We’ve just passed the one-month mark of the NHL season. It may be too early to say which offseason moves have been busts or successes, but some are off to better starts than others. In a two-part miniseries, let’s look at trade and free-agent signings that are helping or hurting their teams to begin 2023-24. First up, the ones that are thriving.
It was a bit surprising when the Nashville Predators announced they were buying out Matt Duchene this past summer. But it didn’t take long for him to get scooped up, as the Dallas Stars signed him to a one-year deal worth $3 million.
Duchene got off to a somewhat slow start with the Stars, with no points in his first four games. But he’s really picked it up since then, totaling 13 points in 10 games. He’s shooting 24 percent across that stretch, so he’ll likely cool off a bit.
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Still, Duchene has been exactly what the Stars were looking for when they signed him to a one-year deal. He’s been the team’s most efficient five-on-five scorer, averaging 3.36 points per 60 minutes. The Stars have also controlled an impressive 65.19 percent of the expected goals (xG%) with him on the ice.
There’ll likely be a dip in his shooting luck at some point, but there’s no reason to think Duchene won’t continue to be one of the Stars’ top scorers. They were already a Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference, and his presence only reinforces that.
Surprise, surprise. Jonathan Quick being a good pickup in the year 2023? At least to start this season, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t been excellent for the New York Rangers. With Igor Shesterkin missing some time with an injury, Quick has picked up the workload and excelled.
He’s made five starts and has a .928 save percentage through six games played. Quick’s underlying numbers are excellent, too, as he’s saved 5.7 goals above expected. However, it’s fair to wonder if he can continue posting these numbers, even when Shesterkin returns.
Given Quick’s track record over the last few seasons, plus his age, he’s a prime regression candidate. His five-on-five SV% of .908 suggests there’ll be a correction in his play as well. But at least through the first month-plus of the season, he’s been a massive boon for a Rangers team that’s needed it with Shesterkin out of action.
Acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators this offseason, Alex DeBrincat has gotten off to quite the start with his hometown Detroit Red Wings. He was among the league’s leading scorers through the beginning of the season but has cooled off since then.
Still, DeBrincat has been a perfect fit for what the Red Wings needed up front. He has 11 goals in 17 games, putting him on pace for 53 this season, and is sitting at a point-per-game pace as of this writing.
DeBrincat has never topped 50 goals in his career, so I’d expect the goal-scoring to level off; he is shooting 21.2 percent, above his career average of 14.7 percent. But even though his shooting luck should subside a bit, topping 40 goals is not an unreasonable expectation for him. He was a good rebound candidate after a tough 2022-23 with the Ottawa Senators, and so far, it looks like he’s in for quite the rebound season.
The Pittsburgh Penguins missing the playoffs for the first time in 16 years was a bit of a shock to everyone last season. That led to changes to the front office, with Kyle Dubas taking over as president of hockey operations and general manager.
His first move of note was acquiring Reilly Smith from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for just a third-round pick in the 2023 draft. Smith has always been one of the more reliable second-line wingers in the NHL, and that’s been no different with the start of his Penguins tenure.
Smith has 12 points across his first 15 games with the Penguins, putting him on pace to finish with 65 points over 82 games. That’s a bit over his career averages, but he’s still a solid bet to total somewhere close to 20-25 goals and 50-plus points.
Smith has been a highly efficient five-on-five scorer to start 2023-24 and owns an xG% of 57.6 percent. He’s fit in seamlessly alongside Evgeni Malkin and Rickard Rakell on the second line and has helped improve the Penguins’ scoring depth. His current scoring rate may cool down at some point, but he’s been exactly what the Penguins hoped for to start this season.
A bit of an under-the-radar offseason move, Alex Iafallo has quietly been very productive for the Winnipeg Jets this season. A part of the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, he has 13 points across his first 16 games with the Jets, putting him on pace for 66 points.
Iafallo was an underrated middle-six scorer in his time with the Los Angeles Kings. Do I think he’ll end up with 66 points this season? He has a 50.84 xG% and is averaging 1.96 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five. He’s playing well, but I’m not sure 66 points is a reasonable target for the rest of the season.
Still, he’s fit in quite well on their top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. Those are two high-end scorers, especially Connor. If Iafallo sticks there for most of the season, there’s no reason he can’t finish with close to 55-60 points. He wasn’t a throw-in in the Dubois trade by any stretch, but he has fit in better with the team than maybe even the Jets were expecting.
The New Jersey Devils have been without Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier for a couple of weeks due to injuries. But Tyler Toffoli is still finding his way on the score sheet consistently. Acquired from the Calgary Flames this offseason, he has nine goals and 15 points in his first 15 games with the Devils.
That puts Toffoli on pace to finish with 49 goals and 82 points, which would be career highs by a comfortable margin. I think 49 goals is a stretch, but he finished with 34 a season ago in Calgary. That’s a reasonable target for the rest of the season, and I don’t think 40 goals is impossible once Hughes and Hischier return to the lineup.
Toffoli is not just a shooter, though. He’s an excellent two-way winger with high hockey IQ, which helps make up for his lack of footspeed. He’s been the Devils’ most efficient five-on-five scorer behind Alexander Holtz and owns a 59.36 xG%, so he’s playing quite well.
The Devils have carried play when he’s on the ice by a comfortable margin, and I think it’s fair to say he’s been even better than what most fans expected from Toffoli when they acquired him from the Flames.
In what was the most significant offseason trade, Erik Karlsson is starting to look like the elite offensive defenseman the Penguins were expecting to get when they acquired him from the San Jose Sharks.
Karlsson got off to a bit of a slow start with the Penguins, but he’s picked it up lately, totaling 12 points across his last seven games. In all, he has 16 points in 15 contests, putting him on pace to finish with 87 points. This is coming off the heels of a 101-point season with the Sharks that saw him earn the Norris Trophy.
Offense was never going to be a concern with Karlsson. His defensive game was, but at least to start 2023-24, his defensive numbers look pretty solid. The Penguins are allowing 2.47 expected goals per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice at five-on-five, the seventh-best rate on the team.
Part of that is because he has a reliable defense partner in Marcus Pettersson, but credit goes to Karlsson, too. He hasn’t been a defensive liability, and while coach Mike Sullivan won’t ask Karlsson to be a shutdown defender, his defensive game has been better than expected.
The last couple of seasons seemed to indicate that Ryan O’Reilly was declining. But his start to 2023-24 suggests that he has some gas left in the tank. A free-agent signing this summer, he has eight goals and 14 points across his first 15 games with the Predators.
O’Reilly’s five-on-five metrics are quite impressive, too. He’s second on the Predators in xG% to Ryan McDonagh at 59.88 percent, and he’s been a highly efficient scorer. The defensive game isn’t what it once was, but he’s still solid in his own end.
Time will tell if O’Reilly can keep up his current scoring rates. He’s shooting just above 21 percent, and his eight goals are partly due to a hat trick he scored against the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 4. But he’s fit in quite well with the Predators to start this season.
Who Will Keep Up Their Strong Starts?
It’s still early in 2023-24, but these signings and trades from the offseason have fared quite well for their new teams. Odds are players like Karlsson, Toffoli, DeBrincat and Duchene will be able to keep it up for the long run, too. And that could make a difference for their teams during the stretch run after the trade deadline.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick