This is the week in which we all give thanks for family, friends, good health and great food. Or, if you’re an NHL franchise, for residing in a Stanley Cup playoffs seed at the quarter mark of the season, because that usually means you’ll still be in one when the postseason begins.
Teams in playoff positions on Thanksgiving have made the playoffs 77% of the time during 82-game seasons in the salary-cap era (since 2005-06), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In other words, a lot of opinions formed about teams and players by the 20-game mark could end up justified by season’s end. Still, they could just end up being overreactions to the sample size that are proven to be aberrations and miscalculations.
Here are 10 theories about the NHL season thus far that we’re putting to the test: Are they reasonable judgments or total overreactions?
The Devils finished last season with a .384 points percentage, 28th in the NHL. They lost their first two games and fans were chanting for head coach Lindy Ruff to be fired.
Now they’re giving him and the team standing ovations, like the one the Devils received after winning their 13th straight game to tie a franchise record. New Jersey is top three in offense but more importantly is second in goals-against average thanks to increased defensive responsibility in front of vastly improved goaltending.
The verdict: Probably not an overreaction. Let’s start with the obvious caveat: The Devils’ success is reliant on the continued good health of captain Nico Hischier, star center Jack Hughes, ace puck-moving defenseman Dougie Hamilton and goalie Vitek Vanecek, who is rocking a .918 save percentage. If they’re playing, then the Devils are in fact very hard to defeat.
The Devils have learned how to balance their outstanding offense off the rush with defensive responsibility. They’ve shown an uncanny ability to shake off adversity to rally for wins or put the hammer down on opponents. The traditional and fancy stats all point to a very talented team that’s suddenly figured it all out. Most importantly, they don’t want to go back to their sad-sack ways.
As Hischier said: “I don’t want it to end. It’s definitely just fun. Like we say, just keep riding away the wave.”
The Boston Bruins are the Stanley Cup favorites
With star winger Brad Marchand and defenseman Charlie McAvoy missing due to offseason surgeries, there were dire predictions about the Bruins’ start. Instead of finding a hearse when they returned, they found a steamroller: Boston was 6-1-0 when Marchand returned to the lineup Oct. 27 and 11-2 when McAvoy was back Nov. 10, both ahead of schedule.
Through 18 games, Boston had the NHL’s highest-scoring offense and stingiest defense.
The verdict: Not an overreaction. They’re for real. I felt the notion that the Bruins’ championship window was closing was always overstated. If Patrice Bergeron felt it was worth his time to return, there was still some fight left in the bear. What was underestimated, however, were three factors:
1. The impact of defenseman Hampus Lindholm, a 2021-22 trade deadline acquisition who is playing at a point-per-game pace.
2. The return of David Krejci after a season playing in the Czech Republic, who not only reset the Bruins’ center depth chart but offers a steadying, familiar presence on the ice.
3. The hiring of coach Jim Montgomery, whom the players credit with changing the team’s vibes while demanding accountability.
“I think we understand that we have a really good group and a really good opportunity this year,” Marchand said. “But every day we come to the rink, we work hard. The coaching staff is doing a great job of keeping us accountable and making sure we’re not getting complacent.”
Through 18 games, Seattle had a .639 points percentage and was just inside the top 10 in team defense after finishing 24th last season. The Kraken are getting offensive contributions from their collection of veteran wingers, including offseason pickup Andre Burakovsky, as well as Calder Trophy favorite Matty Beniers in the middle. Maybe it just took a season before this team got … crackin’. (Sorry.)
The verdict: Overreaction. I’m sorry, but I can’t get behind the goaltending. Martin Jones has given the Kraken the competence in goal that they lacked all of last season, playing well above the replacement level he’s performed at the past four seasons. Problem No. 1 is that I’m not buying a lot of Martin Jones stock as a full-season solution. Problem No. 2 is that they’re paying Philipp Grubauer $4.25 million more than Jones this season so they’re going to play him, and he still hasn’t located his game post-Colorado.
Can they hang in the Pacific Division? Yes. Will they make the playoffs? Maybe in Year 3.
Auston Matthews will have his worst goal-scoring season
The Toronto Maple Leafs star scored 60 goals in 73 games last season to lead the NHL, snagging the Hart Trophy as MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award as NHLPA player of the year. That 2.4 goals per 60 minutes at all strengths was in line with his 2.2 goals per 60 minutes from the previous season.
What has Matthews done for an encore thus far? He averaged 1.2 goals per game through his first 19 games, which would be the lowest average of his seven-year career.
The verdict: Mild overreaction. Matthews scored his ninth goal of the season in the Leafs’ overtime loss Monday. On a goals-per-game basis, that puts him on track to score around 37 goals if he plays in all 82 games, which he hasn’t done since his rookie season. That would match the second-lowest total of his career, with his career low being 34 goals in 2017-18. But that was in just 62 games; his 37-goal season was in 68 games.
