Stressed about the Coyotes, Stars, Kings and Preds sputtering early in 2016-17? Here's a breakdown of which teams should invoke legitimate fear.
A Halloween theme shoehorned into a post about hockey? Don’t fight it. Halloween is fun. So is hockey. Embrace that the way P.K. Subban does on and off the ice.
We’ve reached the end of 2016-17’s first month, and it’s been special. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine are must-see TV. We’ve seen exciting and inspiring performances in net from Cam Talbot, Craig Anderson and Devan Dubnyk. We’ve also seen a few bizarre occurrences. Among those are some sluggish starts we didn’t expect from a handful of teams. Which slow-out-of-the-gate squads should feel legitimately spooked by their starts? Which have nothing to be afraid of?
Don’t get me wrong: the Coyotes look like a legitimate mess early on. They've lost six of eight games and dropped five of their first six, marking their worst start in franchise history. Their minus-9 goal differential ties them for last in the league. They rank bottom-third in possession. Goaltender Mike Smith is week-to-week with a lower-body injury. Top prospect Dylan Strome has been a frequent healthy scratch and might be better served returning to junior, even if he doesn’t believe that’s best for him.
So where’s the silver lining? The very fact Arizona picked Strome third overall in 2015 reminds us it was a lottery team. The Coyotes drafted Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun in 2016’s first round. They’re breaking in the league’s youngest GM in John Chayka. They’re also building around Max Domi, Christian Dvorak and Anthony Duclair. They’ve missed the playoffs four straight years. Sure, it would be nice to see progress, but they shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking they’re contending for a Stanley Cup this year. A rebuild takes time. The same logic applies to slow-starting Toronto, Buffalo and Carolina. It’s all good.
Verdict: What did you expect?
LOS ANGELES KINGS
The best possession numbers in the league year in and year out can only take you so far if you just…can’t…score. The Kings average a paltry 2.06 goals per game despite doing what they always do: pepper the opposing team’s net with shot attempts. They’ve sputtered to a 4-5-0 start. With Jonathan Quick’s groin injury costing him multiple months and Jeff Zatkoff also shelved short term, the Kings must rely on third-stringer Peter Budaj to stop pucks for them. Even if he’s looked competent so far, the sample size will expand in a hurry, and we know what Budaj is: an AHL goaltender. He’ll turn into a pumpkin soon enough, a la Mike Condon last season.
So should Kings fans thus feel extremely nervous? Not quite. Bad luck is as responsible as anything for the Kings’ start. They’ve scored on a league-worst 6.8 percent of their shots so far. Lack of finish has been a problem for them in recent seasons, yes, but even the “bad” Kings shooting percentage hovered at 8.5 percent last season. The league’s worst was 7.6. Los Angeles is due for positive regression. It should get hot as a result, especially because it still owns the possession game. The guess here is the Kings do enough to stay afloat until Quick returns, and they make the playoffs as a low seed.
Verdict: Go back to sleep. There’s no such thing as ghosts.
The Dallas Stars were an exciting and flawed team in 2015-16, when they finished with the Western Conference’s best record. They led the NHL in goals and rated sky-high in offensive possession metrics. On the other hand, their goaltending from Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi was among the league’s worst, and their defensive possession numbers were pretty poor.
This season, the Stars’ calling card – offense – has evaporated early on. They’re tied for the league’s lowest goal total. They once again sit bottom-third in save percentage, and their defensive possession numbers are also terrible again. General manager Jim Nill let veterans Jason Demers and Kris Russell walk in unrestricted free agency and traded pending UFA Alex Goligoski’s rights, adding Dan Hamhuis and giving a stable of young D-men their chance. Rookie Stephen Johns and veteran Johnny Oduya have excelled on the second pair at generating and suppressing shot attempts, but the rest of their starting blueliners have been lit up.
Remove scoring, Dallas’ best quality, and its flaws become a much bigger problem, hence the 3-4-1 start. Dallas does have an excuse, with so many forwards sustaining injuries. Cody Eakin, Alex Hemsky, Mattias Janmark and Patrick Sharp are out indefinitely, and superstars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin don’t look like they’re over the injuries that knocked them out of the World Cup. The Stars should improve when they get healthier, but that doesn’t change the fact they aren’t healthy right now, and they’re subpar defensively. This situation might get worse before it gets better.
Verdict: Sleep with a night light on.
Weren’t the Preds supposed to be one of 2016-17’s breakout powerhouses? They had the league’s deepest defensive corps, and it got even better (that’s right) with Subban replacing Shea Weber. So far, so bad. Nashville is just 2-5-1 to start the season, outscored 28-19.
The natural reaction is to shrug off the slow start as a relative anomaly. A 2-5-1 stretch in January would go largely unnoticed. A glance under the hood reveals a few mechanical problems, however. The Preds ranked top-four in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage last season and have tumbled to 20th. They’ve been particularly weak on the defensive side of the puck. Subban has the worst possession numbers of his career so far, and typical stud blueliner Roman Josi hasn't been his usual self.
Those two should bounce back, but a dip in overall possession play is troublesome for a Nashville team that isn’t loaded with high-end scorers up front. This team isn’t engineered for track meets despite its swift puck-moving ability from the back end. Most worrisome: the play of Pekka Rinne. He’s been one of the NHL’s most overrated goaltenders for at least a year now, and he’s picked up where he left off in 2015-16. Pedestrian save percentages like this season’s .906 have become the norm for Rinne. He’s paid like an elite netminder at $7 million per, so he’s entrenched in Nashville’s net and largely untradeable. It sounds crazy to say it about a goalie as accomplished, respected and athletic as Rinne, but he seems to hurt the Preds more than help these days.
It’s too early to declare Nashville a bust team, but it has some alarming warts. And nobody can afford a poor start in the always-tough Central Division.
Verdict: Be afraid.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin