Early Season Overreactions
We’ve been treated to eight days of NHL action, which means overreaction season has officially arrived. Hot starts have buoyed the cup hopes of several fan bases, while others are ready to riot after watching their preseason favorites fall flat out of the gate.
History tells us not to put too much stock in the first few games of an NHL season (it was only a year ago that Devils fans were chanting for Lindy Ruff to be fired during their second straight loss, only to offer him an equally theatrical apology a month later once their shooting luck improved). That being said, these small sample sizes are all we have to look at, so let’s have some fun with the biggest storylines of opening week!
Pandemonium in the Pacific
A wise man once said the Pacific Division is the deepest and most fun division in hockey (alright, it was me, gotta celebrate the victories as they come), with six of the eight teams equipped to compete in the playoffs. Over the past week they’ve exceeded expectations in the form of unpredictable chaos, as last season’s hungry outsiders have stormed out of the gate while three of last year’s playoff squads have sputtered. Meanwhile the defending Stanley Cup Champions picked up right where they left off, opening the season with a four game win streak. As impressive as the Golden Knights’ start has been, it was overshadowed by the biggest storyline of the season so far.
Vancouver Canucks Sweep Edmonton Oilers in Season Opening Series
Yes, you read that correctly, and “sweep” doesn’t really even do it justice. My preseason dark horse pick absolutely eviscerated the best player in the world and his cup contending teammates, pumping Edmonton 8-1 in a home opener to remember. They followed it up three days later with a resilient 4-3 road victory, putting a bow on the home & home series and sending Oilers fans into premature panic mode.
Captain Quinn Hughes
All eyes were on the star defenseman Wednesday prior to puck drop, as a collection of legendary former Vancouver captains gathered on the ice to literally hand him the C in the form of a heartwarming sweater exchange. The 15th captain in Canucks history carried that emotion with his play, racking up 3 assists in the opening night blowout win and adding another on his 24th birthday during the rematch in Edmonton.
Brock Boeser’s Big Night
The buzz surrounding Hughes quickly shifted to Boeser, as the American sniper exploded for four goals to steal the show in the season opener. He added an assist Saturday night, and once again looks like the dynamic threat that finished 2nd in Calder voting in 2017-18. Since that season, injuries and family tragedy have plagued Boeser’s career, resulting in on-ice struggles that fueled criticism from fans and trade rumors from the media. It’s great to see him healthy and engaged, because the sky’s the limit for a guy this talented.
The Rick Tocchet Effect
While Hughes and Boeser drew headlines, Vancouver’s victories were complete team efforts. Elias Petterson looks like a man on a mission in a big contract year, racking up a goal and five assists while playing with a physical edge we’ve never seen before from the skinny Swede. JT Miller has been a ravenous dog on a bone, attacking the puck and causing chaos in all three zones. Connor Garland, who’s agent was recently granted permission to pursue a trade for a change of scenery and some salary cap relief, may not want to leave if this continues: he scored the first goal of the season and has earned himself a spot on the top line by way of his outrageous possession metrics (57.4CF% and 54.5FF%).
The list goes on, as virtually every Canuck has shown a renewed competitive drive, attention to detail, and commitment to structure and support in all three zones. Even Thatcher Demko, who saved 21 of 22 shots in the season opener did so while battling a brutal flu. The coaching staff eventually forced him to leave the game in the third period when he threw up in his goalie mask, but you never would have known he was sick based on his exceptional play in net. This team looks like a battle hardened group, a far cry from the clown show that occupied Rogers Arena in seasons past, and head coach Rick Tocchet is a huge reason for that.