On average, it appears Matthews is on track for his worst goal-scoring season. That said, Matthews has some room for improvement. His shots per 60 minutes (12.36) is down from last season (13.88). His shooting percentage this season (10.7% in all situations) is way down from last season (17.2%). Few players have the ability to go on a goal-scoring spree like Matthews, and there’s a good chance he’ll binge soon.
The Edmonton Oilers superstar led the NHL with 16 goals in 19 games. He’s not alone in starting the season on a goal-scoring tear — see also Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars and Bo Horvat of the Vancouver Canucks — but no one else has the proof of concept that they can continue to terrorize the league’s defenses like McJesus.
The NHL hasn’t had a 70-goal season since Teemu Selanne and Alex Mogilny both hit 76 goals in the 1992-93 campaign. Could McDavid add that to his otherworldly offensive achievements?
“We are witnessing a true superstar, and it is special,” said his coach, Jay Woodcroft.
The verdict: Overreaction. Look, we all love Connor. But there’s a reason we haven’t seen a 70-goal season since the eve of the trap era. Not even Alex Ovechkin — arguably the greatest goal scorer in NHL history — hit that mark despite leading the league in goals nine times. McDavid is currently on pace for 69 goals, which is a nice total but isn’t 70. Underestimate Connor McDavid at your own peril, but he hasn’t hit 50 goals before, let alone 70.
The Washington Capitals’ contention window has slammed shut
The Capitals had a .425 points percentage through 20 games, sporting a negative-12 goal differential and ranking 26th in offense. Last season, Washington was a solid 5-on-5 defensive team in front of specious goaltending. This season, it’s a below average defensive team propped up by goaltending that’s played above expectations.
The Capitals have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs once since the 2007-08 season. It’s looking like it could happen again.
The verdict: Mild overreaction. The Capitals have been walloped by injuries to key players, before and during the season, but they’re finally going to start getting them back.
T.J. Oshie (nine games played) and Dmitry Orlov (13 games) are close to returning. Tom Wilson is still working back from offseason ACL surgery but coach Peter Laviolette said, “He’s doing a lot of work behind the wall.” (We can literally hear the training montage music.) And Nicklas Backstrom is even back on the ice partaking in full team practices after hip resurfacing surgery.
The Capitals haven’t looked great, but it’s hard to judge when their roster has had more absentees than all-stars.
Bruce Boudreau will be the first coach fired
The Vancouver Canucks have been one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments through 19 games, with a .395 points percentage and a minus-10 goal differential. Team president Jim Rutherford has been anything but subtle regarding his frustration with the team, placing the blame on the way they play and noting that Boudreau returned as head coach out of contractual obligation.
The verdict: Not an overreaction. The Canucks have had a slight uptick recently, but it’s hard to ignore the writing on the wall when there are articles being published such as “14 coaching candidates for Canucks to consider if they let Boudreau go.”
The NHL has had at least one coaching change within the first two months of every season since 2017-18. Unless D.J. Smith takes the fall for Ottawa’s slow start — and GM Pierre Dorion recently exonerated him — there’s only one clear candidate. Bruce, there it is.
Erik Karlsson will win the Norris Trophy
The San Jose Sharks defenseman has 29 points in 21 games, posting the kind of offensive numbers that were commonplace when Karlsson challenged for the Norris Trophy annually.
He’s healthy. He’s happy. He’s skating 25:18 on average per game, and leading his team in scoring by double digits. Welcome back, EK.
The verdict: Mild overreaction. Again, Karlsson has looked incredible this season. With Brent Burns now a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, he’s getting every opportunity to shine offensively for the Sharks.
But while 29 points in 21 games is the stuff of Norris Trophies, his plus-2 rating isn’t. The Sharks aren’t a good hockey team. That rating could dip into the negatives. There have been only seven defensemen in NHL history to win the Norris with a negative plus/minus rating, and only one in the past 24 years: Nicklas Lidstrom in 2010-11.
But more than if Karlsson wins the Norris, the real intrigue is who he might win it for, as speculation continues to build about his waiving his no-movement clause for a trade to a contender.
The Flames and Panthers were both division winners last season but saw significant changes in the offseason.
The Flames watched Johnny Gaudreau leave for the Columbus Blue Jackets as a free agent and then had their other star player, Matthew Tkachuk, say he wouldn’t sign long-term in Calgary. So they traded him to the Panthers for winger Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. Meanwhile, Florida bid adieu to interim coach and Jack Adams finalist Andrew Brunette to hire Paul Maurice as their new head coach.
Neither team was leading its respective division in the first quarter of the season. The Flames were barely in a wild-card slot. The Panthers were not.
