Your weekly dose of hockey-related banter and chitchat
Welcome to Where the Puck Drops, a weekly-or-more-often-run column in which I cover some of the hot topics around world-hockey, plus some historical issues, random questions and other tidbits linked to the sport of the puck, the sticks, and the goalie masks. This week, among other stuff, I discuss the incredible Vegas run, how Arizona is living a hell of a season, Montreal’s issues and the heat Tampa is playing under.
1. As warm as Tampa is
Some teams are having a rough start this season. Everybody expected Edmonton to dominate from day one. Washington was the clear favorite to demolish anyone stepping in their path during the regular season. Chicago, Nashville, or Dallas were expected to be up there too. But you know who is dominating the league for real during these first few weeks? Tampa Bay — and it is not even close.
I don’t care about Vegas having the best record because it’s Vegas, and Vegas is about to fail miserably as soon as you can imagine. Los Angeles is putting a good start together. I was high on them and still am, but let’s be real, they’re not favorites. New Jersey is New Jersey; the Devils won’t contend because it is early in their process and because they won’t sustain their current performance. I only trust Tampa.
The Lightning holds the fourth-best record entering Monday having won 9 out of 12 games with one overtime loss. The men from the bay were expected to bounce back after a horrendous playoff miss last season, and they’re providing. Stamkos is better than ever, leading the league in points. Kucherov is looking like the prettiest Russian hockey player out there on the ice having scored 12 goals. Vasilevskiy is playing out of his mind, boasting a .936 SV% with a shutout and 7 out of 10 Quality Starts.
There is only one word to define what Tampa is doing: hot. Hot as hell! Stamkos and Kucherov have a combined 40 points, which means they have more points than any duo in the NHL right now — the second-best duo is that of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov with just 30 — and almost as many goals as Edmonton’s and Montreal’s full rosters, respectively. Don’t get sold on the stuff that happens during the first 20 games, but keep an eye on the Bolts because they’re here to stay.
2. Speaking of the Hell
Picture a desert. Call it Arizona. There is a team in the NHL based on the state of Arizona, concretely in the city of Phoenix, which also happens to be the capital. Phoenix is the fifth most populous city in the United States, and they once had a hockey franchise featuring its name, although they opted to go state-fashion and change it for that of AZ. And that is some introduction to this point, but it doesn’t change anything regarding the fact that Arizona and Phoenix are normally related to deserts and heat. If I asked you about how would you describe “Hell,” you’re probably going to mention the words “desert” and “heat” sometime along the way. There is a clear relation here, and the Arizona Coyotes are making it very real.
By Monday, the Coyotes had played 11 games and won none of them. Let me repeat, the Coyotes had played 11 games and won zero, none, absolutely not a single one of them. These are the teams they have faced, in order: Anaheim, Vegas, Vegas, Detroit, Boston, Dallas, Dallas, Chicago, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey. Of those, Anaheim and the Islanders are playing just over .500. Vegas is an expansion team, while Detroit, Boston, Dallas, Chicago and the Rangers are 15th or worse in terms of W%. And New Jersey is one of those teams no one knows what they’re doing because they shouldn’t be doing it so they’re probably going to come crashing sooner rather than later.
Arizona is looking at a team that just won their first game against the Flyers on Tuesday. That yields a PTS% of 0.083 over 12 games. When translated to a full 82-game season, the Coyotes project to win seven games at most. Seven! This is not real, of course, but it certainly looks pretty possible if we play the goofy role a little.
While it is true that the Coyotes may have experimented a little of bad luck — 3rd-worst 96.9 PDO — they are also shooting the hell out of the puck. They have tried to put the disk on the back of the net 346 times (19th-best) but they just have a SV% of 7.5 (4th-worst). On the flip side, they have the lowest SV% of the league with an atrocious .861 (worst of the Worst of the WORST). They are carrying injuries of key players such as Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakob Chychrun, or Antti Raanta — if we consider him good at all — and that may have held them back a little. With that said, there is no excuse for an NHL franchise in the age we’re living in to win just one out of twelve games, it is just plain stupid.
This looked like the season Arizona may be able to make the jump and take that step towards contention, but if things keep being the way they’ve been lately, maybe that means the rebuilding cycle is just stuck in the middle of nowhere and the desert wandering would keep alive for quite some time.
3. What if Vegas has actually figured out the league?
What then? What if the Golden Knights really know what they are doing? What if they actually want to play the way they play and knew from the very first moment they had what it takes to win in this league? What if this is for real, like legit for real and they are first now and end first by game 82? Oh boy, that would be incredible.
The story of Vegas is something. The expansion draft occurred in June. We all made our predictions, called our moves, and drew out our strategies. For what? For fun, and not much more because the Golden Knights staff went crazy doing some things that we could have never imagined. They were criticised, bashed, and now that the season is underway, we are confirming just how right we all were and how they were wrong — or not? It turns out, actually, that the staff was right and we were wrong, so it seems.
Just in case you are not aware, Vegas plays hockey in the Western Conference. The Western Conference has teams such as the Oilers, the Ducks, the Blackhawks, and the Predators. You know what those franchises have in common? They have top-tier players earning big bucks on onerous contracts, expecting to win big every year. Oh, and by the way, they all also have worse records than the Golden Knights at this point. Yes, Vegas has only played 9 games and that is the lowest mark of the league. Yes, their strength-of-schedule is the 2nd-softest of the NHL to this point. So what? Vegas has won eight out of nine and has a .889 PTS% and that is league-best. That’s all that matters.
You may wonder what is going on here. Well, I don’t think no one can explain because there is no reasonable explanation to what the Golden Knights are doing. This team has shot the puck 260 times, which means they average almost 29 shots per game. The league’s shots per game average this season is at 32, and only four teams are under 300 shot for the season. Vegas is, as you could suspect, last on the leaderboard. It is incredible that the Golden Knights have conceded only 302 shots on goal over their nine games for a 6th-best mark.
But you know what is truly unbelievable? They have a stupid .937 SV%. Why is it stupid, may you say? Well, Vegas has put four goalies on the net already and seen three of them — Oscar Dansk, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Malcolm Subban — fall to injuries. Even with that, they have the second best SV% of the whole league. The hockey gods are trying hard to beat this team and put them on the ground once for all, but they’re just dodging bullets and keeping their pace. The Golden Knights are breaking records each night. No one has ever seen this, not even has anyone been close to sniffing something like it. Will they get a lottery pick come next June? Sure. Should we enjoy their current form for as much time as we can, though? Hell yes!
4. Making history yet again
The Canadiens are in for an epic season, just like in the old days, folks! When Radulov left Montreal for Dallas during the summer, we all made use of mathematics and easily arrived at the conclusion that the team would face a problem in terms of goalscoring because the Russian scored 18 for the Habs during the past season. Not a lot, but something. The men running the operations from Canada decided to solve this problem by not moving Galchenyuk and bringing homeboy Jonathan Drouin from Tampa Bay. Drouin came with 21 goals under his belt, three more than those scored by Radulov. Things should balance out and Montreal would see a relatively close production this season by making this change. Well, turns out things are not looking good for the good ole Canadiens.
Let’s be honest, Montreal is horrendous. Almost as horrendous as the New York Rangers, if not more. Both teams have won just three games and lost seven in regulation, only New York has played 12 for Montreal’s 11. That means the Rangers have a .333 PTS% while the Canadiens have a .318 PTS%. Montreal’s PTS% figure is only better than Arizona’s. As if that wasn’t concerning enough, let’s look at some of the team’s numbers during this first few weeks because they may blow your brain away.
First of all, we must recognize that by PDO-measurements, Montreal has been incredibly unlucky while shooting the puck and stopping it from getting into their net. They have a 93.6 PDO (0.6 lower than the 2nd-worst) while shooting 5.2% on goal. This is terrible, especially when you account for the amount of shots (427) they generated, which ranks league-2nd only behind Pittsburgh’s 457. The poor Habs have scored just 23 goals and conceded 42. That last part is bad, so bad because they have allowed 343 shots on goal, making their SV% the 2nd-worst in the NHL at .878.
Let’s move on and look at some other stuff. Do you know what makes Montreal’s situation even worse than it may look like? Penalties. Montreal is averaging just 8.2 PIM/G over 11 games. Only seven teams have lower marks, which means the Canadiens are not shooting themselves in the foot by playing huge amounts of time with fewer men on the ice. On the other hand, Montreal is seeing their opponents spend 10.5 PIM/G, which is the 11th-best mark in the NHL. Why is Montreal not taking advantage of this? How come they can’t capitalize on these better plays and score more points? I mean, the Canadiens have scored two short-handed goals and not surrendered a single one! They are doing it all wrong!
The same thing happening in Vegas could be happening in Montreal, though. Actually, yes, that is the truth. Vegas will go down and Montreal will probably go up a little, becoming a fringe playoff team. But things should start changing soon or what looks like bad luck maybe should not be spoken of as “luck” and more as “lack” (of quality).