A 6th round pick by the Flyers in the 1983 draft, Tocchet made a name for himself over a 1,144 game career as a do-it-all power forward with the talent to play with star linemates and the physicality to punish anyone who dared to touch them. He holds the all time record for Gordie Howe hat tricks with 18, and has embedded that hard working, versatile style of play into the culture of his teams as a head coach. He made a visible impact after being hired in the middle of last season, and now after a full offseason and training camp he’s transformed these Canucks into an organized, relentless machine that constantly pressured the Oilers without abandoning their defensive responsibilities. His demanding style of leadership seems to be exactly what this franchise needed after years of directionless mediocrity, and he seems prepared to maintain his lofty standards throughout the season.
Tuesday morning, rather than basking in the glory of back to back victories, Tocchet ran a high paced, physical practice featuring battle drills where he was heard barking “earn your ice time!” ahead of their next game in Philadelphia. Perhaps he had some extra motivation to win in the city that drafted him as a player, but I believe this is just how he is. He demands effort and attention to detail from every player on the roster, and that’s why this Canucks team has the potential to sustain this success.
Unfortunately for Tocchet, his team wasn’t able to get the win in his old stomping grounds. They looked out of sync in the first two periods, and the energetic Flyers jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. Despite a much better third period effort, the Canucks couldn’t get anything past Carter Hart and that score held until the final buzzer. I’ll write off the beginning of this one due to a ludicrous 6:00 Eastern start time (the Canucks are normally deep in their pregame naps on the west coast at this hour) and maybe the intense pregame practice played a role, but their 3rd period response was encouraging. I expect them to pick right back up where they left off Thursday night when they take on the Lightning in Tampa.
Edmonton’s Special Teams Struggle
The Oilers leaned heavily on their record setting power play last season, converting on 32.36% of their opportunities with the man advantage. Every member of their elite top unit returned this season, but they were constantly bothered by Vancouver’s aggressive penalty kill and looked a little disjointed. They looked much more like themselves Tuesday night in Nashville, snapping the puck around with ease until Leon Draisaitl buried it into the back of the net on two of their three opportunities.
What does worry me is their penalty kill. The Vancouver power play absolutely torched them for four goals on nine opportunities, and Nashville’s 21st ranked unit only needed three chances to pump one past them. The Oilers PK ranked 20th in the league last season at 76.98%, not great but far better than what they showed in these games. That number needs to improve dramatically if they want to compete in this league, and while the Canucks boast a lot of talent on the man advantage, the delayed reactions and missed reads from Edmonton’s defenders made life way too easy for them.
Behind the defenders, Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner both had rough runs in net. I’m not going to roast them too much here, as many of the goals they allowed were nearly impossible to stop, but you’d like to see them step up to make at least one or two key saves at big moments of the game. Campbell did just that in Nashville, stopping 42 of 43 shots in a bounce-back performance. They need more nights like that from him.
Missing Mattias Ekholm
A big part of Edmonton’s defensive issues, both on the penalty kill and at even strength, should be resolved by the return of their only true defensive blueliner. After acquiring Ekholm ahead of last year’s trade deadline, the Oilers D corps looked like an entirely different unit. No longer was Darnell Nurse asked to play like a number one defenseman in all three zones (an impossible feat for him even though he’s paid like one). Evan Bouchard could focus on the offensive elements of his game. Guys like Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak saw their ice time shrink to more appropriate levels against weaker competition. Most importantly, Ekholm gave Edmonton a dependable, stabilizing force they could count on to defend leads late in games against opposing superstars.
With Ekholm unavailable for the opener due to a hip flexor injury, all of those benefits vanished. Nearly every Edmonton defender looked lost and overmatched with the increased responsibility of filling his shoes, and the entire team struggled to deny rush opportunities and execute clean breakouts.
Fortunately he was able to return Saturday night and the Oilers looked much more cohesive, but after missing preseason games Ekholm didn’t quite look like himself. He only played 15:47, a far cry from his career average of 21:46, and didn’t look quite as sharp as usual. He looked much better Tuesday against his former team, logging over 19 minutes and forcing Nashville’s speedy young forwards out of the dangerous areas of the ice As long as he remains healthy I expect him to be back up to speed in no time and the Oilers should resume their winning ways, but if he goes down again we all saw how much he’ll be missed.
