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NHL experts on first-month surprises to buy or sell

We’re a little more than one month into a 2019-20 NHL season that has included some major surprises, including the Buffalo Sabres in a playoff spot, the Edmonton Oilers leading their division, Darcy Kuemper leading all netminders in save percentage and goals-against average, and the San Jose Sharks … well, the less said about their start the better.

To help digest some of these trends, we convened our panel to buy or sell a baker’s dozen of hot takes based on the results after one month:

Jump ahead:

1. Despite the Boston Bruins‘ start, the Tampa Bay Lightning are still the best team in the Atlantic Division.

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Well, they aren’t playing like it. The Lightning seem haunted by last season’s collapse. They need to regain their confidence. Meanwhile, the Bruins are buzzing. Entering the week, they had been trailing in games only about 10% of the time. Ridiculous.

Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: Sell. If the Lightning were better than the Bruins, they would be handling the absence of Victor Hedman a lot better than they are. In theory, they should have the depth to minimize the negative impact, but they’re bleeding goals at an even more alarming rate.

Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: Sell. The Bruins are the best all-around team in the league right now. Their stingy defensive system and ability to split starts evenly makes life easy for goalies Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, they’re a top possession team at 5-on-5, no one scores more quickly and frequently than their power play does, and they have the most dominant top line in hockey in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

Rick DiPietro, radio host and former NHL goalie: Sell. The Bruins are not only the best team in the Atlantic Division right now, but also they’re playing like the best team in the NHL. They have the most versatile line in the NHL and one of the league’s best goalies — not to mention their power play is currently clicking at 31.4%. Tampa Bay has tons of talent, but right now Boston is the better team.

Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Buy. Boasting the best top line in the league, the Bruins are the better team right now, but the Lightning, still sporting the greater wealth of talent overall, will be the better team by late January and thereafter (it’s a long season).

Ben Arledge, associate NHL editor: Sell. You can’t really claim any team anywhere is better than the Bruins right now, despite the talent on the Tampa Bay roster. Injuries to the Boston lineup might be the only thing that would cause a change in the Atlantic Division winds.

Sachin Chandan, fantasy hockey editor: Sell. The Bruins have decisive advantages defensively, offensively and on special teams, and though Tampa Bay’s problems are fixable, I can’t look away from the Bruins, who have been the best team in the league so far.

2. The Sabres and Oilers will both make the playoffs.

Kaplan: Sell that it’ll be both. I feel stronger about the Oilers than I do the Sabres. Edmonton is too dependent on their top players to score. But the production Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and James Neal have put up is too absurd, and they could drag this team in.

Peters: Buy the Oilers. Sell the Sabres. The Pacific Division is so tight right now, but I’m not sure how good it is. The Oilers have enough to keep above the fray, assuming their top three scorers stay healthy. It’s a precarious situation for them. The Sabres, meanwhile, have shown a few cracks lately. I don’t know if they have the depth defensively to keep pace with a division I expect to improve.

Filipovic: Sell. It’s scary to bet against McDavid and Draisaitl, but the early wins the Oilers have been piling up have regression written all over them. They’ve been awfully fortunate to go 6-1-2 in one-goal games, they’re somehow getting top-10 goaltending out of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen, and I can count on one hand the number of goals they’ve been able to squeeze out of their bottom six.

DiPietro: Sell. Buffalo is clearly headed in the right direction, but I’m not sure this is going to be the season. The Pacific hasn’t been good, and the Oilers have arguably the most dynamic offensive duo in the NHL with McDavid and Draisaitl. Mike Smith is off to a great start in net with a .931 save percentage. If the goaltending holds up, the Oilers have a good chance.

Matiash: Sell. Based on the strength of the competition in the Atlantic, the Sabres are in a tough spot. The scene in the Pacific Division isn’t nearly as menacing for the Oilers.

Arledge: Sell that both will be there. I think the Oilers will slide into the postseason if the eventual Smith/Koskinen implosion doesn’t completely derail them, given the weakness of the Pacific Division and their hot start. But Buffalo is still a year away in the stacked Atlantic.

Chandan: Buy Edmonton. Sell Buffalo. I expect Buffalo to have trouble in a crowded Atlantic, but Edmonton has shown that it has the firepower, and if the goalie tandem can continue to maintain enough of its performance (.890 save percentage on high-danger shots), I can see this team claiming a spot in the West.

