We’re nearing the quarter-way mark of the season and there have definitely been a few teams that have surprised with their disappointing starts, but no team has been an outright disaster. You could argue that the New Jersey Devils qualify as such after their 5-8-4 start, but I’d counter that while they aren’t living up to expectations, they entered the season as a team trying to transition from a rebuilding squad to a competitive one, so they should be given some leeway. It’s not as if they were expected to go from posting a 31-41-10 record in 2018-19 to having a deep playoff run in the span of a year, even if they did have a great summer.
Instead, mostly what we’ve gotten is great teams that have been inconsistent thus far, leading to questions about their viability as true Cup contenders in 2019-20, but still not playing bad enough to outright dismiss them. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, and Calgary Flames all fall into that category. While expectations were lower for the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres, those are two other teams that have been wildly inconsistent thus far and could still prove to have great years if things break in their favor.
Of all those teams, I feel like Tampa Bay’s situation has gotten perhaps less attention than it deserves. The Lightning are off to an 8-5-2 start, which isn’t terrible, but it is mediocre and a far cry from 2018-19 when they jumped out to an 11-3-1 start en route to a recording tying 62-16-4 campaign.
One big difference this season has been Andrei Vasilevskiy. He won the Vezina Trophy last season with a 39-10-4 record, 2.40 GAA, and .925 save percentage in 53 starts. This time around he’s 6-4-0 with a 3.01 GAA and .905 save percentage in 10 starts. Of those 10 starts, he’s allowed at least three goals in six of those games. It’s too early to panic about him, but it is fair to say that they need more from him, especially after the Lightning made a major commitment by signing him to an eight-year, $76 million contract that doesn’t even start until next season.
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That contract also underscores an ongoing challenge for the Lightning: How long can they hold onto this star studded roster in the salary cap era? They managed to get Brayden Point to sign a fairly reasonable three-year, $20.24 million contract on Sept. 23rd, buy with Vasilevskiy’s cap hit set to jump from $3.5 million to $9.5 million in 2020-21, the Lightning will again struggle to fit their roster under the cap next season. Currently, they have $73.4 million tied to just 13 players next season and that’s without factoring in Mikhail Sergachev, who will become a restricted free agent this summer.
So while the Lightning’s window isn’t at an end, this year might present them with a somewhat better chance at a championship than they’ll have next season. Tampa Bay squandered another prime opportunity to win the Cup in 2019 when they were swept by Columbus in the first round. After that result, it would be understandable for fans to say that they don’t care what happens now, it’s what happens in April that matters. However, while the Lightning coasted to the playoffs last year, they can’t take it for granted this time around.
It seems weird to both say that this is perhaps the Lightning’s best chance at a championship for a little while and at the same time question if they’ll even make the playoffs, but it’s entirely feasible that one or more very good team is going to end up not making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this year. There are a lot of great teams to contend for those spots.
Montreal and Florida both look like pretty solid squads that are worthy of contention for a playoff spot and if they both end up making it, then who is left out? What happens if Buffalo bounces back? The Sabres have been wildly inconsistent, but the overall core is still promising. I think you can reasonable write off the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators from playoff contention this season, but that still leaves six Atlantic Division teams fighting for a maximum of five spots and what is more likely to be four given that the Metropolitan Division is looking strong enough to claim at least one Wild Card spot.
This is all to say that the playoff race will be tight and points in November do matter, even for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
Moving on from the Eastern Conference, I wanted to highlight Leon Draisaitl, who has an incredible 15 goals and 36 points in 20 games this season. That puts him comfortably in first place in the NHL scoring race. David Pastrnak and teammate Connor McDavid are tied for second place with 31 points. That puts Draisaitl on pace for 145 points this season.
Naturally I don’t expect Draisaitl to end up with 145 points, but the fact that he got 36 points in his first 20 games is remarkable on its own. The last player to do that well through 20 games was Mario Lemieux back in 2002, who had 41 points by this point. If you look at 2018-19 as a comparable, through Nov. 13th, McDavid and Mikko Rantanen were tied for first in the scoring race with 26 points in 18 and 17 games respectively. Draisaitl obviously blows that out of the water.
Remember, McDavid and Pastrnak would also be leading the league if they had their current point totals back at this point in 2018-19. The same could be said for Brad Marchand and John Carlson, who each have 30 points so far this season.
With that in mind, you’re probably not surprised to hear that scoring has been up so far this season. We’re seeing an average of 3.07 goals per team per game this season, compared to 3.01 in 2018-19. Scoring has been trending upwards for a few years now, from 2.71 in 2015-16 to 2.77 in 2016-17 to 2.97 in 2017-18, so seeing that continue this season isn’t shocking. However, if we stay at 3.07 goals per team per game for the rest of the season, then this will be the highest scoring campaign since 2005-06, which marked the start of the salary cap era. In 2005-06 we had an average of 3.08 with the scoring leaders being Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagr at 125 and 123 points respectively.
One other bit of Draisaitl trivia before we wrap things up: With a 1.80 points per game pace this season, he currently has the highest single-season pace of the salary cap era of any player who has participated in at least 20 games. The next closest is Sidney Crosby, who had eight goals and 37 points in 22 games in 2011-12 for a 1.68 points per game pace.