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One-quarter into the season — how are the other 31 teams doing?

The good, the bad, and the muddy middle.

2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

With the latest road trip over, and four straight wins the result, the Maple Leafs are sharing first in the NHL with the Washington Capitals. Toronto also leads with the most games played at 23. The Islanders are last with 17, so Covid postponements are making the schedule a little lopsided again this year. Bearing that in mind, a league-wide view is still a good idea at this point. We know who’s at the top, so who’s at the bottom?

The Basement

In what should be a surprise, the Ottawa Senators are actually slightly worse than the Arizona Coyotes this season. Those two teams are at .237 and .238 in points percentage, in a class of their own. The rest of the bad teams are still able to play hockey a little. Yes, even the Habs.

The rest of the bottom 12 in order of increasing points is:

  • Islanders
  • Canadiens
  • Canucks
  • Kraken
  • Chicago
  • Sabres
  • Flyers
  • Kings
  • Devils
  • Stars

As mentioned, the Islanders only have 17 games, and most of them were on the road, so ignore that, it will change. The Stars are better than that bad points ranking, but they were neck-and-neck with the Leafs for bad shooting percentage early. Likely to fall are the Sabres, who went on a heater to start the season, and the Canadiens really aren’t that bad, sorry to say. They aren’t very good, but they could rise to at least mediocre.

The Senators are the biggest surprise here. Last season, they managed to turn their defensive discipline into some wins, while the goalies were horrible. This season, their defence is abysmal, making the goalies look more horrible than they are. Matt Murray has been mildly crappy, not a disaster, and this operatic drama of waiving him amid public comments implying he just won’t try the puck out of the net is foolish and unpleasant. They need to do something else in Ottawa, but you still can’t fire an owner, so I’m not sure what.

Montréal has had enough injuries that their standings position isn’t a huge shock. They’re showing up poorly at both ends of the ice, and the trouble looks like personnel and lack of depth more than coaching. But I won’t be surprised if the new GM, whoever he is, fires the coach in French first and then English.

The Muddy Middle

The central third of the league is usually home to teams who are producing about the same points, the same level of five-on-five play and have some equality in their other flaws — goaltending, special teams, whatever it is. The order here is not really relevant and they should be seen as one tier of teams. There are some surprising names in this list, and some of them are going to rise above the mud at some point:

  • Ducks
  • Blue Jackets
  • Golden Knights
  • Penguins
  • Jets
  • Avalanche
  • Sharks
  • Predators
  • Red Wings
  • Bruins

Boston is likely the biggest surprise, and I’ll note they’ve only played 18 games. But they are possibly the best team defensively in the NHL, while their offence has withered into the truly bad territory. The power play is what’s keeping their heads above water.

Linus Ullmark, who has appeared in eight games for them, has been terrible, even with the good defence in front of him. Jeremy Swayman, who has played the other 10, looks like a backup. This plan to just not deal with Tuukka Rask’s absence from hockey is not working for the Bruins. Has time finally caught up with them? We can only shake our heads sadly if it has.

Pittsburgh is playing a light version of Leafs hockey where their offence is really special, and their defence is really mediocre. They never score on the power play, though. If they fix that, they should float up in the Metro standings a little. They’ve been hampered by some key injuries, so expecting improvement is likely wise.

Vegas and Colorado should lead the west in all categories, and likely will come close once they start adding back injured players. Darcy Kuemper has been very unhelpful in net for the Avs so far, however.

Of interest to Atlantic teams is this question: Are the Red Wings for real? The answer is: sort of. They have average rankings in most areas, so they aren’t a bad team getting by on percentages, they are a mediocre team with really hot offence at five-on-five so far. Their defence is poor, their shooting is average, but their forwards are dangerous.

The Top Ten

At this point of the season, you can still have teams in the standings who got where they are by the blessings of the hockey gods, and not their play. Let’s see if there’s anyone favoured of the gods in this section. The top teams in standings order are:

  1. Capitals
  2. Maple Leafs
  3. Hurricanes
  4. Panthers
  5. Oilers
  6. Rangers
  7. Flames
  8. Wild
  9. Lightning
  10. Blues

We’ve all seen the Lightning amble through the start of a season, so we know enough to consider them the trap waiting to swallow up the Atlantic. Their power play and five-on-five offence is just not there, so that’s who’s taking the early season off.

What about the Blues? They’re elevating themselves above their mediocre play — which should put them in the muddy middle — with a lot of power play goals.

People have been saying the Wild are good for years, is it finally true? No, not really. They have the third highest shooting % in the NHL at five-on-five and not much else going for them other than defence almost as good as the Bruins. They aren’t bad, but they don’t have a complete package.

People have been gushing about the Flames, are they good now? They are actually good. Their defence is better than their offence, but their offence is hardly bad. Their special teams are excellent, and aren’t just spun sugar percentages. It pains me to say it, but they might be the best team in the NHL — points record aside.

Why are the Rangers on this list? Luck and a good power play. They more properly belong a few slots down in the middle, and likely will drift in that direction.

Do you refuse to believe in the Oilers? You should. Off the power play, they have some offence, dreadful defence that looks like that will catch up with them eventually. The trouble is, no one has seen a power play that good, maybe ever. Their goalies have to paper over their defensive shortcomings, something I’m sure Mikko Koskinen can do on his own.

What about Florida? Florida, aside from being a case study in how little a coach actually matters once the system is designed, are really good for real. Like, really good. There are four teams in the NHL with exceptional offensive pace and quality, and the Panthers and the Leafs are half of the quartet. Vegas, with the worst defensive results in the NHL are just biding their time until Jack appears, and the Hurricanes are struggling defensively and calling about John Klingberg. The Leafs and the Panthers are tied in their mediocrity when you look at Expected Goals against, which makes them the best overall of this group. The two teams resemble each other so much, it’s a little uncomfortable. The Panthers have a terrible power play, and if they fix that, we have a problem on our hands.

As mentioned, the Hurricanes are the real thing, just struggling in some areas they usually excel at. Maybe letting Dougie walk was dumb, eh?

The Capitals are very like the Oilers in that their entire success is centred on one man, and mostly on his power play scoring. They’re better in general than the Oilers, have the highest shooting % in the NHL (which might be sustainable for them) and are a little worse than their points, not a lot worse. Until the Penguins and the Hurricanes figure out their issues, they should cruise in the Metro.

And that’s the big picture of the league so far. Boston is making the Atlantic a three-horse race, and there’s nothing about their play so far that says that will change. The Leafs can absolutely focus on producing the kind of game that gets them a good playoff seeding, and instills the kind of night-in, night-out effort we saw in the last four games.