I loved the response from Edmonton on Tuesday, they were absolutely flying from the opening faceoff and pounded four goals past Juuse Saros to send the Vezina winner to the bench before the end of the 1st period. As long as they stay healthy and get quality goaltending they’ll be near the top of the division by the end of the season. What happens after that depends on the habits they develop over the course of the year, as they’ve developed a reputation for shooting themselves in the foot during the postseason. We won’t worry about that right now though, the vibes are much better in Edmonton after a resounding 6-1 road win to bank their first two points of the season.
Kings Pay A Ransom for Pierre-Luc Dubois
The Dubois sweepstakes was one of the offseason’s biggest storylines. After deciding he didn’t want to play for a team after they spent premium assets to get him for the second time in his young career, the star center informed the Jets that he would not be signing a long term extension in Winnipeg. After a summer of speculation and uncertainty, the Kings emerged atop the list of potential suitors by convincing Dubois that he would finally be happy playing in sunny California. Dubois’ services certainly didn’t come cheap, as GM Rob black had to ship a significant chunk of his depth chart to Winnipeg as compensation for Dubois’ negotiating rights. Three promising young players on team-friendly contracts: Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari, and Gabe Vilardi, are now playing significant roles for the Jets while the Kings are spending over 10% of their salary cap on a 2nd line center who can take over games when he chooses to do so but looks like a liability when he doesn’t.
We’ve already seen both sides of the Dubois experience this season. He looked lethargic and disengaged for long stretches while failing to record a point (although he did record his first penalty of the season for a nasty knee-on-knee hit) and earning a -2 rating as the Kings were blown out by the powerhouse Avalanche on opening night. He then failed to contribute much more than net-front traffic as his teammates rallied from a 5-2 deficit to force overtime in an eventual shootout loss to Carolina. Dubois finally turned it on Tuesday night in his return to Winnipeg. He looked like an entirely different player, scoring a power play goal and using his physicality to power through his former teammates and punish them during post-whistle scrums.
I’ll concede that it’s not uncommon for star players to take some time to adapt to a new system, and opening the season against two of the best teams in the NHL makes it even more difficult. If Dubois continues to play the way he did in his emotional return to the great white north, this deal could transform the Kings from playoff participants to cup contenders. I’m not convinced it will happen based on his well-documented history of inconsistent effort (the most famous example took place right here in Columbus) but he’s got eight years to prove me wrong in LA. Honestly I hope he does, because he’s an absolute joy to watch when he’s at his best, and hockey fans deserve to see more of that.
Sleepless Nights for the Seattle Kraken
Rounding out our Pacific Storylines is the NHL’s newest franchise, who must be tossing and turning thinking about their 0-3-1 start after a storybook season in 2022-23 elevated the expectations of their fanbase. Seattle took a giant leap forward during their second year of existence, finishing with 100 points and earning their first Stanley Cup Playoff berth. They went on to upset the defending champion Avalanche as a wildcard team, then came within a single win of defeating Dallas for a trip to the Western Conference Final.
The Kraken accomplished these feats by wearing down opponents with four lines of relentless pressure. They relied on skilled depth to make up for their lack of starpower and embraced a firewagon pace of play to dismantle defensive structures and outscore their problems in net. This formula won the hearts of hockey fans around the globe and filled the bank accounts of those who love to bet the over. To fully appreciate the Kraken’s tactics, watch how they won this barnburner in LA that quite possibly ended Cal Petersen’s career as an NHL goaltender.
While this style of play is an absolute treat to watch, most coaches hate it because it’s not a reliable way to consistently win games once your opponents know what to expect. The Kraken recognized this ahead of the playoffs as Phillip Grubauer began to provide them with serviceable goaltending. They tightened up their defensive structure and emphasized puck possession while leaning more heavily on their depth. They began using their pace to sustain offensive pressure for extended periods of time, relying on fatigue to break down defenses instead of chaotic quick-strikes. These adjustments are the primary reason they took down Colorado.
