. The goalies are undaunted, the defense has been solid, and general manager George McPhee managed to piece together four surprisingly strong forward lines. With a 10-2-0 record at T-Mobile Arena it also seems like visiting teams have been taking in the Vegas nightlife and enjoying surprisingly strong lines themselves.
The New Jersey Devils
A team that basically single-handedly caused a lockout because of how boring they played has actually become quite exciting to watch. The New Jersey Devils have been riding an offseason infusion of youth and skill to a solid 15-7- 4 record. Up front, Taylor Hall (8G 19A) is making Edmonton fans have brain aneurysms envisioning him on McDavid’s wing instead of Drake Caggulia and Michael Cammalleri. Centering him is Nico Hischier (5G 13A) – the first overall pick from the 2017 entry draft – who has not looked out of place on the top line. With Cory Schneider being his consistent self and contributions from unexpected players like Will Butcher, Brian Gibbons, and Jesper Bratt the Devils have legitimate playoff aspirations. They also just added themselves a skilled puck mover in Sami Vatanen who will bolster an already solid power-play unit.
The Edmonton Oilers
As mentioned above, the Oilers have not been a pretty sight so far this season. They
opened as 10-1 favourites to win the cup (behind only the Penguins) after enjoying a spirited run to the semi-finals in last year’s playoffs. Currently, they sit second-last in their division ahead of only the lowly Arizona Coyotes. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli – a man more willing to trade players than a 10-year- old kid in franchise mode – has turned Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle into Adam Larsson and Ryan Strome. He also traded a first round pick to the Islanders for Griffin Reinhart in 2015. That pick turned into Mathew Barzal who has a tidy 6G and 18A in just 25 games as a rookie while Reinhart is toiling in the AHL for the Vegas Golden Knights. Couple this with the fact that the Oilers only rank 16th in the league in goals per game and one can see how foolish these trades look. Cam Talbot – who started 86 games for the Oilers last season including the playoffs – is now out for a couple of weeks with an upper body injury which forces Laurent Brossoit into action behind an already porous defense. Last year was supposed to be a stepping stone for Connor McDavid and company but they have fallen flat on their faces. Hey, at least Ryan Nuget-Hopkins is looking good. Chiarelli might be able to turn him into an aging
stay-at- home defenseman.
First off, the trade Doug Armstrong made with Ron Hextall to get Brayden Schenn was an absolute robbery. Jori Lehtera and a first round pick (which turned into Morgan Frost) seemed like a vast underpayment for a 25-year- old center that has been around 50 points per season the majority of his career. Now, it looks even worse as Schenn is blowing those numbers out of the water sitting seventh in league scoring with 10G and 20A in 27 games. He is loving life playing alongside Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko on the Blues top line. While there was no question about Schenn’s talent, the level he is playing at this year is truly surprising. He looks downright dominant most nights adding skill, poise, physicality and dogged determination to the Blues lineup. St. Louis currently sits third in the Western Conference with their record at 17-8- 2 and one must wonder if Schenn is the piece that will finally allow them to slay their playoff demons.
Welllllllll.. perhaps I shouldn’t have been so critical on Ron Hextall in the paragraph
before. Sean Couturier has been a revelation for the Flyers so far this season and has eased the burden of losing Schenn. Partnered with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek the former 8th overall pick has rediscovered the scoring touch he left behind in Drummondville. Regarded primarily as a shutdown center, Couturier has changed everyone’s perception with his scorching start. He has 14G and 12A in 26 games and is a part of one of the most dangerous lines in hockey. The fact that his previous career high in points was only 39 makes Couturier one of the most surprising storylines in the NHL. Here’s a shout out to all of the people who picked him up in fantasy.
Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski
The lack of production from these two scintillating Sharks has been extremely disappointing. The bearded Burns was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season in which he had 29G and 47A from the backend. He was a force on the ice punishing opponents into the boards and on the scoresheet. In the past three seasons, only Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson has more points than Burns 211 on the blue-line. This makes it so shocking that so far this season Burns only has a paltry 1G and 11A in 25 games. His Sharks teammate Pavelski has not fared much better. Normally viewed as a model of consistency the Sharks leader up front only has 5G and 8A in the same 25 games. Between 2013-14 and 2016-17 Pavelski has put up seasons with 79, 70, 78, and 68 points respectively while scoring 145 goals. The Sharks once dynamic offense has dried up in the California sun and has them sitting at second last in the league in goals scored. San Jose is miraculously in a wildcard spot thanks in large part to the play of Martin Jones and Logan Couture but if these two can’t get out of their slumps soon the Sharks might be added to the endangered species list.