For anyone who has missed the first month of the 2017-2018 NHL season, let me first say how sorry I am for you. You have missed an incredible month filled with not only the world’s best hockey, but with all the off-ice drama a sports fan could hope for. Whether you spent your October nights watching five-hour playoff baseball games, or devoting every waking moment to your fantasy football team, do not worry. Here are the five biggest NHL storylines that will catch you up on what’s been going on across the league:
(1) Matt Duchene Is No Longer a Colorado Avalanche
After months of speculation and rumors, the Colorado Avalanche finally traded disgruntled star, Matt Duchene. It seems that at one point or another during this period, every franchise had been rumored to be trading for the 26-year old Canadian. Duchene has not been himself the last couple of seasons, as evidenced by his declining numbers. Last season, he registered a mere 41 points, despite playing in 77 games, his lowest total since the 2011-2012 season (28 points in 58 games).
Duchene will get his fresh start with the Ottawa Senators after Ottawa, Colorado, and Nashville, engaged in a three-team trade. Nashville acquired Kyle Turris, and immediately signed him to a six-year extension. Colorado got a haul of prospects and draft picks and can now begin focusing on the next stage of their rebuilding process (never mind that selecting Duchene was supposed to be the beginning of a rebuilding process in the first place). With Duchene off the books, we can start speculating on which of the Avalanche’s young, high-value assets will be the next to move: Nathan McKinnon or Gabriel Landeskog.
If the notion of a three team, blockbuster trade involving two (arguable) first line centers is not enough to get the juices flowing, hockey fans can look forward to Duchene’s debut for his new team. As luck would have it, Duchene will be joining the Sens for a two-game stint in Sweden this weekend against…you guessed it… the Colorado Avalanche. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
(2) The Las Vegas Golden Knights Are… Kind Of Awesome.
In October, for the first time ever, the hottest hockey story was coming from… Nevada. As has been thoroughly documented (https://factfictfant.com/2017/10/23/the-las-vegas-golden-knights-hockeys-golden-goose/), the Vegas Golden Knights have gotten off to the best start ever by an expansion team. A heavy dose of early home games allowed the team to build a rapport and develop some team chemistry. However, its been their high-octane offense that has allowed this team to keep rolling into November. Vegas is getting goals from everyone. The team is playing at an incredibly fast-pace, and are constantly attacking, making them one of the most exciting teams to watch.
Despite their place atop the NHL standings, October has not been a perfect month for this new franchise.
For one thing, the Knights cannot seam to keep their goalies healthy. Having lost their top three goaltenders in Marc-Andre Fleury, Malcolm Subban, and Oscar Dansk, Vegas has turned to Maxime Lagace to hold down the fort. After back to back losses against the Islanders and Rangers, Vegas picked up a much needed win in Ottawa, holding off a furious late rally by the Sens.
Further, Vadim Shipachyov, the Russian prospect who came to play for Vegas only to be sent down to the AHL, left the team and returned home to Russia. Shipachyov had joined the team with the impression that he would see NHL minutes from the get-go and was very disappointed to be immediately sent down to the minors (even though his demotion had nothing to do with talent). Ultimately, Shipachyov decided that playing in the best hockey league in the world wasn’t worth the hassle and returned home to Russia. Playing in the KHL will net him more money and give him a chance to play for Russia in the upcoming winter Olympics. And thus ended the Shipachyov experiment.
Looking ahead, Vegas has a ton of road games this month. Only four of their 13 November games will be in the confines of T-Mobile Arena. As Vegas makes its way through Eastern Canada, they will look to continue to surprise everyone and remain golden.
(3) Will The Tampa Bay Lightning Continue to Strike?
After the first month of the season, the Lightning have the best record in the NHL. Further, they are dominating most statistical categories. Captain Steven Stamkos leads the league with 25 points. Nikita Kucherov seems to be scoring in almost every game and leads the league with 14 goals. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, in his first season as a starting NHL goaltender, leads the league with 11 wins. Further, the Lighting lead the league with 3.87 goals per game. With the league average hovering around 3.05, Tampa hasn’t just been winning. They are doing it convincingly.
Working in Tampa’s favor is that most of the other teams in the Atlantic division have gotten off to slow starts. This has given the Lighting a seven-point lead after one month.
As teams start to focus primarily on Kucherov, Tampa’s other offensive weapons (of which they have many), will have to step up. It appears as though the Atlantic already belongs to the Lightning.
(4) Will These Teams Rebound After Slow Octobers?
