We are nearly a week into the 2021-22 NHL regular season, which is just enough time to start freaking out about teams and players defying or failing to meet expectations.
Here’s a look a 10 first impressions made since the season started back on Tuesday, and whether they’re delusional or harbingers of things to come.
The Edmonton Oilers star opened the season with two assists against the Vancouver Canucks and then a hat trick against the Calgary Flames. The five-point burst is his hottest start since the 2016-17 season and puts him on track to score 200 points this season.
The verdict: SLIGHT OVERREACTION. While we’d never assume McDavid is incapable of anything offensively, there’s a reason the NHL hasn’t had a 200-point season since Wayne Gretzky tallied 215 in the 1985-86 campaign. And that reason is Connor McDavid isn’t playing in the 1980s, when defense was a mere suggestion and goaltending equipment was fun-sized.
But if McDavid repeats his 1.88 points-per-game average from last season, he could be the first player to crack 150 points since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, which would be no small feat.
The Sabres were completely written off entering the season, with star Jack Eichel awaiting surgery and a trade out of town, and with second-leading scorer Sam Reinhart now in Florida. But rather than tank for additional lottery balls right away, Buffalo won its first two games and outscored its opponents 6-2 in the process.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. Those first two opponents were the Montreal Canadiens (0-3), who look positively rudderless without goalie Carey Price (who is in the NHL player assistance program) and defenseman Shea Weber (out for the season, and perhaps longer, with injuries); and the Arizona Coyotes, who are apparently trying to win the Shane Wright draft lottery in the first month of the season.
Still, it’s a happy start for the Sabres. Maybe they’ll continue to “Ewing Theory” their way to wins without Eichel. Maybe they’ll squeeze a few more .968-save-percentage performances out of Craig Anderson, defying age and expectation and logic. Or maybe this is just another season when a fast start in Buffalo is a distant memory a month later as the Sabres dwell in the basement.
The Philadelphia Flyers goalie is trying to build back his confidence after a disastrous 2020-21 season that saw him finish last in the NHL in goals saved above average at minus-16.7. After a solid preseason, he started his first regular-season game against the Vancouver Canucks and gave up four goals on 39 shots — including this stinker.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. Flyers fans are already worried about Hart after one game, but he stopped 26 of 26 shots in the first, third and overtime periods in that loss. He’s scheduled to start on Monday against Seattle in the first game for new Flyers defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, for whatever that’s worth. Hart showed enough on opening night to at least inspire some hope that he’s crawling out of his abyss. The alternative is free-agent signing Martin Jones. So keep crawling, Mr. Hart.
Jeremy Colliton will be the first coach fired
The Chicago Blackhawks opened the season going 0-2-1, giving up 13 goals in those games (4.33 GAA) despite the return of center Jonathan Toews and additions of defenseman Seth Jones and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to the lineup. Colliton, the team’s 36-year-old coach in his fourth season behind the bench, is feeling the heat.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. “I have a lot of confidence in the team we have [and] the coaching staff,” Blackhawks star Patrick Kane said. Well, that makes one of us. The Hawks have been the third-worst team defensively in the NHL during Colliton’s tenure, and you could sense the culture shock for Fleury going from the goal-stopping structure in Vegas to the chaos in Chicago’s system.
On The Drop, I predicted Colliton would be the first coach fired, and there’s been little to sway that opinion. There’s too much at stake for Chicago, and too many available coaches whose hiring could directly address the team’s biggest shortcoming. Claude Julien, for one.
The Jets opened the season with two stunning losses. Star goalie Connor Hellebuyck posted a putrid .849 save percentage, and stars like Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers went scoreless. The Knights outlasted the Kraken on opening night but were blasted by the Kings in their second game. But the worst news: Winger Max Pacioretty is out six weeks with a foot fracture, while star Mark Stone is reportedly day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. The Jets lost to the Ducks and the Sharks to open the season, which is not ideal. Especially since they blew a two-goal lead to San Jose. As has been the case for years: As Hellebuyck goes, so go the Winnipeg Jets. If for some reason he’s average this season, the Jets could be in trouble within a very competitive Central Division.