3. The Washington Capitals should do a 50-50 timeshare in goal.

Kaplan: I don’t buy it. Ilya Samsonov is the Capitals’ starter of the future, and I love that the 22-year-old is already getting NHL exposure. But Braden Holtby is still the No. 1 guy right now. Let Holtby play out his contract year as the starter, and then see what happens.

Peters: Sell. Samsonov has been really strong, and his upside is immense, but this is a player in his second North American pro season who has six total NHL games under his belt. Holtby’s body of work stands above his slow start, and he deserves to keep his job, but there’s no harm in limiting his workload relative to previous seasons.

Filipovic: Buy. Here’s how many regular-season games were started by the No. 1 goalie of every team that won a playoff round last season: 62, 61, 45, 45, 43, 40, 33, 30. Every team that doesn’t need to scratch and claw for a playoff spot should be playing the long game and keeping its top guy fresh.

DiPietro: Sell. The Capitals look like a team destined for another run at the Stanley Cup, and they will lean on Holtby to get them there. Keeping him fresh for a long playoff run should be a priority, so Samsonov will play, but it won’t be a 50-50 split.

Matiash: Sell. As long as Holtby continues to compete more often than not, like he has since that key slump-busting win over the New York Rangers in mid-October, we’re not in 50-50 territory yet.

Arledge: Buy more of a timeshare. Holtby seems to have turned the corner a bit from his early-season struggles, but the Caps are at their best when they can look to two goalies. With a good debut from Samsonov and the Caps’ four-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, I’d call for a 60-40 split between the two netminders for now — with Hotlby on the 60 side — to keep the team’s 30-year-old No. 1 fresh.

4. James Neal will score 40 goals.

Kaplan: Sell, though I say he finishes high 30s. Neal’s 24.4 shooting percentage is obviously high — in fact, it’s more than double his career average. That should come down a bit. Neal is a consistent 20-something goal scorer who plays best when he’s confident. He’s clearly feeling it these days.

Peters: Sell. My initial thought was that he had enough of a jump-start to make it happen, but looking more at the numbers, I’m less certain. Neal is tied for seventh in the NHL with 26 individual high-danger scoring chances at all strengths this season, per Natural Stat Trick. He drops to 119th when you look solely at even-strength individual high-danger chances and 113th in even-strength individual scoring chances. I think there’s too much of a reliance on the power play for him to reach 40.

Filipovic: Sell. He has been a roughly league-average 12% finisher throughout his career, and if he were doing that this season, he’d be on pace for 28 goals. Let’s bake in the early goals he has already banked, and something in the range of 30 seems reasonable. But this is still a home run for the Oilers, considering what they paid to get him.

DiPietro: Sell. Neal is off to an incredible start, but eight of his 11 goals have come on the power play, and a 24.4% shooting percentage isn’t sustainable. The 11 goals already put him four ahead of the seven he scored in 63 games last season in Calgary, but I don’t think he gets to 40.

Matiash: Sell. Unsustainable shooting percentage aside, he won’t be able to hit 40 unless he scores 30 on the power play, which I’m suggesting he most certainly will not do.

Arledge: Sell. Eleven in 17 is a good start, and he’s pacing toward 56 tallies, but Neal hasn’t come close to 40 since he hit that in 2011-12 with the Penguins. Good start aside, these Oilers aren’t the 2011-12 Penguins. Expect regression from a ridiculous 23.4 shooting percentage (eight points over his career high) sooner rather than later.

Chandan: Sell. I agree with Ben that Neal cannot maintain that astronomical shooting percentage, but I expect him to finish with mid-30 goals.

5. Elias Pettersson will finish in the top 10 in scoring.

Kaplan: Buy. As a team, I expect the Canucks to fall back to earth a bit. But I don’t know if Pettersson will. Pettersson is building off his rookie debut — in which he became a one-man highlight reel — and is generating even more high-danger scoring chances. He has been especially effective at 5-on-5.

Peters: Buy. He’s well on his way. Pettersson has shown marked improvement in each of his post-draft seasons from when he was in Sweden to now. He’s only three points ahead of where he was at this point last season, but he has looked more dominant with the benefit of experience. The only way I think he falls out of the top 10 is if he gets injured again.

Filipovic: Buy. After a relatively slow start to the season, he has been putting up video game numbers, rattling off six goals and 14 assists in a 12-game stretch. It’s almost impossible to defend him because he’s such a dual threat, and he’ll gladly take whatever the opposing team gives him and make them pay. Coach Travis Green feeds him all of the offensive zone starts he can handle, he gets to pass to a lethal trigger man in Brock Boeser, and he’s the main man on what’s looking like a dangerous power play now that Quinn Hughes is on it.

