It’s early yet, and it’s not like the standings are upside down, but it does appear that some intriguing turns of events are going to make this season’s NHL playoff races quite interesting.
Five teams that missed out last year were in playoff spots heading into Monday’s action: Buffalo and Florida in the East; Edmonton, Anaheim and Arizona in the West.
And in all but Arizona, a coaching change could well have been the spark that these teams needed.
Much more was expected last season from Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton to be sure. In Buffalo, the arrival of Ralph Krueger — and perhaps the maturity of the Sabres’ young core — has helped turned the team into an early powerhouse.
The Sabres were 9-2-1 in their first 12 games, winning by wide margins. Last year, they famously won 10 in a row, but seven were in overtime or the shootout. This year, they’re handling their opponents, having scored 12 more goals than they’ve allowed.
They have both goalies on a roll — Carter Hutton (6-1-0, .920, 2.27) and Linus Ullmark’s (5-3-1, .932, 2.56) — and rely on all four lines.
“With our schedule this year, it’s critical that we can roll four lines in phases of games, especially off back-to-backs,” Krueger told the Buffalo News. “Being able to split the minutes up … gives us a chance to be able to carry a game. We’re extremely comfortable — O-zone and especially D-zone starts — with all four lines right now, and that certainly gives us a lot of comfort.”
Predictions that the Panthers will rise are a lot like the four seasons. They arrive annually. But Florida has tended to fail to live up to expectations. Enter coach Joel Quenneville, discarded by the Blackhawks midway through last season and now with another young core to groom, including mighty centre Aleksander Barkov.
“We have to find a way that consistency is part of (our game),” Quenneville told the Miami Herald. “These young guys are at a part of their career where there’s another step to go.”
They’ve gone 3-2-3 against teams that made the playoffs last year, an early test they seem to have passed despite goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s pedestrian start (4-2-3 overall, .874, 3.65.)
In Edmonton, there is joy again thanks to a pair of one-two punches: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the ice, Ken Holland and Dave Tippett off it. Holland, installed to run hockey operations, brought in Tippett, fired after a long run in Arizona, to offer some coaching stability.
Tippett has brought structure and defensive discipline to a team that has loved to run-and-gun but failed historically at outscoring its errors. They boast the league’s best power play and fifth-best penalty kill, though their possession numbers (48.92 per cent) are in the bottom 10 and the scoring is unbalanced, with seven forwards yet to score.
In Anaheim, ex-Marlies coach Dallas Eakins has surrounded himself with players he helped develop with San Diego of the AHL while the Ducks toiled the last few years under Randy Carlyle and finally interim coach Bob Murray, the long-time GM.
Eakins emphasizes speed, skill and puck movement and has freed up defencemen to join the rush, more of an Eastern Conference tactic.
“It’s a fun way to play,” winger Jakob Silfverberg told the L.A. Times. “It’s sort of the way most teams play these days, and you create a lot of offence by doing that.”
Not every team with a new coach is necessarily better off, of course. The Philadelphia Flyers (Alain Vigneault) are just outside a playoff spot, while D.J. Smith (Ottawa) and Todd McLellan (Los Angeles) have their work cut out for them.
AROUND THE NHL
- Hit and miss: The NHL stands for No Hitting League, if you listen to Columbus coach John Tortorella: “Physicality, you don’t even use that word in our game anymore. It’s such a no-hitter league. We have that (physical element) that’s just part of our game. I mean, we have to have some grind in our game. But to go running around looking for people, that’s not going to help us … I miss some of the old-school stuff, part of the game that has been taken out. I miss that grind, that banging and the stuff that comes with it. I miss a little bit of that. We still have a hell of a game … it’s a faster game, it’s a quicker game.”
- Shark bites: When the San Jose Sharks started the season by losing their first four games, there was no sense of panic for coach Pete DeBoer: “I’m blessed by working for owners and a GM that are smart enough and have been around long enough to know that there’s a lot of hockey left to be played. The two best seasons I’ve had in the NHL with teams, we were pretty average until Christmas. There are always other teams that go wire-to-wire, so would you rather be one of those teams? Sure, it makes your life a lot easier, but (just don’t) get in such a big hole that you can’t recover.”
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- Russian ingenuity: With a digital tracker in their puck, all sorts of statistics are now available to Russia’s KHL. The NHL will get there by the playoffs, but here’s a look at some of the things the tracking system can tell you: Dinamo Minsk defenceman Marc-André Gragnani is skating an average of 5,683.3 metres per game and holds the current record of 6,584 metres against Barys. SKA playmaker Vladimir Tkachyov has spent the most time handling the puck (43 minutes, 45 seconds). Podolsk winger Evgeny Mons has posted the fastest average speed (16.6 km/h). SKA’s David Rundblad has the highest pass completion rate (88.6 per cent).
- Double lock: With two capable goalies in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, the Boston Bruins feel they’re one of the teams best equipped to thrive in back-to-back game scenarios. “We’ve had good goaltending, two really good goaltenders, so it doesn’t really matter who plays the front end or the back end,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “Guys are confident in front of them as well.” They have 13 sets of them this year and went 9-3-2 in the second games a year ago. “I actually like these better because I don’t like to skate in the morning, so it kind of works out in my favour,” said Bruins winger Brad Marchand.
- Pitt crew: The Penguins, decimated by injuries, had their complete lineup accounted for Monday with four injured players – including star Evgeni Malkin – on track to play at some point this week. “I feel OK,” Malkin told DKPittsburghSports.com. “I miss the ice so much. I’ve not played for a long time, all summer. I missed the last three weeks. It’s a little hard mentally, but I try to stay positive.” Malkin (lower body) hopes to return Saturday against the Oilers. Ditto for forwards Adam Johnson (undisclosed) and Alex Galchenyuk (lower body) and defenceman Brian Dumoulin (undisclosed).