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Around the NHL: Week One

Every Wednesday we will take a tour around the NHL and, despite playing one game in the first week, the Oilers are still part of the NHL. It has been an odd start for the Oilers, but also for the Devils, Panthers and Lightning who have only played once. I understand the Oilers and Devils solo game due to travel to Sweden, but it is very strange that Tampa and Florida have only played once.

The last time teams played only one game in the first week of the season was October, 2011 when the Jets, Sharks and Oilers only played once. It doesn’t happen often, but by the end of the month the Oilers and Lightning will almost be caught up to Toronto, San Jose and Carolina, who have already played four games.

The Oilers, Lightning, Panthers and Devils don’t play their second game until tomorrow evening and by then Philadelphia, Ottawa, Anaheim and Vegas will also have played four games.

The Oilers and Lightning play ten games between October 11th and 31st and will finish the month with eleven games played. Ottawa will be at eleven, Toronto, San Jose, Philadelphia, Vegas and Carolina will be at 12, while Anaheim will sit at 13.

The Devils and Panthers will only have played nine games by the time you are watching highlights and raiding your children’s Halloween candy.

GOOD STARTS…

Does a good start matter? Conventional wisdom says it does, but it isn’t always the case. Last year after the first week of the season, four teams were undefeated. St.Louis was 4-0, while Toronto, Vegas and Chicago were 3-0. The Blues actually finished October at 10-2-1, tied with Tampa Bay for the best record in the NHL.

The Blues went 34-30-5 in their final 69 games and missed the playoffs by one point. Dallas and Vancouver were also in a playoff spot on November 1st, sitting fourth and fifth respectively in the west, but they too missed the postseason. In the East, the New York Islanders (4th), Ottawa (6th) and Detroit (8th) were also in the playoff picture on October 31st, but missed the postseason. So 37.5% of the teams in a playoffs spot the morning of November 1st didn’t make it. In 2016 the stats said 77% of teams in the playoffs on November 1st, remained there, but in recent years that number has increased.

Many teams are only out of a playoff spot by 1-3 points on November 1st, so it makes sense we see a lot of change, but teams who have very bad starts, and are four or more points out on November 1st, rarely claw their way back in. Last season, New York Rangers (10 points in 13 games), Carolina (9 points), Florida (9), Montreal (9), Buffalo (8), Edmonton (7) and Arizona (3) were unable to overcome a slow start.

The Panthers had a great second half and finished with 96 points, but still missed the playoffs by one point. The rest weren’t close as the Hurricanes (83 points), Oilers (78), Rangers (77), Montreal (71), Arizona (70), Ottawa (67) and Buffalo (62) were out of the playoff race by the end of January.

Your team doesn’t need to be in a playoff spot at the end of the month, but if they aren’t within three points on November 1st, their chances of making the playoffs are slim.

EARLY OFFENCE…

We have seen a lot of goals through seven days of NHL hockey, but is it an increase over last season? Teams have scored 260 goals through 41 games this season for an average of 6.34 goals/game. Last year through the first week, teams scored 274 goals in 45 games for an average of 6.08 goals/game.

So yes, early on goal scoring is up 0.26 goals/game from last season. The early increase is a positive sign. Last year teams finished the season averaging 6.05 goals/game (not much of a decrease from the first month), so if teams mirror the same minor drop and finish the season at 6.31 goals/game, then NHL fans would see a total of 312 more goals than last season.

GOALIE CHANGES…

In August Kevin Woodley from In Goal Magazine was on my show and he mentioned how Carey Price was going to be changing his stance and becoming more narrow. This past weekend Hockey Night In Canada had a visual showing the difference stance.

Price looks very different, but he isn’t the only goalie who altered his stance. John Gibson also did, and he’s off to an incredible start. The Ducks are 3-0 despite being outshot 95-62. Gibson has a sparkling .958sv% and a 1.30 GAA. He won’t sustain those numbers all season, but his off-season adjustment is paying off. Woodley discussed Price, but then went into detail on what Gibson is doing differently now.

