It’s a refrain that has grown so common in sports league circles that it has pretty well become a cliché. “It’s still early” can alternately offer hope to a panicking fan base or help level off fans whose expectations have grown rather inflated thanks to a hot start by their team. The reason that it’s heard so often is because, well, it’s often quite sensible advice. Indeed, passionate fans and media types can tend to overreact to a team’s performance early on in a season, particularly in this age of instant analysis and the expectation of immediate returns. Some observers joked about how much time Toronto rookie phenom Auston Matthews’ four-goal NHL debut would buy him from scrutiny from the notoriously demanding Maple Leafs faithful and, sure enough, it was barely a month later than nervous headlines about a 13-game goal-less drought began circulating.
The early emotional investment in your team’s results in understandable. Fans will care about the performance of their team whether it’s the start or end of the season and each game carries the same value in the standings. The last thing you want for your club is to see them quietly fade from contention and regress into also-ran status before the playoff chase even really heats up. Still, it can be a little misguided when such a narrow margin separates the teams at the top of the standings from those at the bottom. It might be easy to forget now, but the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins needed a mid-season coaching change last year to shake off some early doldrums and get on track for the franchise’s fourth Cup win.
It’s far too soon to tell whether another club will follow in the Pens’ footsteps this season. The 2016-17 campaign has thus far resulted in one coaching change, with the Florida Panthers showing Gerard Gallant the door and giving team general manager Tim Rowe the interim head coach tag. However, although they may not have yet opted to change out the man behind the bench, other clubs share Florida’s early concerns over off-season optimism that hasn’t materialized into encouraging early season results.
Already this year, Ben Bishop has rebounded from an early .891 save percentage, the Chicago Blackhawks have improved on a league-worst 58% penalty kill rate (although they still rank last in the league in the category) and the Dallas Stars have moved up in the NHL ranks in goals per game after being mired in 27th place at one point. Those numbers offer reason for hope that an early slump might be an aberration for these 15 NHL clubs.
15 Colorado Avalanche
It doesn’t look pretty right now in Colorado, where the Avs sit near the bottom of the league rankings in both goals scored and goals allowed per game. Even worse, what was once a young team facing a developmental curve is now in a position where they should really be starting to improve. Nathan MacKinnon is still just 21, but is already in his fourth NHL season and has yet to match the production of his rookie campaign. Meanwhile, key core guys like Matt Duchene, Erik Johnson and Gabriel Landeskog aren’t exactly over the hill, but have not begun to hit their prime years.
There is enough talent here that a quick turn-around isn’t out of the question. When you can roll out MacKinnon and Duchene up front, Johnson and Tyson Barrie on the blue line and then still have the voices of leaders like Landeskog and Jarome Iginla in the locker room, you can’t be counted out, certainly not in December.
14 Nashville Predators
On the bright side, the Nashville Predators currently find themselves in a playoff position in the Western Conference thanks largely to the play of PK Subban and Filip Forsberg. But after coming just a game shy of knocking off the eventual Stanley Cup finalist San Jose Sharks in the second round last spring, expectations for the team extend beyond simply reaching the postseason. And the early signs on a deep playoff run aren’t promising.
For one thing, they have struggled to gain any traction away from the friendly confines of their Bridgestone Arena. They also endured a season-opening stretch of just two wins in their first nine games on account of a sluggish start by netminder Pekka Rinne. Between Rinne and Subban, the Preds are placing a lot of faith in two talented – albeit streaky – players. Still, Rinne’s play has been on the rise ever since and Nashville appears to be on track.
13 Detroit Red Wings
When you take a quick glimpse at the season-by-season results of the Detroit Red Wings, it looks downright strange to see a blank space in the 2015-16 campaign under the postseason section. There was no playoff hockey in the city dubbed “Hockeytown” for the first time in a quarter century last year, and Red Wings faithful are ready to start a new streak this year. To do so, however, they’ll have to offer more than the mediocre performance they’ve delivered to date.
The Wings have been equally average at home and on the road, struggling to get into any kind of groove as they move on from Pavel Datsyuk, who left for the KHL last summer. Detroit hoped to have new signee Thomas Vanek fill some of the scoring void left by Datsyuk and while he’s been solid, the rest of the roster still needs to produce. Henrik Zetterberg has been his usual fantastic self, but Dylan Larkin has struggled to duplicate last year’s remarkable rookie campaign and Justin Abdelkader and Tomas Tatar have both performed below expectations. Once those guys get going, the Wings might be ready to make a charge.
12 Arizona Coyotes
Radim Vrbata has enjoyed a solid 14-year NHL career as a skilled offensive talent and continues to deliver even at age 35, but he probably isn’t the leading scorer envisioned by the young Coyotes heading into the season. Optimism surrounding the ‘Yotes heading into the campaign focused on a youth movement that had already seen Anthony Duclair and Max Domi make their mark last year, with Christian Dvorak and Dylan Strome set to join the ranks this season.