Predictions often aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. After all, there is a reason teams actually play the games. But even a casual fan can look at a couple of teams heading into the season and confidently say that they will make the playoffs come spring time. Unfortunately for the following pre-season prediction darlings, they will need to seriously step up their games if they hope to get within spitting distance of a wild card spot.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers were definitely a sexy preseason pick to win it all this year, or at least finish atop the Western conference. Fresh off a playoff run that came just short of the Conference Finals, the Oilers looked ready to take that next step and showcase their dominance. However, the Oilers have stumbled out of the gate and sit near the bottom of the Pacific division with a 4-8-1 record. While the Oilers defense has long been questioned, their offense has suffered as well, as the Oilers currently have a -13 goal differential against their opponents. The Oilers need their big guns, McDavid, Draisaitl, and Cam Talbot, to regain their form from last spring if they are going to have any shot at rebounding and rising up the division standings.
Anaheim Ducks: Joining the Oilers as a huge disappointment within the Pacific division are the Ducks, who sit just atop the Oilers in the standing with 14 points (6-6-2). Unlike the Oilers, however, the Ducks’ early season struggles are much easier to explain. The Ducks have been facing serious injuries, and many of them. Missing from the Ducks’ lineup are players like captain Ryan Getzlaf, veterans Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves, as well as one of their top defensemen, Cam Fowler. The Ducks have been holding down the fort, thanks to goaltender John Gibson, and are doing the best they can. But for a team that has been consistently atop the Western conference, that might not be enough. Once the Ducks have their full lineup, they should shoot up the Pacific division rankings. Hopefully it will not be too late by then.
Montreal Canadiens: In a hockey-crazed city like Montreal, the expectations are sky-high every season, no matter the roster. Unfortunately, it looks like that faith may have been seriously misplaced heading into this season. While the Habs overhauled their defense in the offseason, all that turnover and the accompanying growing pains are showing themselves on the ice. This, combined with Carey Price’s early season struggles had gotten the Habs off to one of the worst starts in franchise history (and the Habs have been around a long time, so that’s saying something!). Finally, while the Canadiens offense has looked subpar for a while now, it seemed to hit new lows with awful play from captain Max Pacioretty, who was playing some of the worst hockey of his career. No other offensive players fared any better. Clearly the Habs had many issues to work on. Notably, despite an injury to Carey Price, things are starting to look up for Montreal. The team has won four of its last five games and done so with perennial backup Al Montoya and minor league call-up Charlie Lindgren in nets. The Atlantic Division as a whole has looked pretty bad this season so the Canadiens only find themselves four points out of second place in the division. If they can keep this up, that gap should close pretty fast.
(5) Can These Surprising Teams Keep It up?
For all the underachievers this season, there have been some welcome surprises near the top of the standings. No one saw these teams competing for a playoff spot come spring. While that is a long time away, it will be interesting to see which of these teams can keep up their pace into November.
New Jersey Devils: Okay. Raise your hands if you had the Devils leading the Metropolitan division in November. If your hand is up right now, put it down, because you are a liar. No one expected much from the Devils this season, which makes their first month of the season so hard to believe. Even harder to believe is that a large part of this success is thanks to players that many NHL fans couldn’t pick out of a line up. Besides Taylor Hall, who leads the team with 17 points, the Devils’ top point leaders are Jesper Bratt (6th round draft pick), Will Butcher (5th round draft pick), and 2017 first overall pick, Niko Hischier. Offensively, the Devils are taking care of business. Even more surprising has been the team’s strong defensive start. The Devils have a +7 goal differential, which has propelled them to their 9-3-1 start. Further, they have gotten spectacular play from goaltenders Corey Schneider (6-2), as well as back up Keith Kinkaid (3-1-1). In one of the most competitive divisions in hockey, the Devils will have their work cut out for them moving forward.
Los Angeles Kings: Off to the league’s best start, the 11-2-2 Kings are having their way with the league. With a +17 goal differential, they are routinely forcing the action and are the more aggressive team on the ice. Further, with their lead-leading penalty kill (91.8%), and league-best goal-against/game (2.21), teams are having a hard time finding any offense against the Kings. Even when things are tight, the Kings still seem to find ways to pull out the win. Take for instance their game against the Bruins, where with .9 seconds on the clock, the Kings won an offensive-zone face off, and scored with .4 remaining to win the game in overtime. The Kings are looking to regain their status as one of the elite Western conference teams, and through October, are proving many doubters wrong. Counting Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick on the roster, perhaps the bigger surprise is how many doubters there were to begin with.
Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Times