“This summer we talked about Price narrowing up his stance, keeping his feet under him and not getting as committed to the shot in terms of getting himself spread out, something that plagued him a little bit uncharacteristically last year and you’re seeing the results now. You saw it highlighted on Hockey Night in Canada with graphics showing how much narrower he is. He still goes into the wider stance, he’s just not committing to that final save stance as early as he did.

“One of the adjustments Sergei Bobrovsky made to go from afterthought in Philly, to two-time Vezina trophy winner in Columbus is that he developed a three stance system. It’s not like there’s one cut and dry stance. Gibson to me looks like he’s standing over pucks, and tracking pucks better. There’s actually a goalie coach who used to work with junior goalies who pointed this out to me and he’s right. Rather than opening up on shots, Gibson has narrowed up as well and looks a little more reactive, not opening up and pulling away with the limbs to catch pucks that are outside of his body, but more naturally transitioning his body into those shots. Closing on pucks, rather than opening up on them and relying too much on his hands.  It’s something I thought he always did well on low shots, but poorly in his movements. He’s better on his movements and high shots as well, he’s really staying over the puck better.

“I said a couple of years ago that I thought they (Anaheim) chose the wrong guy, when they let Frederick Andersen go to keep Gibson. The reason I said that was because those movements and that opening up was one of the reasons he was always hurt. You’re sort of pulling your body apart with every motion. If you’re opening up in your save execution, even if you make the save, now everything is opened up and pulled apart in your recovery, and you’ve either got to delay in having to gather it back together to get a push edge, or you’re pushing from the opened up compromised position, and you’re asking your body to bend in ways it wasn’t naturally designed to do and that’s why he got hurt a lot. Making this adjustment in his game, it’s really easy to look back and say I was wrong, and Gibson who always had the talent could quite frankly pass Andersen and it could be me who was wrong about the Ducks decision going with Gibson.”

I really enjoy speaking with Woodley because he explains the nuances of goaltending very well. It is a position I’ve never really understood. Over the past three years speaking with him every Monday on my show, as well as over text and email, I’ve started to learn a lot more about goaltending. You can hear Woodley’s thoughts on Brian Elliott, Mike Smith, chest protector issues and is Jack Campbell capable of filling in for the injured Jonathon Quick.

PLAYERS AND HOT STARTS…

Oct 29, 2016; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri (43) reacts with teammates Zach Hyman (11) and Auston Matthews (34)after scoring a goal against Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) during the third period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Maple Leafs lead the NHL with 20 goals in four games, but they are actually behind last year’s pace when they had 19 goals in their first three games. The difference this year is that they are getting the bulk of their scoring from a few players. Austin Matthews has 7-3-10 in four games. John Tavares has six goals, Mitch Marner has scored 2-6-8 while defenceman Morgan Reilly has 2-8-10. Four players have accounted for 85% of their goals thus far. Last season they had six players with two goals and another seven players with one goal through their first three games. This year they are relying more on their top guys, which isn’t a big surprise considering William Nylander (contract stalemate), James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak aren’t on the team. I expect the Leafs to score a lot, but I don’t think it will be as spread out as it was last season.

2. Matthews and Tavares are lighting it up, goal-wise. I had Matthews scoring 50 goals this season, so I’m not stunned by his start, but remember that Alex Ovechkin had seven goals in his first three games last year and finished with 49. Matthews will slow down somewhat, but I hope he keeps scoring. The NHL is better when you have a 50-goal scorer, and it is more fun when there are multiple 50-goal men.

3. In 90 NHL seasons, the Maple Leafs have only had three players score 50 goals. Dave Andreychuk had 53 in 1994, Gary Leeman had 51 in 1990 and Rick Vaive did it three times scoring 54, 51, and 52 in consecutive seasons from 1982-1984. Matthews could become the first Leafs player in 25 years to score 50 goals.

