Roundtable: NHL early season surprises and disappointments
Through four weeks of the season, what has been your biggest surprise and biggest disappointment so far?
Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest surprise has been the play of Kevin Lankinen. Lankinen started off the season as the Blackhawks third goaltender and when Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban couldn’t get the job done, Lankinen received his opportunity and has the crease to himself. He is 4-1-3 on an injury-riddled Chicago team with a 2.32 goals-against-average and a .928 save percentage. His save percentage is fifth best and GAA 10th best for goalies who have played at least three games. That is quite the start to an NHL career for Lankinen.
The biggest disappointment is the Rangers with the Islanders a close second. The Rangers have stumbled out of the gate and the recent saga involving Tony DeAngelo may have brought the team closer together (and hopefully not further apart), but I thought that they would be a playoff team and currently they are in the East Division basement with the Islanders.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Chris Driedger is currently the best goalie on the Panthers. They have played only seven games, but the 26-year-old, who has only 18 career NHL appearances, has been nothing but great in two seasons in Florida. In 15 games played, he has a .945 even strength save percentage and helped the Cats to nine wins.
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As for disappointment, the expectations were low, but did we think the Senators would be this bad? With their young players getting ice time and the veteran additions of Evgenii Dadonov, Derek Stepan, and Braydon Coburn, you’d think there would be baby steps forward this season.
The Senators are 2-8-1 through Thursday, own the NHL’s worst goal differential (-23), have allowed the most 5-on-5 goals (33), and are sporting an .872 ESSV%, which is 31st overall. That last one is also a reminder that Matt Murray is signed through 2023-24 with a $6.25M cap hit.
James O’Brien, NHL writer: The awe-inspiring fury of the Canadiens’ offense has been a thing to behold. While their shooting luck won’t last (12.8% as a team, far above league average (9.9%) and last season’s rate (8.6%), this is a team that can play with pace. Facing generally weak Canadian/North Division opponents could keep them flying high, too.
Through his first 10 NHL games, Alexis Lafreniere doesn’t exactly seem like the ready-made NHL product many expected. While his one and only point was a thriller (scoring it as an overtime-winner), even that came in a 3-on-3 situation, where spacing probably feels more like he’s used to. After Kaapo Kakko didn’t look ready-for-primetime as the No. 2 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, the top pick of the 2020 draft is also off to a slow start for the Rangers. It’s way too early to give up on either player, honestly, but it’s also disappointing. If I’m the Rangers, I’d at least ponder some soul-searching about how they’re developing top prospects. (It’s already too late to debate trying to salvage the first year of Lafreniere’s entry-level contract.)
To be clear, it’s not all Lafreniere’s fault; the Rangers are kind of a structural disaster. It’s possible that David Quinn’s methods are the most not-ready-for-the-NHL element of all of this.
So, no, don’t panic, Rangers fans. But I’ll still stew here, considering the slow start from my Calder Trophy prediction (d’oh!).
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Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I think my biggest surprise so far has been how dynamic the Stars offense has been so far, especially without Tyler Seguin. You had to expect them to be a pretty good team given how far they have gone in the playoffs the past two seasons, but this was a team that could not buy a goal in the regular season a year ago. Or the year before. Granted, a lot of their success this season has been power play driven but even that is a bit of a surprise at how dominant it has been.
As far as disappointments, I would go with pretty much anything regarding the Penguins power play, which has simply been a Picasso of incompetence this season and the fact it really does look like the Predators may have reached their ceiling with this team. It is early, but I expected a bounce back season from them and they have simply not looked good. At all.
Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: I’m going to be really honest and say the Bruins just in general. I thought the transition for the young defensemen would be bumpier, I didn’t think Nick Ritchie could score at this pace -- or like, at all -- or they’d get through a few weeks without David Pastrnak as well as they did.
Ottawa: Yeah, I know, it’s Ottawa. Still, a seven-game losing streak and sitting at a -23 is really bad. I thought with some of their young players a condensed season would give them at least a little bit of room to have a temporary burst.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: My biggest surprise is the play of Capitals rookie goalie Vitek Vanecek. We knew there would be a changing of the guard following the departure of Braden Holtby, but the expectation was that last year’s backup – and 2015 first rounder – Ilya Samsonov would seize the No. 1 role. But Samsonov has been sidelined on the COVID list, so the 25-year-old Vanecek, a 2014 second rounder who’d never played an NHL game before this season, has started 9 of 11 games to jumpstart the Caps’ hot start.
In terms of disappointments, Ottawa’s start has been exceptionally poor. Before last night’s win, the Sens had lost nine straight games, getting outscored 45-19 in that span. Given the personnel improvements that were made in the offseason, I’m not sure anyone saw this coming.
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Going back to our preseason predictions, which one do you wish you could go back and change?
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I had the Flyers fourth in the East thinking they would be in a battle for the final playoff spot with the Islanders and Rangers. They have 16 points in 11 games and are only behind the Bruins for the division lead due to points percentage. Philly is scoring well at even strength (26 goals) but failing to drive possession (44.2%). If that can level out they can make a run at the crown and lead the East heading into the playoffs.
James O’Brien, NHL writer: To some extent, being wrong is almost the point when it comes to predictions. It’s part of why you want to sprinkle in some “hot takes” with the no-duh stuff like Connor McDavid winning the Hart Trophy. That said, while I contemplated Kirill Kaprizov as Calder winner, I didn’t pull the trigger. Kaprizov rules.
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Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I wanted to pick Montreal higher in the North. I thought they were better than their record indicated a year ago, and with a couple of minor fixes knew they could be a really good team this season. Then they had their offseason, and playing in a division that did not really have any great teams I thought the door was open for them. But I chickened out. I still picked them in the top-four, but my initial instinct was first or second. I wish I had done that now that they were just crushing everybody in that division.
Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: I didn’t have a solid feel for the West and still do not but I don’t vibe with the Kings and thinking they might make some sort of playoff push was wrong. Same for the Sharks and the Wild look a lot more fun and cool than I anticipated.
Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I would like a mulligan on my North Division predictions. Specifically on where I slotted Vancouver (No. 2) and Montreal (No. 6). Maybe I put too much stock in the Canucks’ postseason run, and maybe I put too little stock in the Tyler Toffoli revenge factor (8 of his league-leading 9 goals this season have come against Vancouver), but either way, the Habs look like a surefire playoff team. I definitely missed the mark there.
Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The one pre-season prediction I would like to take back is Rasmus Dahlin winning the Norris Trophy. I still think that he is the best overall young defenseman in the NHL but his poor start looks to have knocked him out of any consideration unless he has a tremendous finish to his season.