At 8-3-0 the Dallas Stars sit first in their division and conference. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
All energy flows according to the whims of the great magnet. And what fools we’d be to defy it.
Hunter S. Thompson may not have been a big hockey fan (I can’t think of him mentioning the sport, even though he lived in Colorado), but he was certainly on to something there, particularly when one considers the early results of this NHL season.
Are there paper tigers atop the standings, or were we just completely wrong in prognosticating how long a rebuild takes these days? Ottawa, Toronto, Edmonton, Colorado…these are not the titans of 2012, are they?
Maybe they are. But based on the numbers so far, the future can at least be parsed out somewhat accurately. For example, a good rule of thumb for measuring success in the NHL is to combine a team’s penalty kill and power play percentages. If the sum is greater than 100, that team is doing something right. A look at recent Stanley Cup winners will also show teams that, obviously, score more goals than they give up. So who are the overachievers and underachievers so far? Let’s break it down.
The Stars are riding high in the Pacific right now, highlighted by the play of goaltender Kari Lehtonen and staunch team defense. They’re scoring more than they’re giving up and the only blight is a power play clicking at just 13.2 percent. A good penalty kill can’t quite get the Stars to the magic 100, but they’re achingly close at a combined 99.7. Lehtonen likely won’t maintain a 1.75 goals-against average for the entire season, but even a slide in that category wouldn’t doom Dallas.
In terms of special teams, the Maple Leafs are a big step behind even Dallas, which spells trouble if things don’t improve. The Buds come in with a combined 89.9 PP/PK rating, but have been bolstered by one of the best offenses in the league, led by Phil Kessel. Can the NHL’s player of the month keep up a pace that currently would have him tally 74 goals and 133 points by year’s end? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there. In the meantime, Toronto has a 7-3-1 record despite scoring just one more goal than it has given up.
The Sens have a 102.3 special teams rating, but have been outscored by eight goals through 13 games. Pretty sure we just saw what will be their longest winning streak of the season end against Boston. Bottom line: special teams can’t win the game if you’re being outscored at even strength.
The Oilers are easily the biggest surprise of the season and they actually have the stats to back it up. Edmonton’s combined special teams rating is a lofty 109.9 and thanks to goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the Oilers boast the No. 1 defense in the NHL. A big road trip now faces the young squad, which will go a long way in determining whether its 7-2-2 record was largely the result of home cooking (right now they’re 1-1-1 away from Edmonton). Also, ‘The Bulin Wall’ likely won’t maintain a 1.12 GAA and .960 save percentage. The offense is just 26th in the league, but the Oilers are plus-7 overall, so this may not be a mirage.
Sometimes you just don’t get the bounces. Several teams mired in mediocrity right now should actually have better records, given the numbers. Buffalo, for example, has a combined special teams rating of 113.8 and is top-10 in both offense and defense, yet the Sabres sit at 6-4-0. Certainly not horrible, but having scored seven more goals for than against, the Sabres shouldn’t be on the border of the playoff picture. Just below Buffalo you can find the New York Rangers, who also eclipse the special teams mark at 102.5 and are decent on offense and defense. They’re even in goals-for versus against, but aren’t a .500 hockey team right now, so clearly there’s a problem there. Is it bad luck or just inconsistent effort?
Another team to watch for is Vancouver. I know it’s kind of obvious since the Canucks were the best team in the West last year and are coming off a Cup-final hangover, but they have great special teams and are starting to score goals, which means trouble for the rest of the NHL. Their 6-5-1 record will continue to improve.
Ryan Kennedy is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.