The “October surprise” is an event that can change the trajectory of a political race in the weeks leading up to Election Day in the U.S. It’s something stunning and unexpected that alters our preconceptions.
In the NHL, every team has had surprises in the first month of the season. Some good, some bad and some that might have us reconsidering who wins in the end. Here is one “October surprise” for every team in the NHL.
How we rank: The ESPN hockey editorial staff submits polls ranking teams 1-31, and those results are tabulated to the list featured here. Teams are rated through Tuesday night’s games, taking into account overall record, recent success and other factors such as injuries. Previous ranking refers to each team’s spot in last week’s rankings.
Previous ranking: 2
Defense. The Avalanche are doing things offensively that we expected, from the domination of their top line to their mastery on the power play. But the improvements they’ve made to their overall depth, and getting good goaltending, has led to Colorado averaging 2.67 goals against per game, down from 2.98 last season.
Previous ranking: 1
The lack of secondary scoring. We know what the “Perfection Line” does, which is carry this team when the rest of the lineup isn’t scoring. Their backs must be tired already. Through nine games, no forward other than Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak or Brad Marchand has more than three points. The defense isn’t chipping in, either: Outside of Torey Krug‘s seven points, no Bruins defenseman has more than two. Hurry back from injury, David Krejci.
Previous ranking: 7
John Carlson. It’s not a surprise that the Capitals’ defenseman is having a fine offensive season. Consider that since 2017, in the same 173 games, he has as many points (158) as offensive standard-bearer Brent Burns to lead all defensemen. But Carlson’s 20 points in his first 11 games means he’s on pace for 116 points this season. So yeah, we’d say that’s a surprise.
Previous ranking: 10
Everything. Where do you even start with the surprises here? The record, close to the top of the NHL? The offense, clicking at 3.70 goals per game through 10 games and showing the world they can actually break up Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner and survive? The goaltending, with a .926 team save percentage, as coach Mike Bales works wonders again? It might not be sustainable. It might not last. But for now, the Buffalo Sabres are the October surprise.
Previous ranking: 3
Erik Haula. In what has become an annual tradition, the Hurricanes pounced on someone else’s salary-cap concern to snag a player who immediately excelled in their system. Haula has seven goals in nine games, meshing well with Ryan Dzingel and Martin Necas. And it’s a contract year.
Previous ranking: 4
Reilly Smith. The Knights’ winger scored seven goals in his first 11 games this season, spreading them out over six games. Despite playing on that dominant line with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault, it took Smith until Dec. 16 last season to score his seventh.
Previous ranking: 5
Ilya Mikheyev. The KHL import has seven points in 11 games for the Leafs, but more importantly has become a cult icon for fans and his teammates after lamenting the fact that not enough people in Toronto enjoy his favorite food: soup. This has gotten to the point where Leafs players are pantomiming spooning soup into their mouths when he scores goals.
Previous ranking: 12
James Neal. We would have also accepted “7-2-1 in their first 10 games,” but the answer here has to be the “Real Deal,” who scored nine goals in his first 10 games and has already surpassed the putrid goal total (7) that he had in 63 games with the Flames last season, a.k.a. a catalyst for the trade that sent him to Edmonton.
Previous ranking: 6
Betting the over. With a combination of explosive offense and early season goaltending, the Predators are averaging 7.67 total goals per game through nine games this season. Only one game — a 3-2 shootout loss to Florida — has gone under seven total goals.
Previous ranking: 8
Brayden Schenn. Rewarded with an eight-year contract starting next season, Schenn has six goals in his first nine games. He didn’t score his sixth goal until Dec. 5 last season. Four of his nine points have come on the power play.
Previous ranking: 9
Kevin Shattenkirk. The buyout bargain defenseman has seven points in his first eight games with the Lightning, including four goals. While his defense remains nothing about which to boast, he remains on the positive side of possession relative to his disappointing teammates.
Previous ranking: 11
Sam Lafferty. We know what you’re thinking: “What is a Sam Lafferty?” Well, he’s a 24-year-old center who was drafted 113th overall in 2014, attended Brown University for four seasons, played 70 games in the AHL last season and has three goals and two assists in eight games for the injury-ravaged Penguins, who have gone 5-3-0 since Evgeni Malkin‘s injury — an October surprise in its own right.
Previous ranking: 13
The penalty kill. So far so good for the Flames’ PK, which was 21st in the NHL last season (79.7%) and is third so far this season (88.4%). More impressive: That has happened with the Flames being short-handed 43 times, second most in the NHL.
Previous ranking: 23
J.T. Miller. Miller has flourished with Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson, to the tune of 10 points in nine games. He can be streaky, but this is a solid start. Obviously and totally worth that first-round pick they traded for him (at least this month).