Matiash: Sell. Slight skirt-around answer, but based on his physical stature and the way he plays, I’m concerned about him not completing a full, healthy season.

Arledge: Let’s go with buy — if he stays healthy. It took 96 points to make the top 10 last season but just 89, 75 and 77 in the previous three campaigns. Pettersson’s 82-game pace last season would have put him at 76, and he’s pacing toward 109 this season. I think 92-95 could land him a top-10 finish.

6. A defenseman will finish in the top 15 in scoring.

Kaplan: I buy it. John Carlson is currently fifth in league scoring — above his teammate Alex Ovechkin — and Roman Josi and Dougie Hamilton are hovering one point outside the top 15. I think they’ll stick around.

Peters: Buy. Carlson and Hamilton look like the two guys who are going to threaten, and I’m certainly not going to bet against Carlson, who has trended up offensively the past three seasons. He has been a great power-play performer, but 16 of his 23 points have come at even strength this season.

Filipovic: Buy. I’d bet against it, but for the purposes of this, let’s have some fun. Carlson is off to a preposterous start, and based on the sheer volume of opportunities he’s getting, there should be many more points to come. He’s top-five in overall minutes and top-10 in power-play minutes, and he gets to play with a collection of tremendously gifted players.

DiPietro: Sell. John Carlson is well on his way to winning the Norris Trophy, but I think he comes up short of the top 15 in scoring. Last season, his teammate Ovechkin was 15th in the league with 89 points, and the last defenseman to reach that benchmark was Sergei Zubov in 1993-94.

Matiash: Buy. On pace for nearly 120 points, John Carlson is a legitimate threat to break 100, which should land him comfortably in the top 15, if not top the 10.

Arledge: Buy — or at least very close. Over the past 10 seasons, the best we’ve seen is Brent Burns finish with 83 points in 2018-19. Carlson will reach 90 this season, thanks to an early 1.44 point-per-game pace and a spot on a talented Capitals power play.

7. The Sharks will be a lottery team.

Kaplan: Sell. I have faith that the Sharks can turn it around. They’ll at least be a wild-card team. One of the issues for San Jose early is that their top defensemen are overtaxed. Getting Radim Simek back will help.

Peters: Buy. The Sharks are dead last in the NHL in even-strength save percentage, at .875, and have the third-worst team save percentage at all strengths, at .882. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to score enough to overcome that.

Filipovic: Sell. The early returns have certainly been quite alarming, but the Sharks still have enough star power on the roster to be better than they’ve shown. They also can’t really afford to throw a season away at this point, both because they don’t have their first-round pick and because most of their main players figure to get worse in the coming years.

DiPietro: Buy. The Sharks are currently giving up the fourth-most goals per game and are 26th in scoring. An .882 team save percentage is a glaring problem, and their inability to keep the puck out of their net will keep them out of the playoffs.

Arledge: Buy. There will be only 82 games for the Sharkies this season. Goaltending is somehow still a glaring issue that San Jose seems content with leaving to fix itself. It won’t, and even if the Sharks finally break the cycle and deal for a goalie, it’ll be too little, too late in the talented West.

Chandan: Buy. Look, last season’s St. Louis Blues showed that anything can happen with a coaching change and a new goalie, but San Jose’s problems — and lack of flexibility to swing big trades — mean they will likely be gifting the Ottawa Senators a lottery pick, thanks to the Erik Karlsson trade.

8. The Arizona Coyotes will trade a goalie before the deadline.

Kaplan: Sell. This season, Arizona seems fixated on getting over the postseason hump. Unless the Coyotes get a spectacular deal for one of their netminders (a top-six scoring forward or top-pairing defensemen), I don’t expect them to subtract anything from this roster. They don’t want to repeat last season, when they just missed the cut.

Peters: Sell. If there is a deal out there that fills a hole for a team with eyes on taking the next step, I don’t doubt GM John Chayka will explore it. The issue, however, is that the Coyotes have a young goalie just starting his pro career in Ivan Prosvetov, and I’m not sure Adin Hill is quite ready for full-time NHL backup duty.