The early returns, however, offer a stark reminder that the development of young players still requires patience. While Domi stands among the team’s scoring leaders, Duclair and Dvorak have both endured early season struggles and Strome had a rough introduction to the NHL before being sent back to junior so that Arizona could delay his arbitration eligibility for another year. Strome likely won’t be back up with the Coyotes any time soon, but there is too much young talent here, particularly when you throw in stud blue liner Oliver Ekman-Larsson, for all these desert dogs to stay quiet.
11 Carolina Hurricanes
Despite finishing the 2015-16 season with the third-lowest points total in the Metropolitan division, the Carolina Hurricanes became something of a trendy playoff wild card among prognosticators this summer. After wrapping up the Eric Staal era at last year’s trade deadline, the ‘Canes were able to focus on a youth movement that has largely been driven by a deep, talented blue line. Players like Noah Hanifin, Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin have ushered in a new era in Carolina that also includes young pivot Elias Lindholm, newly acquired winger Teuvo Teravainen and rookie Sebastian Aho.
Although the young defensemen seem to be settling in nicely, the youth movement up front seems to be taking a little more time to come together. While they Hurricanes currently sit in the top third of the league in goals allowed, they rank among the bottom five in goals scored. “Veteran” 24-year-old forward Jeff Skinner and 23-year-old center Victor Rask have tried to pick up the slack in leading the team offensively, but players like Aho, Teravainen and Lindholm will need to catch on to help add some punch to the Canes’ attack.
10 Winnipeg Jets
Any NHL fan who hasn’t peered at the current standings but reads up on the goings-on around the league could be forgiven for assuming that the Winnipeg Jets must be an elite team this year. You can’t have a discussion about early season breakouts without talking about the performances of center Mark Scheifele and rookie sniper sensation Patrick Laine. The two offensive dynamos have led the Jets to a top five rank in goals scored thus far this season.
But for as adept at finding the back of the net as some of Winnipeg’s blossoming stars have been, the club has collectively been equally inept at keeping the puck out of their own net. Despite the goal scoring prowess, they still have a negative goal differential on the year. The blue line will surely be bolstered by the pending return of Tyler Myers to the lineup, not to mention what is hopefully an enhanced commitment to two-way play from the club’s best forwards.
9 New Jersey Devils
Had it not come within a mere hour of PK Subban being traded to Nashville and Steven Stamkos resigning with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the trade that saw Taylor Hall head to New Jersey in exchange for young defenseman Adam Larsson may well have been one of the most talked about transactions of the summer. The Devils, who were re-developing their defensive identity around goaltender Cory Schneider, suddenly had a potent offensive weapon to pair with the likes of Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri.
Hall has delivered in the swamp thus far, but his fellow hyped new addition hasn’t had as strong an introduction. Pavel Zacha, the sixth overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, arrived in the NHL this season amidst some lofty expectations after lighting up the OHL as a member of the Sarnia Sting and then recording two assists in his lone game with the Devils last year. The Czech teen, who is learning the center position, has just seven points in 24 games thus far. His emergence will be a big key for New Jersey moving forward.
8 Toronto Maple Leafs
Few NHL clubs have dedicated themselves as wholly and entirely to a rebuild as the Toronto Maple Leafs have, giving the keys to an impressive collection of young talent led by Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Despite sitting in the Atlantic division basement, the season has to be considered a relative success to date for the Leafs, who have gotten some serious production out of their young crop amidst what remains a porous defense.
In fact, the pro-ready play of Matthews, Marner and other youthful Leafs has prompted fans to at least entertain the type of playoff hopes that still seemed years away at the outset of the season. Toronto now boasts the offensive firepower to compete with anyone. If the blue line, anchored by the improving goaltending of off-season acquisition Frederik Andersen, can find a way to keep their team in the game every night, the offense won’t have much trouble doing the rest. Already this season, the Leafs have earned eye-opening wins over playoff-bound clubs like the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins.
7 Vancouver Canucks
The narrative in Vancouver seems to be shifting to one of resigned defeat, as fans and media types are openly questioning the future direction of an aging team struggling to win games. The Canucks continue to be led by the Sedin twins, but it’s unclear how much longer that will be the case. Now 36 years of age, neither Henrik nor Daniel can really be considered an integral part of the club’s future plans. It doesn’t help matters that one of their fresh faces, winger Jake Virtanen, has already drawn some bust whispers on account of a less than inspired start to his NHL career.
Amid plenty of questions moving forward, there remains a particular pressure to take advantage of the current closing window to do anything of note behind the Sedins. The Canucks showed that they aren’t necessarily fully committed to a rebuild by signing Loui Eriksson in the offseason. You’d have to figure, then, that the veteran Swedes leading the team won’t be content to fade away quietly, nor will fellow 36-year-old netminder Ryan Miller.