4. Many teams have lengthy droughts when it comes to icing a 50-goal scorer.
Anaheim: Corey Perry in 2011
Arizona: Keith Tkachuk, 1997
Boston: Cam Neely, 1994
Buffalo: Pat Lafontaine, 1993
Calgary: Jarome Iginla, 2008
Carolina/Hartford: Blaine Stoughton, 1982
Chicago: Jeremy Roenick, 1993
Colorado: Milan Hejduk, 2003
Columbus: Yet to have one
Dallas: Mike Modano, 1994
Detroit: Ray Sheppard and Sergei Federov, 1994
Edmonton: Jari Kurri and Wayne Gretzky, 1987
Florida: Pavel Bure, 2001
Los Angeles: Luc Robitaille, 1993
Minnesota: Yet to have one.
Montreal: Stephane Richer, 1990
Nashville: Yet to have one
NYI: Pierre Turgeon, 1993
NYR: Jaromir Jagr, 2006
New Jersey: Never had one
Ottawa: Dany Heatley, 2007
Philadelphia: John Leclair, 1998
Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin, 2011
San Jose: Jonathon Cheechoo, 2006
St.Louis: Brendan Shanahan, 1994
Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos, 2011
Toronto: Dave Andreychuk, 1994
Vancouver: Pavel Bure, 1998
Vegas: Yet to have one
Washington: Alex Ovechkin, 2016
Winnipeg/Atlanta: Ilya Kovalchuk, 2008

Only ten fan bases have seen a 50-goal scorer in the 2000s, and one of them, Atlanta, is no longer in the league.

5. Morgan Reilly’s ten points in four games is very impressive for a defender. Erik Karlsson has only done that once in his career. He had 12 points in four games between October 20-26, 2011. He finished with 78 points. Brent Burns has never done it. The most he had was nine between January 5-11th, 2017. If you don’t have Reilly in your fantasy pool, you should strongly consider it. He was 15th among NHL D-men in scoring last season with 52 and I won’t be surprised to see him surpass 60 points this year.

6. A hot start for a team doesn’t guarantee season-long success, but what about individuals? Last season, Evgeny Kuznetsov led the NHL with 0-8-8 after the first week. Ovechkin had 7-0-0. Kuznetsov finished 19th in scoring with 83 points. Ovechkin led the NHL in goals with 49 and was 11th in scoring with 87 points. James Neal had five goals in three games, but scored only 20 goals in his next 68 games. Ryan Hartman had an unreal first week for him, scoring 1-5-6, before coming back to earth and producing 10-15-20 in his final 75 games.

7. Brandon Saad might have been the most disappointing player after week one. He had 5-2-7 in his first four games, but then scored 13-15-28 in his next 78 games. What started out so promising for Saad became his least productive season of his NHL career. The Blackhawks desperately need him to regain the form that saw him produce 47, 53, 52 and 52 points between 2014-2017.

8. Jonathon Toews is also coming off the lowest point total of his career (in a full season), as he produced 52 points. Like teammates Saad and Hartman, he started well with 2-3-5 in four games, but produced only 18-29-47 the rest of the way. Toews hired skill coach Adam Oates this past summer in hopes of producing more and he’s off to a great start with five goals and six points in three games.

9. Connor McDavid had a hat-trick on opening night last year, and he had 3-1-4 in his first three games. McDavid was actually tied for 47th in points, 11, at the end of October. He was 13 behind the leader Steven Stamkos, and ten back of Nikita Kucherov. He scored 97 points between November 1st and the end of the season compared to Kucherov’s 79 and Stamkos’ 62.

10. Players are able to overcome slow starts much better than teams. Of the players who finished the season top-ten in scoring, McDavid (108), Claude Giroux (102), Kucherov (100), Malkin (98), Nathan MacKinnon (97), Taylor Hall (93), Anze Kopitar and Phil Kessel (92), Blake Wheeler (91) and Sidney Crosby (89), only Kucherov was top-ten sitting 2nd.  These ten were the top-ten scorers between November 1st to April 8th, however.

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