Previous ranking: 17
The power play. Montreal was 14th in the NHL last season at 3.00 goals per game, which is good. They’re at 3.67 goals per game this season, which is great. One huge factor: a power play that clicked at a pathetic 13.2% last season is rolling at 27.3%, with nine goals in 33 opportunities.
Previous ranking: 20
Surviving the power outage. The Ducks have gotten the expected great goaltending from John Gibson and Ryan Miller, and have shown good offensive balance in getting goals from 11 different players. But their 6-4-0 start is solid when you factor in that the Ducks are tied with the Senators for the worst power play in the NHL, “clicking” at 4%.
Previous ranking: 16
Sergei Bobrovksy. In the immortal words of Pete Campbell from “Mad Men”: Not great, Bob. The free-agent prize has the worst goals saved above average (minus- 8.29) at even strength in the NHL this season, helping the Panthers to the fourth-worst team save percentage in the league. The good news is that the Panthers went 4-2-3 to start the season despite this.
Previous ranking: 14
Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets are an absolute conundrum this season, with a patchwork blue line and an inconsistent offense putting them right around .500. But Hellebuyck is doing what he can: Through eight games, he has a .947 even-strength save percentage and 5.25 goals saved above average.
Previous ranking: 19
The power play. Through eight games, the Islanders are clicking at 33.3% after finishing near the bottom of the league (14.5%) last season. But the real story here is that in eight games, the Isles had only 12 power plays, by far the lowest in the league. And they scored on four of them. Opponents are averaging just 3.6 PIMs per game against New York through eight games.
Previous ranking: 18
Possession monsters. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Flyers are the best team in shot attempt percentage in the NHL through their first seven games, getting 56.45% of them at 5-on-5. Credit where its due to Alain Vigneault thus far; last season, they were under 50% and 21st overall.
Previous ranking: 25
The shooting percentage. For a while, it looked like the same old Coyotes, who were getting stellar goaltending but were last in the NHL in shooting percentage. (They were 0.01% away from the NHL basement last season, at 8.3%.) That has perked up in the past few games: It’s up to 9.2%, and the Coyotes are averaging 3.00 goals per game.
Previous ranking: 27
Alexander Wennberg. The good news is that Wennberg has matched his goal total from last season. The bad news is that goal total is two. But with five points in nine games, perhaps this is the corner turning the Jackets have been waiting for from him.
Previous ranking: 21
5-on-5 woes. The Sharks’ sloppy start to the season can be tracked to a number of factors, but a primary one is their 5-on-5 play. The Sharks are scoring just 38.46% of the goals there. Look no further than Marc-Edouard Vlasic as a symbol for these woes, as he has been on the ice for two Sharks goals at 5-on-5 and 13(!) for the opposition, the worst differential for any defenseman in the NHL this season.
Previous ranking: 15
Kaapo Kakko. Let it never be said that there isn’t a learning curve in the NHL. Through seven games, Kakko has one goal and one assist. He was demoted down the lineup by coach David Quinn, although he recently skated with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad in practice. He’ll be fine, but clearly those expecting this NHL-ready 18-year-old to dominate out of the gate have had to readjust those expectations.
Previous ranking: 22
Anthony Mantha. Seven goals in nine games for the Red Wings forward. Obviously we knew he could score, with 49 goals over the past two seasons. And obviously, scoring five goals in your first two games is a great starting point. (He has leveled off since, scoring two in his next seven games.)
Previous ranking: 24
Brandon Saad. Behold, the Saad-aissance! The maligned Blackhawks forward began a reversal of fortunes last season with 23 goals and 24 assists. He has two goals and two assists in seven games this season in a diminished role (15:08 per game), and has been one of the team’s most effective forwards. (The less said about Jonathan Toews‘ start, however, the better.)
Previous ranking: 26
This start. The Stars are 3-7-1 through their first 11 games and are last in the NHL in offense, with 2.09 goals per game. Counting down the minutes until their CEO starts calling his players out excrementally …
Previous ranking: 29
The shots. Through nine games, no one is shooting the puck more than the Kings, averaging 38 per contest through nine games. Jeff Carter has taken 33 of them. Alas, only one of those 33 has gone in for Carter.
Previous ranking: 30
Tom Fitzgerald. Who among us predicted that the Devils would start the season winless in six games, add their assistant GM to the coaching staff, and then win twice?
Previous ranking: 28
Porous defense. Some predictive models had the Wild around the playoff bubble, for the fact that they had the lowest expected goals against (130.24) at 5-on-5 last season. This season, the Wild have stumbled early on the back end, surrendering 3.56 goals per game.
Previous ranking: 31
Not much. We knew they’d lose a bunch of games, we knew they couldn’t consistently control possession, we figured their power play would rank somewhere near the bottom of the league, and we knew they’d need spectacular goaltending to be competitive. They are who we thought they were.