6 Buffalo Sabres
During the young talent boom that the NHL is currently enjoying, one name that seems to be quickly getting lost in the crowd is 2015 No. 2 pick Jack Eichel. It’s not that Eichel has been bad – far from it, after a 24-goal, 56-point rookie campaign. But after having the misfortune of being the guy drafted after Connor McDavid and being the young American prospect not named Auston Matthews, Eichel ran into some injury hardships with a high ankle sprain suffered on the eve of the season opener.
But Sabres fans looking for signs of optimism need look no further than what Eichel has done since returning from injury. Playing alongside Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane, the 20-year-old has collected eight points in seven games while leading Buffalo to a 4-2-1 record during that stretch. Beyond Eichel, Okposo looks like a savvy off-season free agent signing as the team’s leading scorer to date and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has rounded into an elite playmaker.
5 Dallas Stars
No one in Big D is panicking yet, nor should they be. After all, the Dallas Stars are on the fringe of the Western Conference playoff picture at the moment. But that doesn’t make it any easier to ignore a bit of a sloppy start. The Stars are trying to dig themselves out of a surprisingly ugly goal differential, driven partly by a pair of lopsided 4-1 and 8-2 losses to the Winnipeg Jets and a 6-2 thrashing at the hands of the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Injuries have certainly played a role, with Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Ales Hemsky all missing time. A finger of blame can also be pointed at the back end, which has been a continual area of concern in Dallas in recent years. Despite reaching the postseason in two of the past three seasons behind a high-powered offense led by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars have been undermined by a shoddy blue line and suspect goaltending, two concerns that don’t seem to have gone away. Even if things don’t improve appreciably on the back end, Dallas boasts enough fire power to make noise in the West.
4 Florida Panthers
Some hockey observers will trace the problems of the Florida Panthers back to last May, when Tom Rowe took over from Dale Tallon to run the club’s hockey operations as general manager. Soon after becoming GM of the rising Panthers, Rowe left fans and media members scratching their heads over the summer by trading Erik Gudbranson and signing aging defenseman Keith Yandle and backup goaltender James Reimer to long-term contracts. Things only got more perplexing when Rowe decided to fire head coach Gerard Gallant, who had just led the team to the Atlantic division title, in November and put himself behind the bench.
Rowe remains behind the bench and the Panthers have continued to sputter, but there is reason for hope. Tallon recently resumed a lead role in the hockey operations department and, on the ice, Nick Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen have returned from injury, with Jonathan Huberdeau possibly not far behind. Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad have to bounce back from some early season struggles, which shouldn’t be a problem for the club’s old and young pillars.
3 New York Islanders
The New York Islanders that began the 2016-17 season didn’t have quite the same look as the club that reached the second round of the postseason last spring, but with John Tavares back in the fold and stalwarts like Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk sticking around, there was little reason to think much would change. So far, however, it seems that the Isles underestimated the impact of steady forwards Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, both of whom ventured elsewhere in free agency.
Garth Snow and the Isles didn’t exactly sit on their hands as Okposo and Nielsen got away, but the additions of Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and PA Parenteau haven’t exactly panned out yet. Ladd and Chimera have combined for just 15 points, while Parenteau was waived before suiting up for the Devils. The struggles of the two veterans likely won’t last and they could certainly add some punch up front to a club armed with Tavares and Brock Nelson and boasting lofty postseason hopes.
2 Los Angeles Kings
No one in La La Land could have ever anticipated the bizarre 2014-15 campaign, where the Kings shockingly missed the playoffs altogether despite having much of the same roster that had won two Stanley Cups over the previous three seasons. So one can understand the nerves percolating amongst Kings’ fans despite the club’s solid track record of success in recent years. Those concerns are made considerably worse when team defense and toughness, key characteristics on which the team had been hanging its hat, rank as two of the central issues plaguing the current group.
Perhaps the central core of the club that includes Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown is beginning to age, perhaps they miss Milan Lucic more than they expected to or perhaps they need more defensive help behind Drew Doughty. Still, this is a Darryl Sutter-coached team, so a lack of physicality and passive defensive efforts won’t stand. The loss of Jonathan Quick to injury may be tough to overcome, but it could also help rally the rest of the club and instill a sense of urgency that hasn’t been present thus far.
1 Tampa Bay Lightning
It may seem to be panic time in Tampa Bay, if not for the fact that fans of the Lightning have seen this scenario play out before. Superstar sniper Steven Stamkos goes down to injury, leaving the hopes of his team in doubt. It happened in 2013, when the club went 22-18-3 after Stamkos broke his leg and still made the playoffs. It happened again last season, where blood clots shelved Stamkos through Tampa’s unlikely run to the Eastern Conference Finals, until he came back just in time for a Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
You never want to lose your star sniper, but the Lightning might be uniquely suited to absorb such a loss. Last season, they were chiefly defined by the dynamic line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat while also being boosted by the Victor Hedman-led blue line, the additional scoring punch of Alex Killorn and Jonathan Drouin and the two-headed goalie monster of Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilievsky. That kind of talent can withstand the loss of one player, even if that player is Stamkos.