The Kraken have actually been even better at generating offensive pressure this season, owning 54% of the high danger scoring chances as opposed to 49.9% last year. The problem lies in their ability to convert those chances into goals, successfully doing so only 2.9% of the time. Their total team shooting percentage is even worse, ranking dead last in the league, at 2.4%. While they’ve faced talented goaltenders in the first four games of the season, these numbers are so ridiculously low that their offensive futility has to be chocked up to laughably bad luck.
The Kraken have struggled in their own end of the ice as well. The departure of Carson Soucey didn’t help, as the intelligent defender was a steadying force on the blue line. His replacement, Brian Dumoulin, brought in veteran experience and a Stanley Cup pedigree, but his age is catching up with him and he’s struggled to keep up with Seattle’s speed.
These issues have been amplified by the fact that the Kraken’s performance in the playoffs earned them a giant target on their back. Seattle caught a lot of teams by surprise last year, and by the time the rest of the league realized they were no longer a doormat they were playing with confidence and building momentum. This year, every team they face knows the Kraken will make you work, and they’re prepared to remain disciplined to weather their four-line attack until the opportunity arises to capitalize on a mistake.
I’m not concerned about Seattle yet, as long as they maintain their composure and continue to play their game. Their shooting percentages are due for a positive regression, and they’ve proven that they can play with the best teams in the league. The only thing that could sink them is a departure from the game plan and a lack of confidence, which may become a real concern if they don’t record a win in the near future. For now though, I expect this competitive group to stay the course and hope the hockey gods start smiling upon them.
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Hot Hands in The Atlantic
While the Pacific has dominated most of my attention over the past week, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some noteworthy performances in the East. The Atlantic Division features an abundance of young talent, and a couple of those kids are working to drag their squads out of arduous rebuilds and bring playoff hockey back to their ravenous fanbases. Meanwhile, an established superstar is on a mission to reclaim his goal scoring title and bring Lord Stanley back to the center of the hockey universe.
Auston Matthews is Back, Baby!
After signing a four year contract extension that will make him the highest paid player in the league when it kicks in next summer, Auston Matthews is showing everyone that slaying the Maple Leafs’ first round playoff demons wasn’t enough for him. He’s now locked up in Toronto through 2027-28, and he’s finally healthy again after nagging wrist injuries hampered his production last year. He opened the season in explosive fashion, recording back-to-back hat tricks against Montreal and Minnesota to take the lead in the Rocket Richard race. Taking the goal scoring title back from Connor McDavid has to be on his mind, but his primary focus is helping the Leafs win their first cup since 1967.
Detroit Loves DeBrincat
With three goals and five points in his first three games as a Red Wing, Alex DeBrincat is loving life with his new team, and the feeling is mutual. He’s found instant chemistry with top line center Dylan Larkin, and the two of them have helped Detroit earn a solid record of 2-1-0 to keep pace in their competitive division. I was skeptical when the Red Wings brought DeBrincat in from Ottawa, as he didn’t appear to be more than a shooting threat and never looked comfortable without Patrick Kane setting him up. He’s proven me wrong so far, playing with energy and creating scoring chances with a revamped Detroit squad that looks to be finally emerging from an endless rebuild.
Brady Tkachuk’s Hot Start Sparks the Senators
Without the services of DeBrincat, someone needed to step up and score for the Senators. Look no further than captain Brady Tkachuk. The 24 year old bowling ball has four goals and five points, leading the team in both categories. He was stupendous in a statement win over the Lightning on Sunday, and the rest of his squad is following his lead. They’re playing fast, heavy, disciplined hockey and are looking to build on their 2-1-0 record when they host the Washington Capitals Wednesday night.
This is an article written by Aaron Kinney
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