The start of an NHL season is a wild time.
Teams that were expected to take a big step forward sometimes stumble out of the gate. For example, the New Jersey Devils have gone 0-4-2 with a minus-16 goal differential, despite adding PK Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, and Jack Hughes in the offseason.
Likewise, the Dallas Stars, already a playoff team last season, were supposed to be improved after adding Joe Pavelski in free agency, not to mention making a low-cost gamble on Corey Perry. Instead, they’ve gotten off to a historically bad 1-6-1 to start the season, thanks to a lack of scoring and going 1-for-24 on the power play.
Meanwhile, some teams that were expected to be in the hunt for the first overall pick are at the top of the standings. Just look at the Edmonton Oilers, who are flying high with a 6-1-0 record, the league’s top two scorers in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and a 10-for-22 power play.
Similarly, the perennially basement-dwelling Buffalo Sabres are 5-1-1 to start the season thanks to great goaltending, a stingy defence, and hot starts from the likes of Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson, and Rasmus Dahlin.
These early results can be deceiving, of course, and we can see that just by looking at the Canucks. The 2016-17 Canucks season was one of the worst in their history, but they started the season with four-straight wins. Meanwhile, the 2010-11 season was their best season ever, but they won just two of their first seven games.
In other words, you should place too much stock in wins and losses too early in the season. It’s better to win these games than lose them — point in October mean just as much in the standings as points in April — but they’re not necessarily indicative of the season to come.
Take the teams mentioned above. The Devils might legitimately be in trouble, as their underlying possession statistics are wholly unimpressive. At the same time, it’s unlikely that Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood continue to carry .876 and .821 save percentages all season and, at some point, Jack Hughes, who has zero points through the first six games of his career, will start to score.
At some point, their special teams will turn around as well: they have yet to score a power play goal and have an absurdly low 57.1% success rate on the penalty kill. That will not continue.
The Stars have a 5.99% shooting percentage at 5-on-5 this season, second-lowest in the NHL. They have far too much talent up front for that to last. They’re already strong defensively; when their forwards and power play starts scoring again, the wins will follow.
As for the Oilers, there are a lot of reasons to doubt their hot start. They’ve had an easy schedule to start the season, with Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic estimating that only the Rangers have had an easier schedule thus far. Beyond that, there are some red flags.
The Oilers gave up 52 shots against the Flyers in their last win. They’ve been out-shot 170 to 133, with some of that a result of score effects — teams tend to get more shots when they’re behind — but not all of it. The Oilers’ possession stats aren’t great: they have the third-worst expected goals percentage so far and the fourth-best PDO, a statistic that combines on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage. Anything over 1000 is generally a sign that bounces are going your way: the Oilers are at 1038 and if the bounces start going the other way, things could go south in a hurry.
In addition, they’re not going to be anywhere near a 45.5% power play percentage all season. That’s just not going to happen.
So much depends on McDavid and Draisaitl staying healthy and staying hot, as the Oilers’ bottom-six is a tire fire. Maybe they could defy the numbers and stay at the top of the standings all season long; let’s just say I’m skeptical.
The Sabres have some similar red flags to the Oilers: their PDO is similarly high and they have the second-best power play behind the OIlers. But, there are reasons to think the Sabres might be legit or, at the very least, a good bet to make the playoffs. They have great underlying numbers and controlled play against some pretty good teams. We’ll see.
What about the Canucks?
There are some positives and negatives. They've had the third-easiest schedule to start the season behind the Oilers. The Canucks expected goal percentage is 46.55%, 25th in the NHL, which isn’t ideal. They have the second-highest PDO at 1052, with a 12.62 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 and .926 save percentage. That’s a red flag.
But there are also some very positive signs. So let’s jump to some conclusions about the 2019-20 Canucks based on their first five games, taking all of these with a large grain of salt labeled “small sample size.”
1 | J.T. Miller is a great addition to the top-six
Through five games, Miller has shown that he can make any line better, meshing immediately with both Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson. He’s also done good work on the first power play unit, as a smart and cersatile net-front presence.
Miller is leading the Canucks with 7 points in 5 games and, while he’s extremely unlikely to continue scoring at that pace all season, he’s making an early argument that he’s worth the price the Canucks paid to acquire him.
2 | Quinn Hughes is as good as advertised
Through five games, rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes has been remarkably good for the Canucks. He’s eighth among NHL defencemen with a 59.31% corsi percentage, which also happens to lead all Canucks players.
In other words, when Hughes is on the ice, the Canucks significantly out-shoot their opponents, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Hughes is already a master at transitioning the puck up ice.
Then there’s the power play, where Hughes is already showing his stuff despite being on the second unit. When Hughes is on the ice, the Canucks have a rate of 146.25 shot attempts per 60 minutes, leading all NHL defencemen. His ability to gain the offensive zone is a big boon to the power play and should lead to him playing on the first unit before too long.
3 | Elias Pettersson is a point per game, but has yet to hit his stride
The Canucks’ best player has been relatively quiet to start the season, despite 5 points in 5 games. That’s a remarkably good sign; it’s always nice when a player continues to rack up points even when they’re not quite playing at their best.
The addition of Miller to his line has already boosted Pettersson’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, but it seems clear that Pettersson has another gear that hasn’t kicked in just yet. That’s particularly true on the power play.
Pettersson has just two shots on goal on the power play so far this season. That’s something that will need to change both for Pettersson’s sake and for the sake of the Canucks’ power play. Clearly opposing penalty kills have keyed in on Pettersson and his dangerous shot from the PetterZone, so the Canucks have to figure out how to create more danger elsewhere on the ice to create more openings for Pettersson.
Adding Hughes to the top unit might help in that respect. His offensive creativity, vision, and passing could create more scoring chances for everyone else on the ice and he’s already proven that his shot needs to be respected as well.
4 | Tyler Myers has been better defensively than anticipated
As with all of these statistics and impressions, it’s early yet with a small sample size, but Myers has clearly been better defensively than reports out of Winnipeg and analytics would have suggested. Apart from some giveaways in the defensive zone, Myers has been reliable in a matchup role with Alex Edler.
Only Hughes has been on the ice for a lower rate of shot attempts against than Myers on the Canucks defence. He’s been able to use his reach effectively in the defensive zone and has been particularly good transitioning the puck up ice with his skating.
His work on the penalty kill is a little shakier by the numbers, but it’s hard to argue with the results so far: just one goal against.
5 | Brock Boeser is a playmaker now
Everyone knows that Brock Boeser is a sniper with an incredible shot. What this season presupposes is...maybe he isn’t?
Sure, Boeser will likely start racking up goals as the season progresses, but right now he has 6 points in 5 games and 5 of those points are assists.
Yes, okay, only one of those assists is a primary assist — the pass that leads directly to a goal — but he’s still leading the team in assists this season. I think it’s time we stop thinking of Boeser as a sniper and start thinking of him as a playmaker.
Or maybe he’s just a good hockey player.