The verdict: Overreaction. Both teams just needed a little time to find themselves after their dramatic changes. The Flames won four of five games heading into Wednesday night. Huberdeau, who hadn’t produced at the point-per-game levels of his last four seasons, was starting to heat up. They’ll be fine.
The Panthers haven’t found their groove quite yet, but their underlying numbers indicate it’s just a matter of time before they do. Meanwhile, Tkachuk had 25 points in his first 17 games with the Panthers.
The Anaheim Ducks will land Connor Bedard
Through 19 games, the Ducks are the only team in the NHL with a points percentage under .300. They’re 5-13-1 (.289), last in the Pacific, the Western Conference and the entire NHL.
The verdict: Not an overreaction. The bouncing lottery balls will ultimately determine which team earns the right to select the generational talent in next summer’s draft. But the Ducks are going to do what they can to maximize their chances. Their minus-32 goal differential is the worst in the NHL. John Gibson already has minus-7.1 goals saved above expected in 14 games. They’re 32nd in expected goals against and 29th in expected goals for.
They’re going to stink, draft another young phenom to add to their impressive collection of them, and, in a few years, this run of putrid seasons will be a distant memory. Especially if said phenom is Connor Bedard.
10 SECONDS IN AND CONNOR BEDARD ROLLS THE HIGHLIGHT REEL!@WHLPats | #NHLDraft | #CB98 pic.twitter.com/6E6pXqikag
— The WHL (@TheWHL) November 18, 2022
Jersey Foul of the week
Celebrating the legacy of Teemu Selanne:
It’s like friendship necklaces but better. #GoJetsGo pic.twitter.com/sPojpkMwXh
— Karly With a K (@karlyonair) November 18, 2022
Oh, these FrankenJerseys are a (Finnish) flash of twisted inspiration. Erasing his tenure with the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche! Connecting him with a team — the current Winnipeg Jets — for whom he never played! Creating a jersey whose backs look like ransom notes! Truly a Hall of Fame Foul.
Video of the week
Evgeni Malkin played in his 1,000th NHL game this week. To mark the occasion, his son Nikita surprised his dad by reading the starting lineups before their game in Chicago, reducing the Hart Trophy winner to tears.
“I see my son. He’s shy. He’s almost crying too. I think it’s the best thing in my life, for sure,” Evgeni Malkin told AT&T Sportsnet before the game. Aw, Geno. You big softie.
Is it getting dusty in the Penguins locker room? 😭 pic.twitter.com/m2WAfLyrCB
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 21, 2022
What I’m thankful for in hockey
No “Winners and Losers” this week. It’s Thanksgiving. It’s a time to reflect on what we value and cherish in this game of ours. In particular, I’m thankful for …
Young stars figuring it out. New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes is playing with the confidence of someone whose commitment to defense has allowed him to fearlessly unsheathe his boundless offensive creativity.
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin has finally blossomed into the player his first overall draft selection promised and is on pace for the first 100-point season for a defenseman since Brian Leetch in 1991-92.
Meanwhile, only six players have more goals since 2021 than Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson (55). They’re all 23 years old and under. You absolutely love to see it.
Reverse Retro Jerseys. Look, they’re not all winners. But the two collections of Reverse Retros have produced enough memorable looks and innovative designs to justify the cash-grab.
And in some cases, they have produced uniforms that should usurp the ones that teams currently use because they’re such vast improvements. Looking at you, Florida Panthers:
Florida Panthers in their new baby blue Reverse Retro uniforms… I think this one’s just a matching lid away from being 💯.
Share your thoughts below 👇 pic.twitter.com/Vl1TJbHrg5
— Chris Creamer (@sportslogosnet) November 19, 2022
Women’s hockey. We’re just over five years removed from the U.S. women’s national hockey team having to forge a labor war to earn equitable pay and perks from USA Hockey. On Nov. 20, the largest crowd to ever watch a USWNT game on American ice — 14,551 fans — crowded Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena to witness the latest Rivalry Series game between the U.S. and Canada.
Meanwhile, the Premier Hockey Federation rolls on through its regular season and is “presenting a case for growth that is tangible, not speculative,” according to commissioner Reagan Carey.
Hockey fans. The ones that cheer and chant. The ones that boo and brood. The ones that have changed the way we understand the game through their data and analysis. The ones that make every game night riotous with jokes, memes and general snark.
The ones that spend the time to consume what we make and care enough to discuss and share those articles, shows and podcasts. The ones that are working hard to make the game more welcoming to those who find it alienating, that want to allocate the joy of this game with new fans and the next generations without gatekeeping or judgement. We’re an odd bunch that’s not always perfect. But we all share one thing together, and that’s hockey.
Watch The Drop
My weekly show with Arda Ocal can be found on the NHL on ESPN YouTube channel each week. Here’s our latest episode, looking at the most hated NHL players, whether Brad Marchand and Sidney Crosby are still among them, and a chat with the brilliant Cassie Campbell-Pascall.