Vegas has played through manpower losses before, but losing two-thirds of one of its top lines would be tough, assuming Stone misses a few games. The Knights already have a couple of nagging questions about lineup chemistry and the crease being handed to Robin Lehner this season. One hopes the injury bug stays away, because a few bites can take down a contending team. Ask the 2020-21 Dallas Stars about that.
The California teams will challenge for a playoff spot
The San Jose Sharks won their first game, while the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks are both off to 1-1 starts. All three teams were expected to bring up the rear in in the Pacific Division, but have looked better than expected early.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. OK, maybe not all of them will challenge for a playoff spot, as the Sharks’ time as a contender is over. But the Kings are getting the kinds of star performances out of center Anze Kopitar (seven points) and defenseman Drew Doughty (six points) that say “we’re tired of losing, so we’re going to drag the kids in our lineup to relevance this season.”
If goalie John Gibson is healthy, the Ducks could be another team outkicking its coverage, with a blend of established veterans meshing with young stars Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish and Jamie Drysdale. The Pacific is anything but predictable this season.
The Seattle Kraken don’t score enough to contend
The Kraken are 1-1-1 in their inaugural season, scoring three goals in a loss in Vegas, four goals in their first franchise win at Nashville and just the one goal against the Blue Jackets. Of the eight goals they’ve scored, five have come from Brandon Tanev (three) and Jared McCann (two).
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. The keys to the Kraken’s first-year success were always going to be found on defense. It was going to be the way they possessed the puck, suppressed shots and scoring chances for opponents, and relied on Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger to do the rest. (Grubauer, it should be said, hasn’t been stellar yet.)
But their potential as a playoff team was always going to be determined by how many goals they generated. Their top line with McCann, Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle has to be dominant at 5-on-5 in a way that it hasn’t been. But mostly, their defensemen need to generate goals to make up for any deficiencies up front.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The Penguins have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (or both) out of their lineup, yet win games at an impressive clip to thrive in their division. It’s happened again this season, with Pittsburgh going 2-0-1 with a plus-6 goal differential to lead the Metro Division after three games.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. That the Penguins are winning without Crosby isn’t a surprise. Nor is the notion that they’re looking like a playoff team. Nor is the fact that the much-maligned Tristan Jarry has looked strong so far this season, given his regular-season work history. But it would be a surprise if the team ultimately contended for the Stanley Cup, because despite this execution and fortitude, it still has some considerable lineup challenges. Hey, maybe Sid and Geno need to miss the playoffs, too …
Jack Campbell will win the Vezina Trophy
The Maple Leafs goalie had the NHL’s best save percentage (.968) and goals-against average (0.86) through three appearances this season — two starts and a relief appearance after Petr Mrazek was injured.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. He didn’t get any Vezina love last season despite his 17-3-2 record for Toronto. Perhaps that changes after a second strong season between the pipes. He could be set up for one: getting the majority of the starts ahead of an injury-prone Mrazek, and playing behind a very good defensive team.
The Islanders are the worst team in the New York City area
The Isles stumbled out of the gate with an 0-2-0 record and a very uncharacteristic minus-7 goal differential. The Rangers are 1-1-1 after a blowout loss in Washington, an overtime loss to Dallas and their first win of the season at Montreal. The New Jersey Devils have played one game, but it was a doozy: an overtime win over Chicago that featured Jack Hughes scoring twice and hurling his stick into the crowd in celebration.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. It’s impossible to comprehend a Barry Trotz-coached team not finding its defensive groove eventually. It’s entirely possible that the Rangers and Devils aren’t yet on the Islanders’ level as a contender. With that said, the Rangers have yet to get their offense cranked up, and the Devils showed some real spark with Dougie Hamilton joining a young lineup.
The Islanders are still the team most likely to hold a Stanley Cup parade in the New York metro area next summer, but their rivals are gaining on them.