Filipovic: Sell. In today’s game, it’s a tremendous asset to have two goalies you can rely on. Plus, it’s worth remembering that prior to becoming a revelation last season, Darcy Kuemper‘s previous career high for starts in the NHL was 28. Considering that Antti Raanta has eclipsed that mark only once himself, the Coyotes are better off keeping both of them and not overtaxing either one.

DiPietro: Sell. Kuemper has seized the No. 1 duties and is establishing himself as an elite starting goalie in the NHL. Coming off what was a career-best campaign in 2018-19, he leads the league in goals-against average (1.69) and save percentage (.940). Raanta is a nice insurance policy if Kuemper gets hurt, and I’m not sure the Coyotes would be offered enough for him to make it worth messing with a position that has to be considered one of their strengths.

Matiash: Sell. As the old, grizzled GM saying suggests, sometimes the best trade is the one you don’t make. I envision that Arizona’s management, with a hopeful eye to playoff competition, will lean in that direction.

Arledge: I’d say sell. Expect the Coyotes to be every bit in the middle of a wild-card race, and though many teams will be asking — and the Yotes could use upgrades elsewhere — goaltending is a position of immense strength for them, and they won’t want to disrupt that, given Raanta’s injury history.

9. Mark Stone will be a Hart Trophy finalist.

Kaplan: Not quite. He might sneak into the discussion for Selke Trophy — becoming the first winger since Jere Lehtinen in 2003 to do it — but I don’t think we’re talking Stone for Hart just yet.

Peters: Sell. He was my almost-off-the-board preseason pick, and a lot of that was tied to my thinking that the Golden Knights could be Presidents’ Trophy contenders. He’s averaging 1.13 points per game so far for a good Vegas club, but I think guys such as Connor McDavid and David Pastrnak are going to out-produce him for playoff teams, and that will edge him out.

Filipovic: Buy. He’s the best player on what I still believe could be the best team in the West. He’s somewhat quietly on pace for 41 goals and 92 points, and with the way Vegas is using him on the power play, he should easily be able to set career highs in both. It almost seems unfair for a player as good as he is defensively to be putting up the type of offensive numbers he is now.

DiPietro: Sell. Stone will be the MVP of the Golden Knights, but I’m not sure he’ll have enough offensive production to make him the NHL’s MVP.

Matiash: Sell because that means beating the odds of besting all but two of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Sidney Crosby, Jack Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon and all the other elite skaters who find their strides in the coming months.

Arledge: Sell. Here’s what I think happens: Stone hits 95-100 points for a playoff-bound Vegas team — an MVP-caliber campaign — but misses the finalist list and is considered a “snub” when the results are released.

10. The New York Islanders will finish second in the Metro.

Kaplan: Sell. A 10-game winning streak (and counting) certainly gives them a cushion. If I were them, I’d be worried about the Pittsburgh Penguins making a late push — especially when the Pens get everyone healthy.

Peters: Sell. The Islanders have more than earned the hockey world’s respect with the way they’ve played. There’s so much to like, but I don’t think their .931 team save percentage is going to be an all-season thing, which could see them lose their grip on a top-two spot.

Filipovic: Sell. But that isn’t a knock on the Islanders, who are once again completely sucking the life out of their opponents under the watchful eyes of Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn. I rank the Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes slightly ahead of the Isles in the Metro because of the different ways they can beat you on a nightly basis.

DiPietro: Buy. The 10-game winning streak is great, but what’s even more impressive is the 1.70 goals-against average in that span. Last season was not a fluke. The Islanders are again the best defensive team in the NHL, with a 2.14 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage this season. They might not have the offense to overtake the Capitals, but that kind of team defense should be enough to finish second.

Matiash: Sell. Once it all works out in the 82-game wash, they won’t finish above the Penguins and/or Hurricanes, let alone the Capitals.

Arledge: Sell, but they are a playoff team. Think No. 3 in the division or a wild-card-turned-playoff-spoiler.

Chandan: Buy. The Islanders’ winning streak has proven that they can get balanced scoring, the goalie play has been sharp, and they spent only 16% of time trailing during this win streak. All of that puts them in the right position to continue picking up points.

11. Mikko Rantanen‘s injury will have a bigger impact on the Central race than Vladimir Tarasenko‘s injury.

Kaplan: Buy. So far, it has looked that way. The Blues have been scraping together wins without Tarasenko. The Colorado Avalanche have struggled without Rantanen (but are also missing Gabriel Landeskog off the top line). St. Louis simply has more depth.

Peters: Buy. I think the Blues have a deeper forward lineup than the Avs. I still like Colorado to make a lot of noise, but seeing what has happened to the Avs as injuries compound is impossible to ignore, as their losing skid has reached five games with goals drying up.

Filipovic: Buy. The Avalanche rely so much on their top line to do the heavy lifting offensively, and the Rantanen injury in conjunction with Landeskog’s absence is a mammoth loss. Tarasenko is the best goal scorer and most dangerous offensive threat in St. Louis, but the Blues’ depth and defensive structure at least give them something to fall back on in the meantime.

DiPietro: Buy. The Blues haven’t skipped a beat in the six games without Tarasenko, going 5-1. The Avalanche are 1-5 without Rantanen and have lost five straight while scoring seven total goals. Nathan MacKinnon is great, but with Rantanen, he’s an MVP candidate. If this team wants to have a chance to win the Central, that’s who they need MacKinnon to be.

Matiash: Buy. In comparison to the top-heavy Avalanche, the Blues have the greater depth up front to compensate for the loss of Tarasenko.

Arledge: Absolutely buy. Consider that MacKinnon has an expected goals-for percentage of 71.2 with Rantanen on his wing and just 45.4 without him, per Natural Stat Trick.

12. One of the two offseason darlings — the Rangers and New Jersey Devils — will make the playoffs.

Kaplan: Buy. The Devils could still make it, despite their horrible start. New Jersey has responded well ever since assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald got behind the bench, and Jack Hughes continues to look more and more comfortable out there.

Peters: Sell. I think both are going to build over the course of the season and improve, but I don’t think either organization can or should make the changes that might be necessary to be a more formidable playoff contender. More patience is needed.

Filipovic: Sell. Neither one of them can manage to keep the puck out of its own net nearly often enough, albeit for different reasons. The Rangers have absolutely no idea what they’re doing in their own zone defensively, and the Devils’ goalies rank 30th in save percentage and haven’t given us much reason to believe that’ll change.

DiPietro: Sell. Both teams had really impactful offseasons and bad starts to their regular seasons. The Rangers are young and inconsistent, and the Devils are still trying to figure out their goaltending situation. Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes will be great, but it’s going to take some time.

Matiash: Sell. Although I think the Rangers have enough pieces in play to make it interesting late, the Devils don’t have the goaltending to squeak it out this season.

Arledge: Buy. It has been a slow start for the rapid-rebuild Rangers, but I like them to steal a wild-card spot with a late run once they get out of their own way. The Devils? Not so much.

Chandan: Sell. Although the Blues showed it can be done, the Devils and Rangers would have to make up ground on the Bruins, Capitals, Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, Islanders and more ahead of them.

13. At age 37, Pekka Rinne will be a Vezina Trophy finalist.

Kaplan: Buy. Rinne has been great so far. I know all he cares about is getting over his personal playoff hump and winning a Stanley Cup. The Predators have a decent shot this season. I love how their offense has rebounded from stagnant to super-productive in one offseason.

Peters: Buy. I am absolutely sticking with my preseason Vezina pick. Rinne leads the NHL in high-danger save percentage with a .938 mark, but he’s also not facing as many high-danger shots against as some of his peers, thanks to the team in front of him.

Filipovic: Sell. He’s going to pile up the wins because the Predators are going to give him plenty of goal support, but I’m skeptical that his other ratio stats will be stingy enough to warrant top-three consideration. The team in front of him has really opened things up offensively and looks like it’ll be involved in more high-scoring shootouts than in seasons past. His starts have been dipping from 66 to 61 to 59 to 55 in consecutive seasons and should drop even further, given his age and Juuse Saros‘ presence.

DiPietro: Buy. If you’re Pekka Rinne, I’m not sure you could’ve asked for a better start. The Predators are well-coached and sound defensively, which will have Rinne where he needs to be in wins, goals against and save percentage.

Matiash: Buy. I had Rinne winning it in last season’s early stages, too, so yeah, sure.

Arledge: Let’s go with buy. Sure, Rinne will probably slow down a good deal in the second half. But just one loss in regulation through 11 starts, a pair of shutouts and solid numbers show he’s still among the best when he is on his game.

Chandan: Sell. As good as Rinne has been so far this season, I expect backup Saros to pick up more starts as we get into calendar 2020, as Rinne has seen his games started total decrease the past four seasons. Moreover, Nashville has played the second-weakest schedule so far, and things will obviously get more difficult.

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